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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

All Politics Are Local

Russia's political picture is looking increasingly like typical feudalism. President Vladimir Putin is a monarch trying to turn a patchwork of fiefdoms into an empire, and the governors are barons, feeling their traditional privileges imperiled by those efforts.

The monarch has many means for clipping the wings of regional barons, one of which is by manipulating laws regulating local self-government within their regions. The monarch creates conditions that encourage petty vassals to rise up against their masters. However, some vassals discover to their dismay that merely having the law on their side is not enough. In a feudal system, the law has little independent force.

December's mayoral elections in the city of Balakovo in the Saratov region are an excellent illustration of this vassal-rebellion model. Traditionally, the heads of local administrations have been selected by local legislative assemblies, with decisive input from Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov. In Balakovo, however, a popular referendum was held last year that changed that system to one of direct popular voting.

As the Dec. 24 election date approached, tensions between the local and regional leaderships grew noticeably. Incumbent Balakovo Mayor Alexei Saurin claimed in a speech that Ayatskov's team had needlessly exacerbated Balakovo's energy crisis. And, in fact, instances in which heat, electricity and gas were shut off seemed to increase mysteriously in the election run-up, and popular anger was clearly directed toward the governor.

Balakovo is a city of about 300,000 with an enormous industrial base that in many other regions would be a capital. But, situated next to huge Saratov, it is fated ever to be a "second city." Locals sometimes show signs of a peculiar inferiority complex with regard to their "big brother," and Saurin skillfully manipulated popular dissatisfaction with the Saratov authorities in his campaign.

The results of the first round were as follows: Saurin got 49 percent. Vladimir Solovyov, president of the Balakovo Entrepreneurs Association, came in second with 18 percent. Sergei Denisov, general director of the Khimeksmash factory and widely seen as the "pro-Saratov" candidate, came in third with just 14 percent. This round was characterized by constant conflicts between the regional and the local elections commissions that culminated when the regional commission demanded that ballots be turned over to it before being counted. By the time the conflict was settled, the chairman of the local elections commission had been hospitalized with a heart attack.

The second round was set for Jan. 14. That's when the real war began. Earlier, one of the minor candidates had filed a suit against Saurin claiming that he had not formally declared some improvements to property he owned (a banya and a veranda attached to his dacha) and a used car (which Saurin claimed belonged to the city) in his income statements. Initially the local court rejected the suit, but the regional court overturned that verdict and, on Jan. 9, ordered that Saurin be disqualified.

In Balakovo, the vassal's rebellion has been suppressed, and the baron has emerged victorious, at least until the monarch speaks.

However, the local elections commission was at a loss to comply. Not only was Saurin a candidate for mayor, but he had also been elected a deputy of the municipal council, for which elections had also been held Dec. 24. The case has since proceeded to the Russian Supreme Court (where it is set to be heard on Feb. 5). In the meantime, the local court's order was suspended.

On election day, regional election commission representatives, supported by police units from across the Saratov region, appeared in Balakovo and tried to change the ballot papers. Instead of the ones offering a choice between Saurin and Solovyov, the Saratov version listed Solovyov and Denisov as the candidates. However, despite the show of force, 60 of the city's 98 polling stations refused to comply.

Saurin received 74 percent in this round, but the local elections commission had no choice but to annul the vote because of the two different ballots. A new second round has been set for April 8, but the regional election commission has not commented on the Jan. 14 vote or endorsed the new date.

The baron, then, had no choice but to remove his insubordinate vassal by fiat. This occurred at a meeting of the municipal council on the night of Jan. 16-17 that was held at municipal power station No. 4. That meeting resulted in the appointment of Valentin Timofeyev — director of municipal power station No. 4 — as acting mayor. The council also passed a resolution annulling the referendum on direct mayoral elections and returning to the old scheme.

Events then unfolded furiously. The regional prosecutor appealed the governor's order suspending Saurin, while the municipal council went ahead (under its new-old selection system) to name Timofeyev mayor and appoint former candidate Solovyov as the council chairman. Then Ayatskov reversed himself and annulled his order removing Saurin, leaving Balakovo effectively with two mayors. Saurin promptly announced his intention to create an "alternative" municipal administration.

In the State Duma in Moscow, Saurin's interests are represented by Deputy Vyacheslav Volodin, a disgraced ex-deputy governor of Saratov and now deputy chairman of the Fatherland-All Russia faction. He has written an appeal to the prosecutor general. In Balakovo, citizens have begun collecting signatures for another referendum — this time asking for Balakovo to be formally transferred from Ayatskov's Saratov region to neighboring Samara.

Nonetheless, Ayatskov's press office has declared that the process of selecting a mayor for Balakovo is finished. The matter is settled, the governor declared. And he is right. For now, at least, the vassal's rebellion has been suppressed and the baron is victorious. At least until the monarch speaks.

Marina Konnova and Ilya Malyakin are reporters for the Saratov-based Volga Information Agency. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.