Sarah Lindemann-Komarova: “A Change Candidate Runs for the Russian State Duma”

Russian State Duma Building file photo

Subject: A Change Candidate Runs for the Russian State Duma
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2021
From: Sarah Lindemann-Komarova <echosiberia@gmail.com>

A Change Candidate Runs for the Russian State Duma
By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova

Sarah Lindemann-Komarova has lived in Siberia since 1992. Was a community development activist for 20 years. Currently, focuses on research and writing.

Article with pictures: echosiberia.medium.com/a-change-candidate-runs-for-the-russian-state-duma-1ac126ae038c

Independent Novosibirsk City Council Deputy Natalia Pinus spent the last 3 summers running for office. What is that like for this mother of three, “… It is extraordinary, I sleep very little, 3–4 hours, I have a lot of energy, I work every single minute, I set priorities and I go. These are incredible times in my life, my usual regime is different.” Ever the multi-tasker, we meet in the café where her teenage daughter is a waitress.

Summer 2019: With four years of experience as a City Deputy, Pinus ran for Mayor of the third largest city in Russia. The results were a serious disappointment, instead of the expected battle for 2nd place, she landed in 4th. The experience left her with two questions. The first was personal, concerned that concrete results don’t matter in this hyped up social media world she confessed, “my career will continue but I am not sure what form it will take”. The second, was political, are there enough people who want evolutionary change vs. revolution? “I know there are great people who do not like what the government is doing but they don’t want a revolution either. There is no organized group for people who understand that you have to do something, enough sitting around.”

Summer 2020: Running for a second term in the City Duma, Pinus recommitted to service through electoral politics. It paid off. In a race with serious competition, including a spoiler, not only did she win, she got more votes than any other of the 49 winning candidates. However, beyond voters supporting what she was doing in the community, the broader implications for her as a change maker were not clear.

Summer 2021: Pinus takes the big dive running for the Russian State Duma. The 137th Okrug slot opened up when United Russia behemoth and three time Greco-Roman wrestling Olympic Gold champion, Alexander “Russian King Kong” Karelin, was promoted to Senator. She thinks United Russia “gave the Okrug away” because they put up a weak candidate. Weak, but he is an Akademgorodok Physicist so another presumed spoiler.

There were several indicators this was a race worth running. In 2020, liberal Tayga.info, asked active citizens and journalists which City Deputy was best at solving significant problems, Pinus won. She has notable successes including publishing the names of builders who owe the City millions of dollars and establishing criteria to assess the Mayor. An indicator of a more global tendency, when she started her career in the City Duma in 2015 she was the only Independent, today there are 14 people, including Party representatives, operating to varying degrees independently.

Local politics is local politics, national level is something different and 2021 is not 2020 in the electoral political environment. Not long ago she was arrested for picketing the sale of land authorized in public hearings to be a park. Her dedication to being a change maker and winning requires Pinus thread a very small needle.

So far, so good, she is still in the race. That is how she explains why she is running for the nationalist party Rodina. “As an Independent, you need 5,800 signatures, I could get them but the challenges will drag out until the election is over…there are times when if they think a candidate can win, they remove them…we will go to the end.” Local Rodina representatives have supported all her initiatives. She recently met with but does not have any relationship with the national party leaders. Since she is not running on the Party list, there is no quid pro quo, she is running as an Independent under the Rodina banner and can vote in the best interests of her constituents.

The Campaign

Pinus’s rational for running, “I am convinced the country needs changes and deputies who will defend these changes.” The first thing she will do in the State Duma, find deputies she can work with so her future strategy depends how to maximize the chances for results and growth.

Her platform is an “Anti-program” because “…There are a lot of people who want change so “anti” means we need change but not anarchy, let’s burn it all down. We need to change from something to something”. She has 10 points. #1 is the disproportionate amount of money that stays in Moscow. The 2021 Moscow beautification budget is equal to all the other regions combined and healthcare per person in Moscow is 27,200 r a year vs. 5,800 r in Novosibirsk. #2 is the difference between incomes for the richest and poorest in the country. 2020 Rosstat reported almost 14% of the population are officially poor ($157 a month) and 36% consider themselves poor while 10% of the richest people control 80% of the country’s wealth. Other issues include inflation, pension reform, housing costs, election falsification, political repression, and the exodus of educated and young people.

Campaign funding comes mostly from Akademogorodok IT businesses with a small amount from Rodina. Pinus has a team of 25–30 people but she is in charge. She makes all the decisions such as doing some campaigning in rural districts but focusing on urban and suburban where most of the votes are and there is more of a chance to insure a fair election. That also includes branding herself as “drygaya” (Different) with slogans on banners, cubes, and handouts “Vote, it is the only way to protest” and “My mission in the State Duma will be to unite those who, like me, want to change the country”. Her primary outreach is through courtyard meetings that are not well attended but they stimulate serious discussions and feedback on issues voters care most about. She is active on social media with a You Tube channel and regular posts on Facebook, VKontakt, Odnoklassniki, and Instagram. An unexpected bit of promotion came when Vogue Magazine invited her to join three other State Duma candidates in a feature article.

The Competition:

Ten candidates are running but the current wisdom has only three in contention. Unverified information about a poll has Pinus third but first in her home District that has almost 20% of the 137 Okrug voters. Number one is former District Mayor and Communist (KPRF) Vitaly Novoselov who was removed from office in April by the Communist Mayor of Novosibirsk for using administrative resources during his campaign. Alexander Aksenenko, running for A Just Russia, holds second place. An attractive former hockey player, at 35 he is the youngest candidate. He has the traditional profile of construction business executive and Regional Deputy. Pinus believes the situation is very dynamic, anything can happen.

Aksenenko is the runaway winner in terms of banners, handouts, and buses plastered with his picture. He is everywhere, everywhere that is but at the debates. Local channel 49 hosted two debates, Pinus and Novoselov participated in both. KPRF is popular in Novosibirsk and, despite the scandals, this candidate appeals to many voters talking about pensioners and schools. Pinus used the debates to crystallize her message and demonstrated she has become a better campaigner. Especially in her first debate opening statement. She yielded a minute of her time for silence, “…in mourning for what will happen if Russia once again elects Deputies who just support the government, for the Russia we will live in if the changes we need don’t happen.” She continued listing her program priorities and closed with “a minute of silence that today the Government takes repressive methods to get rid of the people who think there needs to be change. Think about what we can do to change this…start by voting…”

Her campaign has suffered dirty tricks (one town refused to rent her a truck) and vandalism (several young people were arrested for stealing cubes and tearing down signs), and the ever popular Hitler mustache. Her biggest concern is a stolen election, “3 days and 2 nights, you can do what you want if there aren’t observers”. Novoselov and another candidate share this fear so they created a coalition to recruit observers. There is also the woman thing, a comment posted on the debate live feed praised Novoselov as “a real man” and in polling she conducted before the Mayoral election only 60% were ready to vote for a woman.

Four days left in the campaign, the kids are back in school, and Pinus is preparing for a 7PM courtyard meeting in Akademgorodok, no rain but a cold, strong wind. I greet her noting she made it to the end with no big surprises. She laughs, “Not no surprises, my nerves have kicked in!”

Despite nerves and head winds, Natalia Pinus’s biggest challenge is defeating her and all change supporters biggest opponent: low voter turnout from an apathetic, cynical, and distracted population. So, Akademgorodok crosswalks are stamped with a red circle and “Natalia Pinus: Get off your phone and look around you.” Next week we will find out if she was able to conquer all opponents.