Young Russian Politician Fights From The Bottom Up

Mar 19, 2012
Originally published on March 21, 2012 9:20 am

Russians continue to take to the streets to air their grievances against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But now, after Putin's election this month to a six-year term as president, the crowds number only in the hundreds — not the tens of thousands that turned out before the vote.

In the words of writer Boris Akunin, a popular speaker at the earlier rallies: "The civic movement has entered a new phase. The first phase, romantic and euphoric, is over."

Now is the time, Akunin says, for power to develop from the bottom up.

Starting Small

Indeed, some young Russians have decided to re-direct their energy into politics at the most local level. One of them is Maxim Motin, a fair-haired, well-groomed 28-year-old with a plan to transform his country, starting with apartment building entryways.

Motin has just been elected to a municipal council in Pechatniki, his working-class district in Moscow. He ran as an independent in this month's municipal elections and won a seat, along with about 70 other candidates supported by an opposition organization called Our City. More than a dozen of the new council members are under the age of 30.

"Six months ago, four months ago, it would have been impossible for me to go into politics, because it was closed," Motin says.

He assumed candidates from the ruling United Russia party would be shoo-ins. But he won, Motin says, because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev "made so many mistakes."

Motin recalls his anger in September when Medvedev announced that he and Putin would trade places so Putin could stay in power for six more years.

"I hate when someone from the government thinks that we're very stupid," he says. "We're not so stupid as they think."

Then came the December parliamentary election, tainted by evidence of widespread, brazen fraud.

Motin was mobilized; he worked as an election observer in Pechatniki during March's presidential vote, and he ran for the municipal council, which has a five-year term. When asked if he has a "five-year plan," he has a ready answer: "I have an 18-year plan. I want to be president of Russia."

But Motin is starting at the lowest rung of power, serving as one of the 1,500 unpaid municipal deputies.

Street Lights, Not Street Protests

On a recent day, the newly elected Motin strides up to a couple of older women standing in the courtyard of his building and introduces himself: "Hello, I'm Maxim Motin, your new deputy, do you have any requests?"

During the campaign, Motin visited more than 2,000 apartments. The women tell him they voted for him because he is "young, local and responsive." And they have plenty of requests, starting with the fact that they work as concierges at the apartment building and haven't been paid since they started the job in January. They all know Motin can't solve this problem, but he calls the management company that employs them anyway and gets the number of the person in charge.

The city gives the district a budget of $2 million a year. On a tour of Pechatniki, Motin zeroes in on the problems he thinks he can fix, like the street lights.

"Most of them don't work," he says, "it's very cheap ... I can do it."

Many residents have asked for a paved path from the road to the apartment complex, an inexpensive amenity. Motin wants to clean up apartment entryways — public areas Russians have traditionally left in a shocking state of neglect. He dreams of hiring a local mural artist to beautify Pechatniki's apartment blocks, many dating back to the communist era.

"I want to change psychology. People will see how nice it is [and won't litter]," he says.

The first priority for Motin — and the Pechatniki voters he wooed — is shutting down a sprawling cement factory. The plant has been fouling the air for years, but became a real nuisance when new high-rises went up just across the road. Motin says many children in the buildings suffer from asthma. A judge has already ordered it to close, so Motin is confident the community will prevail. The other blight he thinks he can get removed is an unlicensed kebab shop that attracts rats.

Motin has already met with the paid city manager responsible for Pechatniki, presenting a list of demands Motin heard over and over again when he was trolling for votes. He's confident he can get things done.

"I'm young, I have energy and I have my business," he says.

That business is a consulting firm called Football Market that advises big companies on how to sponsor soccer teams and organize tournaments. He also runs a soccer charity for needy children.

His private income, Motin says, will give him the independence needed to buck the powers-that-be. He says the Moscow municipal councils are packed with teachers and other public sector employees who depend on the government for their day jobs. He doesn't, so he says he won't be afraid to question cost overruns and apparent kickbacks.

"It's very bad for people that I can ask," he says. Motin says he's not afraid of exposing corruption and not afraid of reprisals by the tax police.

"I pay my taxes. My business is clean," he says.

