When Activists Become Elected Officials: Two Governance Strategies

Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
12 min readApr 18, 2021

PONARS Eurasia Online Workshop on Social Activism

Thanks to the PONARS scholars who so generously offered feedback that enlightened the piece.

Campaign materials for two non-systemic opposition candidates


The challenge facing the non-systemic opposition in Russia is how to grow. This article looks at the potential for growth through the prism of two Novosibirsk City Council Deputies who want major change but apply different governance styles. Sergey Boyko, Head of the Novosibirsk Navalny Headquarters, evokes a revolutionary strategy. This is manifest in both tone and objective to tear the system down as quickly as possible. Independent second term Deputy Natalia Pinus advocates evolution through a more risk averse pace and tone. Major change is also the goal but she believes that incremental changes are not only necessary but perhaps sufficient to facilitate the quality of life changes people want. There is evidence that small changes can generate increased voter support. There are also signs that the intransigence of the revolutionary approach leaves unexplored opportunities for incremental results.


There is a solid foundation for the non-systemic opposition to grow. Recent surveys reported 42% believe Russia is on the wrong track. In response to the question, “do government and public interests correspond?”, 75% responded “no” or “more no than yes”. However, these stats have hardly moved since 2018 when pension reform inspired shifts in attitudes and wrong track jumped from 27% to 42%. These reforms also made people more aggressive (46% to 57%) and less satisfied (54% to 48%).

President Putin still holds a solid 63% approval rating and maintains the top spot for trust with 31%. Levada Center’s Denis Volkov described the situation in a recent article, “Putin has sagged a lot, while the rest have practically not grown. There is still a wide gap between trust in Putin and all other politicians.”

Navalny and Boyko (Photo OM1.ru)

The non-systemic opposition is primarily identified as Alexei Navalny and he is their only representative on the Levada trust list with 4%. Support for Navalny’s work grew from 6% in 2013 to 19%, however increased recognition has also increased the number of those who do not support him from 35% to 56%. When asked what motivated people to participate in the “Free Navalny” protests, only 15% said it was support for Navalny’s activities. The primary rallying force at the “Free Navalny” protests was “accumulated dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country.”

Despite the recent headlines, protest, viral videos, and smart voting strategies the “protest” vote, defined as those who reported they would wreck their ballot, not vote, or weren’t sure if they would vote, has not decreased since 2018 to 29%. The non-systemic opposition needs to find a way to leverage this dissatisfaction and grow with or without Navalny.

Grigory Yudin, Professor of the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, suggested three possibilities to generate growth in such a “depoliticized situation”: linking what worries citizens to the political narrative, small organized groups, and projects. In the same article, Volkov also highlights projects, “In the field of civic engagement, something is really changing, new volunteers come to individual projects… but here we speak not of quantitative, but qualitative changes.”

Boyko and his wife arrive for a Mayoral campaign meeting in Akademgorodok

With vastly different tones, Boyko and Pinus apply these tactics in search of qualitative and quantitative results. A distant but second place finish in the 2019 Mayoral contest buoyed Boyko and three other Coalition 2020 candidates who were elected to the City Council. This is the first opportunity to see what governance by the Navalny forces looks like. After a disappointing 4th place Mayoral finish, Pinus expressed concerns with this approach, “I am afraid of the revolutionary approach, I see how people focus on provocations and I do not see that as productive.” In a more recent article she asked, “What should those who want change but don’t want revolution do?”

Evolution versus revolution was reflected in their Mayoral and City Council races. Boyko’s logo is a clenched fist grabbing a bridge and tall buildings and his slogan, “Boyko fights”. Pinus was a campaign game changer in 2015 holding meetings with constituents in courtyards. Her slogan, “Let’s choose a new Mayor”, accompanied a stunning black and white portrait of the candidate. These Deputies also represent different generations (Millennial vs. Gen X) and pathways to politics.

Boyko went from business to running for Regional Deputy in 2015. He and other members of the PARNAS coalition were denied registration. Several protested with a hunger strike that landed Boyko in intensive care. He subsequently focused on organizing protests against increases in housing fees and the pension age.

Pinus courtyard meeting during first City Council campaign

Pinus left business to volunteer as the head of a community foundation before running for City Council in 2015. She was a campaign game changer holding meetings with constituents in courtyards. As a Deputy, she was the first to present monthly reports on line and hold an open competition for how to spend money allocated for local projects. She also launched a major campaign to force the City to publicize the names of “doljniki”, companies that owe the City rent for public land.

The Situation

Nine of 50 City Council Deputies consider themselves “Independent”. They represent a range of ideas including the legendary activist Rotislav Antonov who was thrown out of Coalition 2020 because he believes “Crimea is ours”. There is also the League of Effectiveness Coalition with three members from one District that includes Igor Ukrainsev who ran for the Green Party. The headwinds they face are significant thanks to an alliance between the Communist Mayor and United Russia Governor (23 United Russia Deputies and eight Communists).

