Russia's Brief Taste Of Political Liberalization Drowns In Pig's Blood
Robert Coalson, Lyubov Chizhova September 27, 2018
MOSCOW -- On the morning of September 25, 34-year-old Nadezhda Zagordan, a member of the municipal council of Moscow's Izmailovo district, opened her apartment door to find a bloody, severed pig's head on her doorstep with a knife sticking out of its skull.
The previous morning, the same surprise was waiting outside the apartment door of Zagordan's mother.
Police, so far, have not opened a criminal investigation.
"They left not one pig's head, but two," Zagordan, who was elected as an independent candidate, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "And not only outside my apartment, but outside the apartment where my parents live. This happened practically at once. Of course, I see this as a threat of physical violence."
Zagordan is one member of a unique class of local officials in Moscow who came to office during the surprising elections of September 2017. At that time, truly independent and opposition-minded figures won about 20 percent of the 1,502 local council seats up for grabs in the capital, compared to 77 percent for the ruling United Russia party.
Those modest results were hailed as a small but significant signal that the Kremlin was ready to tolerate genuine political pluralism for the first time since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 -- hopes that the Kremlin itself helped to fan.
"This is excellent," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time. "They will take part in the life of the city and demonstrate their effectiveness. This is pluralism. This is political competition."
"I always thought the region had to have independent representatives," Zagordan said when asked why she ran for office in 2017, "in order to inform people about upcoming changes, dangerous situations, and budget decisions. Because of all this, I decided to become a deputy and won in 2017 with a majority of voter support."
Former Duma Deputy and opposition figure Dmitry Gudkov said at the time that the 2017 vote sent "a very important signal."
One year later, the political signals in Moscow are coming in the form of severed pig heads and vandalized cars.
"I have had other threats as well," Zagordan said. "In June, my car was vandalized, and they threw acid into it. I had to sell the car for parts…. And that wasn't the first such case. Other deputies have also been threatened."
In June, fellow Izmailovo district council member Anastasia Muralova, 29, was attacked on the street by someone who poured motor oil on her. That attack came shortly after Muralova successfully halted street repairs in the district that were being carried out illegally without a contract.
On September 11, Vitaly Tretyukhin, a council member from the Pechatniki district, found the rear window of his car smashed with a brick. A severed pig's head had been left in the vehicle.
In Tretyukhin's case, his supporters believe the incident was connected with the council member's work to halt illegal trash dumping at Moscow Oblast landfills, although they also suspect it could be over his exposure of corruption in local revitalization projects.
Zagordan is also convinced the threats against her are politically motivated.
"I have been involved in rather a lot of matters," she said. "And each matter has participants who are not interested in certain things becoming public or attracting the attention of the police. Absolutely any case could lead to actions like this…. But I can't concretely point to any specific one."
Over the last year, the new opposition council members, many of whom are associated with the liberal Yabloko party or ran as independents with the support of unregistered movements, have made their presence known even though they remain in the minority everywhere.
A significant development in Moscow regional politics over the last year has been a wave of vocal and angry protests against illegal trash dumping and the expansion of landfills. The independent council members have played important roles in these actions, which have brushed up against the interests of companies controlled by the son of Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika.
The once optimistic independent local council deputies are on the cutting edge of Russia's shifting political climate. In the spring, Putin ran for and secured a fourth term as president without allowing opposition leader Aleksei Navalny or any other significant opposition figure to run against him.
In the summer, the government sparked a national wave of anger with a plan to raise retirement ages that United Russia is now pushing through the legislature.
Meanwhile, the newly created National Guard and the Interior Ministry's Antiextremism Center have stepped up efforts to contain political activism and dissent. Hundreds of cases have been opened against citizens for liking or posting political items on social media, while youths who have participated in demonstrations or unsanctioned campaigns have been interrogated and harassed.
The United Russia-dominated status quo is mounting a defense, Zagordan believes.
"The controlling organs, in my experience, don't properly respond to our complaints about illegal budget expenditures, illegal construction projects, illegally confiscated property, or the illegal transfer of property from one purpose to another," she told RFE/RL. "Unfortunately, I cannot say that I ever saw an appropriate reaction -- in general, we just get rejections. And I think this is due to the fact that the government organs are intertwined with the control agencies and law enforcement."
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson, based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyubov Chizhova
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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