Monday, September 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Unexpected Opposition Win in Petrozavodsk Reflects Complex Politics of Karelia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 16 – The unexpected victory of Galina Shirshina over incumbent Petrozavodsk mayor Nikolay Levin reflects the complicated politics of the Republic of Karelia, a politics that involves high levels of civic activism, incredible faux pas by United Russia and its minions there, and deep splits in the usual alliance of business interests and the regime.

            In an article in Moscow’s “New Times” published today, journalist Yuliya Chernukhina not only describes the combination of factors but also provides answers to two questions many Russian outlets are now asking: “Who is this Shirshina?” and how could she possibly have been elected mayor? (

            Shirshina’s victory was a surprise to everyone: Levin himself had already invited people to his inauguration, having thought he would inevitably be victorious after forcing out on trumped up charges Yabloko candidate Emiliya Slabunova, who is popular and attracted demonstrators with signs like “Karelia is not a colony” and “we are not aboriginals.”

            Because Petrozavodsk residents are trying to explain it, the “New Times” journalist says, “the city is filling up with rumors,” ranging from Shirshina being a stalking horse for Slabunova or for one or another oligarch to those suggesting that the Karelian government wanted Levin out to others saying he was an incompetent candidate.

            Shirshina herself is less a mystery that has been suggested. She was born into a military family in neighboring Murmansk Oblast, moved to Karelia at the age of five, graduated and then taught psychology at the Karelian State Pedagogical University, and was involve both with Yabloko activists and three small local companies.

            She won, it appears, because of the coming together of several factors, including a deep split between Karelian Governor Aleksandr Khudilaynen and Levin, unfortunate decisions by Levin which were covered and attacked in the local media, bad planning by United Russia, and the efforts of 2,000 Yabloko activists who have been active in the city for 17 years.

            Suggestions that she is linked to one or another of the oligarchs in the city and region appear to lack foundation, the Moscow weekly says, and appear to be wishful thinking by one or another of them, an effort to blacken Shirshina’s reputation even before she takes the oath of office, or self-justification by United Russia for its loss.

            Shirshina was running Slabunova’s campaign before the latter was forced out, and she is likely to draw on Slabunova’s Yabloko colleagues and to promote Slabunova’s ideas about honest elections as well as government transparency and responsibility.

            Local observers told Chernukhova that the new mayor has a good chance in succeeding as long as she stay independent of any one party or business group. If she becomes too closely involved with each, they suggest, the others will attack her because “in Karelia this is [their] national sport.”

P.S.: A Wepsy blogger provides yet another perspective on Shirshina and her election.  He suggests that “the existence of the Republic of Karelia in present-day Russia is based on oly one factor – the existence of neighboring Finland.  For Finns, Karelian lands and Karels remain mentally part of their territory … This is well understood in Moscow: otherwise there wouldn’t be a governor with the name Khudilaynen. According to the logic of the federal center, the Finns should be satisfied” with that … But to a significant degree,, the residents of Karelia are integrated into Finnish life and realities, and of couse, in contrast to residents from inside Russia know more about the political life of a European country.” The new mayor of Petrozavodsk “with her scientific background liberal views, and peaceful face is a typical politician not for Russia but for Finland. And now she is in Petrozavodsk!” (


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