The following is a review of Boyko and Pinus strategic approaches to three major issues facing the Council in their first six months.

The Budget

Pinus announcement naming the doljniki

When the City Budget does not pass, the Mayor and Deputies are allowed to submit amendments. The system for formulating amendments is oppressively complicated but there was reason for optimism. After Pinus and Antonov’s five year battle, the Mayor released the names of “doljniki”. The list included information that 75% of those who owe more than $600,000 are bankrupt.

Coalition 2020 submitted three amendments as one, Boyko explained, “In 10 years not a single amendment was introduced and accepted. Today’s regulations do not allow me to submit amendments separately.”

· 45 million rubles from Mayor’s office PR to improve parks and squares;

· 50 million from City Council PR for the construction of a School in Boyko’s district;

· 50 million from the 72 million City Government auto park to purchase snow removal equipment.

Coalition 2020 Deputies

Boyko’s spirited presentation of the amendments included mocking an example of paid PR that rationalized the Council President’s right to turn off the microphone when an opposition Deputy, “who only demonstrates ignorance and impoliteness” is speaking. The Coalition promoted the amendments through a Change.org petition that gathered 5,764 signatures. These signatures were used to shame deputies who did not support them.

Natalia Pinus’s response was to set a precedent, “My goal is to test the mechanism so the amendments are not radical….I understand that if you suggest something radical…they won’t be supported and once again we don’t get to try the mechanism.”

· 10 million from the auto park and support accessibility in all ten City raions;

· 10 million from the 323 million holiday events to buy snow removal equipment;

· 1 million from the City Council’s PR to light a new stadium.

Everyone had an opportunity to present and debate the amendments. There was considerable press coverage and debate about not only the budget, but the need to change the amendment process. All the Mayor’s amendments passed, the opposition failed with 33 deputies voting to reject.

The spin was they failed “because the initiatives were similar, the costs of snow removal and the auto park and yet the deputies could not agree among themselves”. Levada’s Volkov highlighted this issue in a recent piece, “… this shows a weakness in alternative politicians…, they cannot unite and present their point of view to society… this is an indicator they do not have enough strength, means, or desire to act as a united front… For every independent politician it is important to earn some points of their own, rather than to act in solidarity.”

Mayor’s Annual Report

Novosibirsk Mayor Anatoly Lokot from Pinus post asking for criteria

The Mayor’s 2020 Annual Report was available to the public before the session. Pinus’s response focused on criteria, “There is NONE. They just say what they did, not why it was done, nothing, it isn’t connected to any strategy, just actions….conducted four sessions to support entrepreneurship, maybe there should have been eight or none…Criteria should reflects the RESULTS of this work.”

She also presented results from real evaluations with very specific indicators like percent of buildings in dangerous condition. In 2019, Novosibirsk was # 5 out of 5 for large municipalities. So far there is only one 2020 indicator reported, satisfaction with the Mayor. Novosibirsk is last out of 35 municipalities in the region with only 22% fully satisfied, the winner registered 94% satisfaction.

Boyko’s response was to launch a provocative on-line competition, “The 2020 Dynamic Slowing Down Award”. Voters were invited to choose the best from the Report in seven categories. Winners included:

Focus on Results!: In 2020 work was conducted to: organize the participation of representatives from the Mayor to attend the 10 Council session and more than 80 profile commission sessions.

Impressive Numbers: In 2020 housing conditions were improved for four veterans of the Great Patriotic War.

Results Were Achieved!: Despite all efforts, Novosibirsk has yet to appear on the list of cities where the urban environment is considered comfortable.

Natalia being written up for picketing, “If the Dimakova land was sold legally, then what awaits us next?”

Another one of Pinus’s major issues is Dimakova Square. After years of protests, petitions, and public hearings the Mayor assured this district of 40,000 people that the whole area, the only green space in a canyon of high rises, would be a public park. The day before the Mayor’s Report, Pinus appeared live on Facebook driving her car, “I just heard the Mayor sold half of Dimakova Square under market price without an auction”. This information was not included in the Annual Report.

Boyko being arrested

Boyko did not attend the session because he was in jail serving a 28 day sentence for organizing the Navalny protests. That did not keep him from posting daily as Coalition and Headquarters personnel hosted his weekly livestreams.

Prior to the session, the Mayor met with everyone except Independents. Boyko’s legally authorized representative was not allowed into the Hall for the session. Video of the tussle was posted on social media. The usual procedure is a two hour time limit for the Mayor to read the report, questions (1 minute), and answers (3 minutes). Towards the end of a presentation, Deputies sign up and the names appear on a screen.

