Irkutsk Oblast As an Island of Political Competition in Modern Russia

Petrov A.V.


Irkutsk Oblast is among those unique regions of Russia that managed to preserve political competition, that indicate no serious cases of election fraud and that whose tradition of multipartyism is considered decent. The region has the lowest electoral turnout in the country, and the residents of the Baikal coast vote against constitutional amendments.

For over 25 years, Irkutsk media and the expert community have been researching various regional policy issues. Now, it seems there is only one answer to the question of "Among the Irkutsk Oblast governors since 1994, who do you consider the most respected/significant?" And that answer is Yury A. Nozhikov.

Yury Nozhikov came to office in 1991 and became the first popularly elected governor of Irkutsk Oblast in 1994, receiving 78.16% of votes. Three years later, in the spring of 1997, he voluntarily resigned. In this short time he won a case against Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, defending the interests of Irkutskenergo so that 60% of the largest energy complex in the country's east would remain in the region [1]. Moreover, on 20 March 1993, Boris Yeltsin stood down Yury Nozhikov and Vitaly Mukha, the governor of Novosibirsk Oblast. Irkutsk saw a rally of 10 thousand people in support of their governor. On March 23, the Regional Council of People's Deputies recognized the President's statement to be contrary to the law, and three days later, Boris Yeltsin cancelled the decree and later personally apologized to the Irkutsk governor.

Irkutsk Oblast became one of the first Russian regions to hold direct elections to all government bodies thanks to Nozhikov. As the result, on 27 March 1994, Irkutsk Oblast elected the Legislative Assembly of the first convocation, all mayors (heads) of cities and districts as well as city and district council deputies. Nozhikov always advocated all offices in all branches of government to be appointed by election, which was also reflected in how he communicated with voters.

Moreover, Irkutsk Oblast became the first Russian region where, in the 2015 gubernatorial elections, the specially resigned acting governor Sergei V. Yeroshchenko was 0.4% short of winning. In the second round, voter turnout was 100,000 voters higher, and "thanks" to Irkutsk, the government-endorsed candidate lost (41.46%) to the CPRF candidate Sergey G. Levchenko (56.39%). At that time, the region ranked first in the country in terms of the number of governors replaced–Levchenko became the seventh in 21 years, and only one of them vacated his post at the end of the term prescribed by the law (Boris A. Govorin, 1997-2005). All other governors resigned before the end of term, except for I. E. Yesipovsky, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2009.

Irkutsk regional politics were frequently featured in the top federal news, and its secrets and differences from neighboring Siberian regions were discussed at various academic conferences. Some experts argue why Irkutsk Oblast is considered a protest region despite the extremely low turnout. Others argue that Irkutsk Oblast always approaches an election in two states — "either in a state of mess or in a state of dealing with mess" [9], which does not prevent it from coming up with political surprises.

It cannot be called a "politically anomalous" region, because it is more common in political science to refer to political, more often electoral, anomaly as a synonym for total fraud [5: 132], whereas we regard the region's modern history as an example of rational behavior of voters and their elected elites. An anomaly is a deviation from the norm or general pattern. Perhaps in some ways Irkutsk Oblast, an ordinary region, is considered anomalous, because the techniques and innovations implemented here did not disrupt the political environment, but instead transformed it and had a positive effect on the overall tone of the remaining political debate.

That said, since the 2010s, the region has consistently ranked last in all federal election campaigns. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, Irkutsk Oblast indicated the lowest result in the Siberian Federal District (55.65%) while the nationwide support stood at 63.60%. Turnout in the 2018 presidential election was the worst in the country at 55.7% and was even lower than the 2012 turnout by 0.6% [12]. During the 2020 constitutional referendum, 44.18% went to the polls, with only 44.6% supporting presidential initiatives in Olkhon Island [4]. And even such figures make it possible to assert that they really reflect the will of the voters, since the past 10-15 years did not indicate any serious violations at any election level, as independent observers repeatedly confirmed in their reports.

The story of the island emerging as space for political discussion goes back to the distant past. In 1847, the house of one of the Decembrists, Sergei Volkonsky ("state criminal" as they called him in the capital), became the cultural center of Irkutsk. The mistress of the house and his wife, Maria Volkonskaya, became a trendsetter for education, arts, literature and intellectual entertainment. In the salon set up by the wife of the man who undermined the foundations of the state, Irkutsk residents learned classical music and discussed local theater [7].

