Russia’s rebel mayor calls for presidential election boycott

In this photo taken on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman talks to The Associated Press in his office in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (AP)
Updated 16 March 2018
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Russia’s rebel mayor calls for presidential election boycott

MOSCOW: In Russia, where all governors and mayors are either Kremlin nominees or hail from Kremlin-friendly parties, Yevgeny Roizman cuts an odd figure.
The mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city with 1.4 million people, is the only top regional official to openly criticize President Vladimir Putin. He has also called for a boycott of Sunday’s presidential vote, a move advocated by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is banned from running.
Yet Roizman still epitomizes the helplessness of Russia’s opposition in the face of Putin’s well-oiled government machine.
Roizman is an outlier in Putin’s system of government, where every official — from a village chief to the governor — explicitly answers to and serves the Russian president.
While millions of public workers are busy rooting for Putin and urging residents to vote, Roizman has dismissed the presidential vote as sham.
“You can ask anyone and everyone will tell you who is going to win this election. What’s the point in going to vote then?” he told The Associated Press.
But making public statements is the only thing Roizman is free to do. In the president’s “power vertical,” as Putin once named it, if those who oppose him are not already sidelined or jailed, they simply have no executive powers or budgets to take on the Kremlin.
A former convict and leader of a vigilante anti-drug movement, 55-year-old Roizman might seem unelectable. But in his hometown of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, he won a tight mayoral race against a pro-government candidate in 2013.
A visitor to Roizman’s office is immediately struck by the glaring absence of the one requisite symbol of power in Russia: a portrait of Putin. On his first day, Roizman hung a portrait of dissident poet Josef Brodsky. His office is open, and his hour-long interview with the AP was interrupted when a retiree stepped in to complain about his low pension.
When Roizman ran for office, one of his campaign promises was to improve the quality of water in this industrial city. But once elected, Roizman realized he was unable to do that.
“I have no budget to spend,” Roizman said. “The city has been stripped of its major powers, its major sources of income.”
Like other regional capitals, Yekaterinburg in the 2000s fell victim to Putin’s “power vertical” concept, which was presented as an antidote to lawlessness and the lack of coordination between the federal government and regional authorities.
But in the end, that policy simply forced Russian regions to send most of their revenues to Moscow. Now they receive back only a fraction. The system was supposed to help economically struggling regions like the North Caucasus, but it has angered wealthier cities like Yekaterinburg and Kazan, which feel they are paying for corruption and mismanagement several time zones away.
Roizman’s background reflects Russia’s ups and downs since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. He spent more than two years in prison in the 1980s for robbery and fraud, something he describes as a youthful mistake.
After stints making jewelry and researching local history, Roizman made his name by forming a volunteer group to stem a drug epidemic in the Urals. Official estimates in 2003 put the number of drug users in this region of 4 million at 235,000 people.
“We had a drug catastrophe,” Roizman recalled. “Ambulances were driving around picking up corpses from the sidewalks.”
Yekaterinburg, which still has some of Russia’s highest HIV rates because of the ‘90s drug epidemic, lies on the drug route that ran from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Europe. It’s about 1,050 miles (1,700 kilometers) east of Moscow. He says the police were at best helpless to deal with the drug dealers, and at worst profiting from the drug business.
Roizman and his colleagues began to track down and round up drug dealers and set up private rehab clinics to which desperate families sent their addicted relatives. Many credit the City Without Drugs foundation for fighting Russia’s narcotics epidemic, but others remember reports of drug users locked up in rehab clinics against their will.
Roizman vehemently denies any wrongdoing and says he saved the lives of “thousands.”
His 2013 win was also improbable because of his scathing criticism of the Kremlin.
Bashing the Kremlin from the sidelines is dangerous, but doing so within the system is almost impossible. Two other regional opposition leaders have been imprisoned on charges seen as retribution for their lack of compliance.
Nikita Belykh, former governor of the Kirov region who once employed Navalny as an unpaid aide, was arrested and sentenced this year to eight years in a high-security prison for accepting 600,000 euros ($740,000) in bribes.
Yevgeny Urlashov, who won a landslide victory in Yaroslavl’s mayoral race in 2012, was arrested a year later and spent three years in jail before being found guilty of accepting bribes and sent to prison for 12 1/2 years.
The popular Urlashov, who criticized the federal government for taking away the city’s taxes, posed a tangible threat to the Kremlin, Roizman said, because he convinced supporters to take to the streets.
“That scared them,” Roizman said.
Urlashov would not cooperate with local pro-Kremlin elites, so Moscow retaliated by cutting back the city’s budget. A year later, the mayor was slapped with bribery charges that many considered fabricated.
Roizman was going to run for governor of the Yekaterinburg region last year, a position that would give him a budget to spend, but he failed to gain enough required votes from local pro-Kremlin lawmakers to field his candidacy.
Roizman says he’s glad he didn’t get to run and win because of the inevitable Faustian bargains that he says all Russian politicians face under Putin. What would happen, he asks, if Kremlin authorities summoned him and offered to build the city a second subway line in exchange for his public support of the presidential election?
“What would I do?” Roizman said. “I’m ashamed to say it but I know what I would do: I would cast my eye and say ‘Everyone should to go to vote.’ I would trade it for the second metro line.”
Now, in a visible though largely powerless position, the only thing left for Roizman to do is “stay true to myself” and call for a boycott of Sunday’s presidential election.
“There will never be a fair election under this government,” he said. “They have only one goal: to stay in power forever.”