Pinus went live on Facebook from the Hall to report United Russia secretly signed up for all the slots. Only Ukrainsev was able to slip in a comment, “…A simple secretary could collect the reports of all departments….and send them to the Deputies”. He ended addressing the Mayor directly cleaning up an impolite phase, “I understand ‘you don’t give a damn’ about the opinions of independent deputies and the assessments of Novosibirsk citizens but I hope you will listen to these assessments.” The three Coalition 2020 Deputies in the Hall walked out in protest before the vote. Pinus and Ukrainsev livestreamed their frustration after the session.

From Boyko livestream

The final vote was 34 for, five against, seven abstained, and three “not voting”. During Boyko’s fresh out of prison live-stream, he supported the decision to walk out. Several weeks later, the Mayor’s Office Monitoring Commission announced 15 criteria to evaluate the Mayor. Pinus commented on the announcement “Perhaps these criteria could be better, more precise, and detailed. The important thing is there are criteria.”

2030 Gen Plan

The Gen Plan is the template for land use. The current plan has been in place since 2007. The Dimakova Square scandal continued to rage up to the session. The machinations used to make the sale, the concrete on half the square was designated an object, went beyond the usual absurd. It was covered extensively in the press as well as on Pinus and Boyko livestreams. Pinus posted on Facebook that two United Russia Deputies lost in 2020 because one was for the sale and the other was not against it more actively. Prior to the session, Pinus was still awaiting a court date set after she and others were charged with illegal picketing.

Pinus and the League of Effectiveness members

Coalition 2020 and Pinus shared the position that the Plan needed to change but no amendments were legitimate without a public hearing. A 50 minute agenda was set to eliminate any opportunity for them to voice their concerns. Pinus requested an additional 20 minutes for discussion, the Council voted against it.

The initial vote was 43 for the Plan and five against (Coalition 2020 and Pinus). Other Independents voted to support believing that any change is better than no change. Boyko tried to force a delay of the required second vote by proposing an amendment. His microphone was turned off, he continued shouting, the Council Speaker’s microphone was on as he told Boyko to calm down and offered to give him a pill. Boyko highlighted his performance it during his weekly address.


Boyko campaigning for Mayor

Boyko believes, “Elections in Novosibirsk are elections for all of Russia… The capital cities Moscow and St. Petersburg have their electoral behavior and villages have theirs. Novosibirsk is the golden middle, how people vote in Novosibirsk, plus or minus, is how the rest of the country votes.” If this is true, the non-systemic opposition is growing and there is a lot going on in addition to Navalny. When Pinus was first elected she was one of two Independents, now there are nine.

The Novosibirsk non-systemic opposition Deputies agree on most local issues, they differ in personality and strategy. Pinus’s re-election provides some evidence of growth from her evolutionary approach. In 2015, she won with 26.13% and in 2020 it was 52.32%. Her District had more voters than any other and she got more votes than any other candidate.

Boyko’s You Tube channel has 23,000 subscribers. This and his other on-line tactics are informative, entertaining, and get a lot of hits, far more than any of Pinus’s live streams or interviews. But, there is a disconnect between hits and voting. Two weeks before the 2020 election the Navalny Novosibirsk corruption video dropped and it registered almost 5 million views. Only 36,615 people voted for the 31 Coalition 2020 candidates in a city of 1.5 million people.

Ending first campaign with son at the public park she helped create as Community Foundation head

Pinus has demonstrated her educational but less theatrical, relentless push can inspire small but important changes with the publication of the “doljniki” and the introduction of evaluation criteria for the Mayor. Boyko responded honestly and thoughtfully to livestream chat skeptics of his approach. One said he was “completely useless on the Council”. Boyko said he will do better reporting concrete results. Another wrote that he speaks very well but wondered how he works for the District. Boyko responded, “You need to ask my constituents”.

If the current dynamic continues, the ultimate judgement for Boyko and Pinus and their strategies will come in 2025. In the ideal world of local politics, there is a direct link between delivering for your constituents and votes. The challenging political environment these Deputies are operating in requires we go beyond assessing effectiveness in terms of votes and appreciate any gain in the direction of transparency and good governance. For example, they, along with other Independent Deputies, have already had a major impact on the understanding of what it means to be a public servant and how they should interact with their constituents.

The value in the different gifts Boyko and Pinus bring to the City is clear. On-line numbers indicate more people are paying attention, but will they vote? It is worth imagining a slightly flashier, less detailed Pinus and a more willing to compromise, less aggressive Boyko. Dimakova Square presents a real opportunity to strategically unite the positive qualities that evolution and revolution bring to the struggle. If Boyko is right that Novosibirsk is a bellwether for Russia, this could also provide a recipe for growth of the non-systemic opposition through loud and creative, but less combative, relentlessness that allows for compromise.



Sarah Lindemann-Komarova

Has lived in Siberia since 1992. Was a community development activist for 20 years. Currently, focuses on research and writing.