In the mid-19th century, the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky opposed opening a university in Irkutsk, which he perceived as a breeding ground for mestnichestvo (seniority bias) and disobedience [2]. Irkutsk did not actually embrace the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and was, like Moscow, the place of the fiercest battles with a large death toll.

On 22 November 1987, the first mass demonstration in the history of the Soviet Union took place in Irkutsk. People took to the streets against the construction of a pipeline to discharge industrial effluents from the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill into the Irkut River. The summer of that year saw protests by scientists and meetings of labor collectives, and one of the institutes even refused to design a power line for the pipeline. This is how the Baikal Ecological Movement began, bringing together Irkutsk residents of different ages and professions [10]. It is a well-known fact that up to 5 thousand people came to the rally in defense of Baikal on 18 March 2006 against Transneft, the company that was planning to build a pipeline to China along the lake shore. The chair of the regional parliament Viktor K. Kruglov was one of the speakers [10]. The third rally on 22 April 2006 was attended by Aleksandr G. Tishanin, the then-governor. Although he did not make any speeches, his presence alone showed that even the non-appointed head of the region can be with the people. Not a single campaign of the Baikal movement in all the years of its existence saw any detentions, and law enforcement agencies were always lenient to such events.

On 21 August 1991, a large rally was held in Irkutsk in support of the Russian authorities, and both the city and the regional executive committee did not support the GKChP (State Committee on the State of Emergency). The two Gray Houses often did not agree with each other, but knew when to stand up for the interests of the region and its residents. This often manifested during election campaigns.

Boris A. Govorin, who was Irkutsk Oblast governor in 1997-2005, was among the founders of the social and political movement Fatherland-All Russia. This is why in the 2004 Irkutsk Oblast Legislative Assembly election, instead of fully endorsing United Russia, he privately endorsed the lists of Rodina headed by Yury A. Bakshtanovsky (the chair of the regional organization of the union of public education and science workers) and Tatiana I. Ryutina, as well as the SEPR (Socialist United Party of Russia) list headed by Valery A. Sokolov, a former United Russia Deputy Speaker. Following the election results, five parties and the "Za rodnoye Priangarye" bloc created by the Union of Right Forces and the People's Party were elected to the legislative assembly. At the same time, LDPR did not get into the assembly; moreover, contrary to the federal trend, LDPR changed ten regional coordinators, some of whom were arrested and received actual prison sentences.

The history of relations between the executive and representative branches is not rid of conflict either. For example, in 2005, deputies did not take kindly to the appointment of Governor Aleksandr G. Tishanin, who had never worked in the executive branch before, but was the head of the East Siberian Railway. This was the reason why the deputies did not immediately agree on Yuri V. Paranichev's candidacy to the office of fist deputy governor, and then did not approve the regional budget several times. April of 2015 saw the resignation of the Legislative Assembly chair Lyudmila M. Berlina, and many political experts attributed this departure to her conflict with Governor Sergei B. Yeroshchenko. Besides, likely one the largest conflicts was related to the 2008 Irkutsk Oblast Legislative Assembly election, when pressure was put on the chair of the regional election commission Viktor V. Ignatenko to "cancel the registration of more than 10 people." Ignatenko's response was that "the Irkutsk Oblast election commission is not a structural unit of any public authority" [11], for which he lost the approval of the CEC and United Russia for his term in office [6].

However, there were also times of well-coordinated work. One such instance — quite unexpected at that — took place under Sergei G. Levchenko, a CPRF governor who proposed United Russia's Ruslan N. Bolotov for the chair of government. Although the four years of Levchenko's governorship were ridden with hundreds of derogatory pieces in the federal media, he always found common ground with the deputies. That time was sometimes referred to in Irkutsk as the "European parliament" when two parties — CPRF and United Russia — fell short of a majority, and the role of smaller parties (LDPR, A Just Russia, Civic Platform) subsequently increased, as did the space for political bargaining, expansion of various alliances and unions, since each party was able to singlehandedly block decisions requiring two-thirds of the vote.

