Yesterday, the town of Lermontov (located in Russia’s North Caucasus) experienced what some are calling “a small revolution.” As the state municipal building was preparing to close for the evening, a collection of townsfolk and former members of the city council gathered and eventually forced their way into the main lobby. Once inside, reporters accompanying the activists took turns interviewing ex-deputies and disgruntled locals. Acting head of the city’s government Viktor Vasil’ev warned protesters that they were breaking the law by illegally occupying state property. Undeterred, the former deputies announced the beginning of an indefinite hunger strike, promising to occupy Lermontov’s municipal building night and day, until their demands are met: chiefly, the cancelation of the city’s upcoming local elections, which the ex-deputies consider to be illegitimate because they were denied the right to participate.
Grab the Popcorn
The RuNet is buzzing with video footage from the Lermontov city building’s lobby. Some of it is quite exciting — for instance, when the protesters overpowered Vasil’ev and a handful of police officers trying to block the entryway. On the other hand, there are also several exceedingly long interviews with the hunger-striking politicians, most of whom have roughly the same thing to say: they were unjustly barred from running for office, thus the local election set for March 4th should be canceled.
Reporters and bloggers have claimed that local police and OMON troops were ordered to disperse the protesters, but refused to do so. One blogger names “Police Chief Evgeny Vasil’ev” as having refused the initial order on February 21st, around three o’clock in the afternoon. (In video footage filmed later that day, it’s unclear on what grounds this claim is made, however, as police appeared to be receiving and obeying orders as late as five o’clock.) Another ‘revolutionary’ element seems to be certain protesters’ attacks on Vladimir Putin. In one video circulating on YouTube, a man claiming to be an ousted city council member (I cannot make out his name) calls for the resignations of both local Deputy Governor Yuri Belolapenko and Prime Minister Putin, as well as a federal investigation into the exclusion of his colleagues from the municipal election.
Dogs Revolting Under the Carpet
Pro-Kremlin blogger Marina Yudenich took issue with this anti-Putin interpretation, and highlighted another video from Lermontov, featuring an older woman from the protest (a local citizen, but not an ex-deputy) passionately appealing to Putin for support. Yudenich’s site Politonline.ru picked up her blog post, adding to it several comments from an anonymous Lermontov local, who assures readers that life in the city is ‘business as usual’ — that the Internet is still running, the television stations still broadcasting, and the government still functioning. Politonline also drew attention to a comment from a blogger by the name of “Dan Ivanoff,” who describes the Lermontov situation as “a smalltime conflict that [some] are trying to present as a revolution.” Ivanoff went so far as to post photographs by Lermontov local Sergei Portnov, taken at the municipal building ‘amidst the revolutionary chaos.’ The pictures feature a perfectly serene and orderly environment, where about six protesters are quietly occupying an empty corner of the lobby. (It appears that someone even brought them a bed!)
The conflict at the center of Lermontov’s troubles today is the proposed agglomeration of the Caucasian Mineralnye Vody district (to which Lermontov belongs) into a special economic zone or perhaps even a single municipality. Aleksandr Kloponin, Vice-Premier and Plenipotentiary Envoy of the President in the North Caucasian Federal District, publicly suggested the idea late last year, after Lermontov and its larger neighbor Piatigorsk failed to resolve zoning questions about a recycling factory planned to alleviate the region’s trash problems. That showdown ended in September, when six of Lermontov’s fifteen city council members quit their posts in a show of protest against then-Mayor Aleksandr Dunaev, whom they accused of using his office for private gain. (Indeed, Lermontov’s main online portal features more than a little kompromat on Dunaev, including accusations that he signed an agglomeration agreement back in November 2010, just after being elected.) The resignations triggered a legal process that eventually disbanded the city council elected in 2010, and subsequently dismissed Dunaev himself (as Lermontov’s mayor cannot stand without a functioning council). Dunaev and his allies accused the departed council members of having sold out to Piatigorsk, and even produced audiotapes that they claim prove the acceptance of bribes to undermine Lermontov’s independence. (Journalists were unable to verify the tapes’ authenticity.)
In mid-December last year, while Dunaev’s government was busy appealing a Stavropol court’s order to disband the city council, a group of about a dozen armed men entered and briefly occupied Lermontov’s municipal building. The group was led by Evgeny Pecherin and Oleg Mel’nikov, both former city officials and enemies of Dunaev. The catalyst for this “hostile takeover” was apparently that Lermontov’s still-operating council had the night before stripped Pecherin of his title as the city’s acting chief. Pecherin’s response — the ‘takeover’ — seems to have targeted certain unspecified documents, which he removed from the building. Before leaving, however, Pecherin formally dismissed Viktor Vasil’ev, who had been tasked with his duties by the city council, and installed in his place Oleg Mel’nikov.
Needless to say, that Vasil’ev was present yesterday to face the wrath of a hunger strike in the municipal building is proof that Pecherin’s cadres maneuver failed. Indeed, Mel’nikov’s ‘appointment’ was further complicated just days before the New Year, when unidentified assailants attacked him near his home, stabbing him fifteen times, miraculously somehow failing to kill him. (Mel’nikov spent all of January in the hospital and finally returned home earlier this month.) On December 22, 2011, Dunaev’s group lost its appeal and Lermontov’s city council was declared illegitimate. Stavropol’s governor, Valery Gaevskii, created a working group to decide how to proceed, ultimately settling on new elections scheduled for March 4th, the same day as Russia’s next presidential vote.
Natalia Yarmolich, Chairman of the Municipal Elections Commission, announced on February 10th that twenty-six percent of the city council candidates (32 of 122) were being denied registration in the upcoming vote. Echoing the justification used to deny Grigory Yavlinsky access to the presidential race, Yarmolich cited illegitimate and falsified qualifying signatures as the reason for the Commission’s position. Not unexpectedly, nearly all former council members (Dunaev’s allies) were denied registration. Initially, it seemed the elections board would allow Dunaev to run for re-election (Yarmolich claimed as much), but recent reports indicate that he too will be banned from participating.
The Lermontov ‘crisis’ has something for everyone. If you’re a diehard enemy of the Putin regime, there are former city officials protesting in the open, linking local regional corruption to the Kremlin’s evil influence. Certainly, many aspects of the Lermontov election — barred candidates, political control of the courts, and the squashing of local independence — echo the larger criticisms commonly made of ‘Putinism.’
On the other hand, fans of the Prime Minister seem to find it inspiring that several of the assembled protesters are reaching out to Putin in the tradition of ‘good tsarism,’ hoping that he’ll notice their plight and swoop in to right the city’s wrongs. Indeed, that spirited older woman told video cameras that she supports Dunaev “because he fed the city with bread” — not unlike how Putin won her over by restoring her pension.
It will be interesting to see if Lermontov’s hunger strike (if it lasts) ultimately polarizes into a Pikalevo-style appeal for federal intervention, or an opposition-flavored rejection of Moscow’s interference. As it is, Dunaev and the former council members would seem to have more in common with the latter, as it was the specter of agglomeration that drove the wedge between Lermontov and the centralizing interests of Piatigorsk and Kloponin. Yet, rumors of Dunaev’s corruption and duplicity suggest that his greatest priority could be self-preservation. If that turns out to be the case, perhaps we can expect some kind of compromise in Lermontov that preserves the path to greater regional integration, while simultaneously finding a privileged place for Dunaev and a few of his favorites?