08 October 2020
A political vacuum.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Mr Nikolai Loktev, a member of President Putin’s United Russia party, recently stood for re-election as the head of the central Russian rural district of Povalikhino. He was the only candidate. With Alexei Navalny blaming his near-death experience on the Kremlin, it was perhaps hardly surprising that no one wanted to stand against the pro-Kremlin candidate in Povalikhino’s local election.
There was a problem, however. There had to be at least two candidates to make the election legally valid. What to do? Mr Loktev persuaded the cleaner of the local administration offices to stand against him. After all, the cleaner – Ms Marina Udgodskaya – was loyal and reliable. She had wielded her mop and brush and duster for the administration for four or five years and she was a supporter of Mr Loktev. She didn’t campaign and on election day she didn’t vote for herself. She voted for her boss.
Unlike most of the other people who voted. Ms Udgodskaya won by a landslide, with almost two thirds of the vote. She is now the new leader of Povalikhino rural district, responsible for dozens of villages and a population of almost seven thousand. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. “I didn’t think people would actually vote for me” she said. “I have no idea what my duties consist of.” Which suggests that people didn’t vote for her as much as vote against Mr Loktev, the United Russia party and the Kremlin.
This is perhaps the most striking example of the kind of oddity which democracy will throw into an abhorred political vacuum if no actual politicians are available, but it’s only the latest in a long and increasingly dramatic line of them.
We’ve seen it recently in Belarus. The powers-that-be did their best to suck the air out of the country’s democracy in last August’s presidential election. Opposition politicians were prevented from standing: President Lukashenko’s main rival, Viktor Babariko, was detained in police custody, according to his lawyers; another challenger, Valery Tsepkalo, was prevented from registering as a candidate; a third, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested at a protest and his detention meant that he missed the deadline for registration.
So Mr Lukashenko found himself up against not a politician, but a housewife and mother with no political experience at all. Mrs Svetlana Tikhanovskaya bravely threw her hat into the ring, taking her husband’s place in spite of sinister threats against her and her children – and won the election by a wide margin (according to her supporters, opposition activists, masses of protesters, international observers and many commentators, but not Mr Lukashenko).
Intensified threats against her and her family drove her into exile after the election, but other non-politicians immediately filled the vacuum. There was another wife – the wife of Valery Tsepkalo – who is now also in exile. There is a classical musician – Maria Kolesnikova, who interrupted her career as an internationally-acclaimed flautists and conductor to manage Victor Babariko’s campaign but was arrested after the election. She frustrated attempts to expel her from Belarus but is now in detention, charged with offences against ‘national security’. There is a sporting star – Yelena Leuchanka, an Olympic athlete and professional basketball player, who was arrested and given a jail sentence for taking part in opposition protests. She and other Belarus sports people have formed the Free Association of Athletes to challenge Mr Lukachenko’s power and abuses.
The trend was perhaps established way back in 1989 when Vaclav Havel – a playwright rather than a politician – was elected president in Czechoslovakia’s first democratic election following the fall of communism, the voters taking a deep breath of political oxygen after years of suffocation under a one-party system. More recently, a comedian and actor – Volodymyr Zelensky – was elected president of Ukraine last year in a massive rejection of an asphyxiating political establishment. It remains to be seen whether other countries ripe for this trend will follow suit; Lebanon’s political elite has been thoroughly discredited following Beirut’s tragic explosion but is showing little sign of making way for something more representative and effective amid rising political tension and protest – but cometh the hour, cometh the cleaner / housewife / musician / playwright / actor / sports person, perhaps?
Meanwhile, fresh developments in Kyrgyzstan have thrown up an interesting variation on this theme. There were elections in the former Soviet republic last weekend, but the results are being violently disputed. Angry protests have broken out, demonstrating against President Jeenbekov and the two political parties accused of buying votes to keep him in power. At least one person has been killed and seven hundred injured. Parliament buildings have been ransacked. Opposition demonstrators broke into a prison and freed former president Almazbek Atambayev who was serving an eleven-year sentence for corruption (when he was arrested last year, attempts to resist resulted in a gun battle). His followers now claim to have overthrown Mr Jeenbekov’s government. Ok, Mr Atambayev is an ex-politician and those corruption charges may well have been politically motivated as his supporters claim, but a jail-breaking jail-bird is nevertheless a dramatic and novel addition to our list of housewives, artists, cleaners, sports stars and other political outsiders turned champions of democracy.