Strawberry Oligarchs Forever: What’s next for Comrade Grudinin?

By Christopher Moldes

The results are in. After three months of campaigning, second place went to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s (KPRF) Pavel Grudinin with about 11 per cent of the vote. He’s been called a populist. The people’s candidate. A red businessman. A strawberry oligarch. Grudinin’s nomination came as a surprise for some, and divided the already highly fractured Russian left. He is by and large seen as having brought a bit of interest to otherwise stale elections. From financial scandals to a dramatic exit during a televised presidential debate (sans Putin), the spectacle of his campaign seems to have achieved its intended goal of presenting an approved protest candidate for voters.

During his “concession” speech, Grudinin continued to strike the same chord he had during his campaign, calling for the constitution to be adhered to, and specifically referring to guaranteed public services such as free healthcare and schooling. Grudinin was then asked about his post-election plans and the question of the Moscow region governorship came up. While his nomination seems to serve the KPRF leadership in its efforts to reinvigorate the party, some have suggested Grudinin is using the presidential race to angle for a later bid for the governorship of the Moscow region. He has denied this. Party leader Zyuganov cut Grudinin off, saying the question was premature; Grudinin’s platform was worthy of a prime minister, he said, not just the Moscow governor’s office. With the presidential race behind him, just what sort of politician would Grudinin be were he to follow his political aspirations?

His campaign platform, unveiled in January as his “20 Steps”, is a good starting point.  These steps range from reforms that even Russian liberals wouldn’t find too hard to swallow, namely the independence of the judiciary and curbing presidential powers through a new legislative body, the Supreme State Soviet, to the usual laundry list of KRPF goals like the reintroduction of a centralized economic planning system, nationalization of key industries, and increased social spending. As Grudinin’s history shows, his words have not often matched reality.

A recent report from Fedpress took Grudinin to task over his commitment to increased social support. Aside from owning a privately-run sovkhoz (Soviet state farm) and running the nearby settlements, Grudinin has already established his government administration bona fides. In September 2017, three months before his nomination, Grudinin became a member (and shortly afterwards, chairman) of the Council of Deputies of Vidnoe, a small town to the southeast of Moscow. As Fedpress reported, the new chairman soon oversaw deliberations for the town’s 2018 budget. Despite an overall increase in available funds, the approved 2018 budget called for cuts to various social programs, such as telephone subsidies for the visually impaired and living assistance for World War II veterans. Assistance for poor families was axed entirely. Looking at the meeting minutes, which had to be specially requested, it is clear Grudinin was present for the vote on the budget. It passed unanimously.

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Later changes to the budget in January or February of 2018 were planned, but these have yet to happen at the time of writing.  The Fedpress report ends with a scathing rebuke of Grudinin’s actions.

“The reduction of social provisions and the deputies essentially refusing to financially support low-income groups goes against the leftist ideas Grudinin adheres to and which he declares in his campaign platform. The messages of the KPRF candidate’s “20 Steps” obviously contradict Grudinin’s real actions…”

This is a theme that continues to crop up when examining the 20 Steps and looking at Grudinin’s history. The economic ramifications of the proposed reforms were derided by the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrey Movchan, who went through each of the steps and offered his opinion on what he called contradictions and impossibilities. His refutation of step number three is particularly illuminating. Here Grudinin promises to cut off the outflow of Russian capital abroad. Movchan says that to curb capital flight would mean effectively banning the dollar, which would wipe out Russian citizens’ savings. The black market would thrive. You can take such measures as shooting speculators, Movchan continues, but this would only increase black market activity, and encourage people to buy gold and move that abroad instead.

These words were retroactively prophetic. Grudinin has been dogged by claims of having numerous foreign accounts. Per Russian law, candidates must declare any foreign holdings. Shortly after registering, it turned out he had a couple of accounts abroad. The Russian Central Election Committee recently claimed he not only has 13 more accounts that he failed to close before registering his candidacy, but also five pounds of gold stashed in Switzerland. Economic and political volatility in Russia undoubtedly encouraged this move. Rather than explain his motives, however, Grudinin and the KPRF choose to deny the allegations. This calls into question his commitment to repatriating money and investing it for the good of the people.

Judging from Grudinin’s own words in various interviews, this last point is one he holds close to his heart. He always claims that all of his sovkhoz’s profits are reinvested into raising salaries and providing social services to his workers and their families on the sovkhoz. A 2011 report is especially useful for assessing his style of management, as the article is perhaps a more even-handed look at the Communist candidate given that it was written long before any presidential candidacy talk. Grudinin often mentions the wonderful services on his sovkhoz, and the benefits enjoyed by his workers. It’s clear he’s gone to great lengths to make life comfortable for them, but the article shows how much is decided by paternalism and the whims of the person in charge. He admits as much, comparing himself to a sheriff in small-town America, saying “If the person is good, then everything is alright. If they’re bad, then living is impossible.”

All of his behavior and actions indicate that his protest candidacy would not have translated into an administration that would change business as usual in the Russian economy or in the management of the state. Why then this disconnect between words and actions? During a candid moment in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, Grudinin spelled it out for us:I have one problem, you see, I was nominated by the KPRF, and therefore, my program has to be in line with the KPRF’s”. With the election finished, Grudinin is now free to pursue policies closer to his heart, especially if he runs for a less prominent position. The Communists have been thinking of running Grudinin for the Moscow governor’s office since at least 2013, and if the pictures are to be believed, a KPRF election observer recently found some of Grudinin’s agitational posters for the September gubernatorial elections. These were allegedly printed before Sunday’s presidential election, when the KPRF got its worst results ever on the national stage. Telegram rumors suggest that these results have tempered the party’s plans for Grudinin, as they feel that the governorship is now beyond his means. Regardless, whichever lesser political role he lands, his past actions mean he will be business as usual for Russian politics.

Christopher Moldes got his MA in Slavic and Eurasian Studies, and is a writer and translator living in the Washington, DC area in the United States.

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