In the early 2000s, the Irkutsk Oblast Legislative Assembly saw the emergence of a Union of Right Forces faction that included six people, one of whom was Viktor M. Borovsky, the assembly's former chair. It was the deputies of this faction that were among the most active opponents of the amendment to the oblast's charter to allow the governor the right to be elected for a third term. The situation was resolved by V. Putin, who abolished the gubernatorial election altogether. During Boris Govorin's term in office, the largest regional enterprises went from regional ownership (or operational management) to financial industrial groups (FIG), which also influenced the political content of the time, since many of the FIGs had their government interests and nominated their candidate pools for deputies and for the heads of cities and districts. What happened then is that you had to make agreements, concessions or to "buy up" various political forces.

Irkutsk Oblast was one of the first in the country to reform local government in 2003, but it did not introduce party lists at the urban level. Divided into first and second tiers twenty years ago, municipalities have learned to function independently, but there is now talk about abolishing urban and rural settlements. There have already been proposals to merge Shelekhov and Shelekhovsky District, Nizhneudinsk and Nizhneudinsky District, and Taishet and Taishetsky District. The population of each of these towns is over 30 thousand, and whether it wants to merge with the village poses quite an issue.

The mayoral election in Irkutsk certainly deserves a mention. In late 2009, the then-Governor Dmitry F. Mezentsev appointed Vladimir V. Yakubovsky, who won the election three times (1997, 2001, 2005) to the Federation Council from the executive branch. Sergei V. Serebrennikov, the mayor of the region's largest city of Bratsk, is appointed acting mayor of Irkutsk. The citizens of Irkutsk did not really understand why they could not elect a local, Irkutsk politician as mayor, so 32.5% of voters (unprecedented figures for local elections) went to the polls, and 62.84% voted for the little-known businessman Viktor I. Kondrashov, who was nominated by CPRF. Sergei Serebrennikov, in his turn, returned to his mayoral office in Bratsk after a while. A similar situation unfolded in 2019 in northern Ust-Ilimsk, where Sergei K. Zatsepin (local assembly chair) was nominated to the mayoral office after the resignation of Vakil K. Tulubayev. In the end, residents elected 28-year-old housewife Anna I. Shchyokina (43.85%), while only 37.43% voted for the candidate of United Russia.

Despite the fact that the Russian Federation ratified the European Charter of Local Self-Government back in 1998, which confirmed direct elections of city heads, it was fairly soon that Russian authorities undertook maneuvers that, on the one hand, left elections as an institution, but on the other, pushed voters away from this process. Irkutsk Oblast was one of the pioneers in introducing the institution of city managers. In 2005, this form appeared in the charters of the towns of Tulun and Usolye-Sibirskoye. Elected city managers "brought forth" the elimination of the institution and the return of elections. After 2010, Angarsk and Bratsk tried using the system, but even there the assemblies quickly decided to bring back direct elections [8: 83-85]. After in 2015, the Russian State Duma allowed appointing mayors, and not city managers, from among the deputies, Irkutsk decided to take advantage of this fact. The Irkutsk Oblast Legislative Assembly changed the law thrice in eight months to fit the most "convenient" version, and in the spring of 2015 deputy Dmitry V. Berdnikov was elected mayor of Irkutsk. However, he was not allowed to be elected for a second term five years later, as the law to elect members of the competition commission from among the deputies and members of the regional government was changed.

The events of recent years, which seriously changed the modern political structure, did not leave Irkutsk Oblast unaffected. On 12 December 2019, Governor Sergei Levchenko was dismissed, and Ivan I. Kobzev, Deputy Minister of Emergency, was appointed acting governor. He won the September 2020 gubernatorial election. On 28 January 2022, he was elected secretary of the regional United Russia branch, which was the first time in Irkutsk politics that a governor became the chair of the "party of power." In early 2022, many local branches of the party went through rotation, and heads of municipalities became chairs. Although Sergei Levchenko became a State Duma deputy following the 2021 parliamentary election, CPRF lost a lot of ground. However, the party retains its second place among the factions in the Legislative Assembly, and the region is no longer a "red" one. Still, Irkutsk Oblast maintains its position as a region for political experiments. For example, the youngest State Duma deputy is 22-year-old Georgy K. Arapov, who was elected from Irkutsk Oblast on the New People list. In the internal party vote of United Russia, held in May 2022, Vasily V. Temgenevsky, who was mayor of Baikalsk for 10 years, lost to a high school teacher from Irkutsk. Baikalsk is currently in the spotlight because of the VEB.RF state corporation, which is planning to build a world-class resort on Lake Baikal.