Indian election reveals role of money, questionable morality

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi listens to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah speak during a press conference at the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Friday, May 17, 2019. (AP)
Updated 16 June 2019
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Indian election reveals role of money, questionable morality

  • The report said the Bharatiya Janata Party was the biggest spender, accounting for about 45% of the total

NEW DELHI: India’s recent national election delivered a historic victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, but also exposed the influence of money, power and questionable morality on the world’s largest democracy.
Nearly 43% of the new members of the lower house of Parliament that convenes Monday for the first time since the election won despite facing criminal charges. More than a quarter of those relate to rape, murder or attempted murder, according to a report by the civic group Association of Democratic Reforms.
The loophole that allows them to take office is that they have not been convicted — in part because the Indian legal system has a huge backlog of an estimated 30 million cases and trials often last decades. When asked about the charges against them, they invariably accuse a political rival of framing them.
Since such rivalries often lead to false accusations, the main political parties say it would be unfair to bar people from contesting elections unless they have been convicted by court.
Under existing laws, only those who have been sentenced to prison for two years or more can be barred from elections.
Members of Parliament with criminal backgrounds is not a new phenomenon in India, but despite Modi’s campaign vow in 2014 to clean up corruption and the influence of money in politics, the problem appears to be only growing worse.
In the 2004 national election, the percentage of candidates with pending criminal cases was 24%, which rose to 33% in 2009, 34% in 2014 and 43% this year, said Shahabuddin Y. Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner.
The Association of Democratic Reforms found that 116 of the 303 lawmakers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party elected last month face criminal charges, including one for alleged terrorism.
Pragya Singh Thakur, who won a seat from Bhopal in central India, is awaiting trial in connection with a 2008 explosion in Malegaon in western India that killed seven people.
Twenty-nine of the opposition Congress party’s 52 lawmakers face serious charges.
“This trend has been growing in India, leaving no political party untouched. We need to educate voters not to elect these people,” said Jagdeep S. Chhokar, ADR’s founder.
“What the Indian state has been unable to provide, strongmen promise to deliver to people in their area of influence, using gun and money power,” said Lennin Rasghuvanshi, a coordinator with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
Starting in the 1960s and ‘70s, some Indian politicians began turning to the criminal underworld for cash to win votes.
“In due course, the criminals started thinking that these politicians were winning because of their money or crimes so why shouldn’t they become lawmakers themselves? If they are people running from the police, they know that when they became lawmakers, the same police will protect them,” Quraishi said.
In Uttar Pradesh state in northern Indian, former mafia don Mukhtar Ansari has been elected to the state assembly five times despite more than 40 criminal cases pending against him, including murder.
Another don-turned-politician, Hari Shankar Tiwari, also of Uttar Pradesh, has been a member of the legislative assembly for 23 years, even winning an election while being detained on murder charges.
During the campaign, Election Commission officials and government agencies seized mountains of cash, alcohol, gold and silver, saris and expensive watches in the offices of political parties that were intended as gifts in exchange for votes.
The total value of the seized goods was $500 million, including $120 million in cash — nearly three times what was found in the 2014 general election, according to the Election Commission.
Analysts say that political parties seem to prize electability over ethics.
“They think that people with criminal backgrounds have more chances to win because of their money and muscle power,” Qureshi said.
In the days of paper ballots before electronic voting machines were introduced, gangs would use brute force to take over polling stations to rig the vote.
One reason for the increasing number of criminal suspects going into politics is the sheer cost of elections. In the general election that concluded in May, political parties and candidates are estimated to have spent about $8.65 billion. That’s double the amount in the 2014 election, according to a report by the Center for Media Studies in New Delhi.
The report said the Bharatiya Janata Party was the biggest spender, accounting for about 45% of the total. The Congress party accounted for between 15% and 20%.
Analysts say a key cause of corruption is the way political parties are funded in India. Parties are permitted to receive foreign funds, any company can donate any amount of money to any political party, and any individual, group or company can donate money anonymously through electoral bonds.
Donors do not need to disclose the party they have donated to, nor does the party have to reveal the source of its money.
Quraishi is calling for more transparency in campaign funding as well as a cap on election spending.
“The people want transparency, the donor wants secrecy. Whose wish should prevail?” he said.