A lot of regional politics will depend on the election of deputies to the Legislative Assembly of the third convocation, which will be held in the fall of 2023. One area of conflict is the abolition of the proportional system — a brewing ground for serious political struggle. Most deputies understand that a lack of substantial funding will not allow them to win a single-seat constituency, especially the candidates from CPRF, LDPR, and "A Just Russia – FOR TRUTH". Therefore, there is a chance for all parties to unite for the preservation of the plurality-proportional system, which has successfully proved itself, when out of 45 deputies, 23 are elected from party lists, and 22 from single-seat constituencies.

Is there political competition here, or is it something that is never too much? We believe that if there indeed was a successful political project in Irkutsk Oblast, then there was also a high-level discussion of the need to implement it, if not in the country as a whole, but in Siberia and certain Russian regions. It turned out that a non-United Russia governor is not necessarily the worst thing for the authorities, elections can be held properly, both candidates from the current government and the opposition can win, and they can sit down at the table and negotiate.

We cannot but mention the distinctive nature of Irkutsk Oblast: the particular propensity for conflict among the elites, which at any time can support the other side. Voters are very familiar with the phenomenon when the "pro-government" construction companies worked for CPRF, and then the CPRF governor covertly supported United Russia candidates. The "us vs. them" division was inherent in any governor, including the non-partisan one, as was the discussion of which priorities are more important—corporate or regional. This is why every protest always had spokespeople for its ideas, and they did not represent the opposition. The protests are backed by interested parties, who at the time were unable to agree with the current government. But in those brief episodes when the elite groups maintained neutrality, they quickly found common ground, and there was nothing left of any protest that had been there yesterday.

There is always the issue of the local elites being out of step with the trends in Moscow. In most regions, governors held office for decades. For example, Viktor M. Kress in Tomsk Oblast (1991-2012), Aman M. Tuleyev in Kemerovo Oblast (1997-2018), Viktor A. Tolokonsky in Novosibirsk Oblast (2000-2010), Leonid V. Potapov (1994-2007) and Vyacheslav V. Nagovitsyn (2007-2017) in Buryatia and even Aleksandr G. Khloponin in Krasnoyarsk Krai (2002-2010). The Irkutsk region could not boast of political stability, the press called the regional authorities "collectively irresponsible," but the region always places in the top 3 in terms of living standards and wages in Siberia. The federal government repeatedly tried to bring the region to a common denominator with the help of the "varyag" governors (Dmitry F. Mezentsev, Igor E. Yesipovsky, Igor I. Kobzev), and it only succeeded in the latter case. Even then, it is most likely the merit of the current governor as one of the most non-confrontational leaders of the region in its modern history.

Moreover, party affiliation did not always dominate decision-making either. In the 2022 municipal election, we could see a critic of Governor Igor I. Kobzev and his rival in the 2020 gubernatorial election, Bodaibo mayor Yevgeny Yu. Yumashev won the primaries with the support of United Russia. Had it happened two years ago, we could talk about the weakness of the "party of power" and the small number of candidates. Now, however, it is regarded as the ability of the authorities to negotiate and that of the head of the municipality to avoid conflict. For modern Russia, this case is unique. The elites are ready to consolidate around the top figure when there is an important idea or task, but they do not allow his absolute dominance over itself. This is likely the secret of its existence.

The main item on the agenda are still the voters or ordinary citizens who do not go to the polls and do not believe in politics, but understand that they can sometimes exert influence. They still feel like they are the ones who choose or remove candidates, shape the political course or protest it. It may gave been that the civic governor Nikolai I. Treskin described those very citizens two hundred years ago: "The restless citizens here, encouraged by the lack of punishment, extending their hardened impudence and self-will and succeeding, unfortunately, in gaining an upper hand over their superiors, changing and overthrowing them, have founded a society which, using all its efforts to command the superiors and have them at its mercy, opposes all restrictions on enterprises harmful to the common good and acts in everything that is only in its personal interests" [3: 358-359].

This kind of Irkutsk Oblast that is like an island of political competition, similar to the island of Olkhon on Lake Baikal. After all, Khuzhir residents were able to prove that their settlement should be a residential area, and not part of the Pribaikalsky National Park, which prohibits digging and residential construction. This means there is still room for thinking, deliberating and not worrying about the results.

Received 31.05.2022, revision received 11.06.2022.


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