Motin was one of the young stars showcased at a recent rally organized by Russian opposition's "Fair Elections" movement. He spoke for just over a minute, telling the crowds lining Moscow's Novy Arbat Street that he ran for office because he prefers action to slogans. For now, he certainly seems more focused on street lights than street demonstrations.

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This weekend, Russians took to the streets once again to air their grievances against their government, but the crowds numbered only in the hundreds or less, and that is nowhere near the tens of thousands who attended rallies in the months before the presidential election. Now that Vladimir Putin has been elected president, some young Russians have decided to work within the system.

NPR's Martha Wexler has this profile of one of them from Moscow.

MARTHA WEXLER, BYLINE: Maxim Motin is 28-year-old, fair-haired and well-groomed in a black overcoat. He was a star at a recent anti-Putin rally, which showcased some of the youthful delegates who unexpectedly won seats this month on municipal councils in Moscow.

MAXIM MOTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: Maxim told the thousands who lined Novy Arbat Street that he ran for local office because he prefers action to slogans. Days later, Maxim took NPR around Pechatniki, his working-class neighborhood dotted with socialist era flats. He talked about his political coming-of-age.

MOTIN: Six months ago, four months ago, it was impossible that I go to politics, because it was closed.

WEXLER: Even municipal assembly seats, nonpaid positions with no real power, seemed sewn up for the ruling United Russia Party. That is, until Maxim started hitting the pavement as an Independent.

MOTIN: I visited more than 2,000 flats, each evening during free hours and say hello, my name is Maxim Motin, please vote for me.

WEXLER: Two women he greets outside his own apartment building did vote for him. They work as concierges in the complex.

They like that he's young, local and seems responsive. He asked what they need and immediately hears that they haven't gotten paid in months by the management company they work for. This is way beyond his meager powers to solve, but he calls the company anyway.

MOTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: We hop into Maxim's Mitsubishi SUV and he points out the problems he believes he can fix; a sprawling cement factory that's fouled the air for years. It became a real nuisance when new residential high-rises went up just across the street.

MOTIN: Yes, it's very close. And you know, many young people, they have asthma.

WEXLER: Close down the cement factory was the first thing Maxim heard from the voters he wooed. This is doable, he says, since it only employs about 100 people and judges have already ruled that it should be shut.

Number two on the neighborhood wish list: he gestures to a row of streetlights.

MOTIN: Most of those lights don't work. It's very cheap. It's not so big money. I can do it.

WEXLER: He's confident he can succeed because unlike many of his fellow deputies in the municipal assembly...

MOTIN: I'm young. I have energy and have my business.

WEXLER: His business, called Football Market, advises big firms on how to sponsor soccer teams and organize tournaments. By contrast, most municipal assemblies in Moscow are packed with teachers and others who depend on the government for their day jobs, and shy away from tough questions. Maxim doesn't, so if he sees a repair that could be made for about 5,000 rubles, he won't be afraid to say...

MOTIN: Why you do it for 100,000? I can ask about it. And it's very bad for people that I can ask.

WEXLER: The ladies in the courtyard want him to keep a close eye on the neighborhoods $2 million budget from the city. He insists he's not afraid to expose corruption, but his parents do worry.

MOTIN: They just ask me be careful.

WEXLER: Maxim's electoral victory isn't the first event to bring the foreign press to Pechatniki. The bombing of an apartment house here in 1999 was one of the terrorist attacks that triggered Russia's Second Chechen War and consolidated Vladimir Putin's hold on power. Twelve years later, Putin's insistence on staying in power mobilized Maxim. He remembers the moment last September when President Dmitry Medvedev announced he would trade jobs with Putin.

MOTIN: I hate when somebody from the government thinks that we are very stupid. It's not true. We are not so stupid as they think.

WEXLER: Then came the apparent ballot box fraud in December's parliamentary election. Maxim and his friends monitored the polls in Pechatniki for the presidential vote, a civic duty many young Russians embraced.

Though Maxim's municipal assembly only meets once a month, he's determined to get some things done for his constituents by the summer. His term is five years. Maxim Motin has an 18-year plan.

MOTIN: I want to be a president of Russia.

WEXLER: But before he runs for president of Russia, he'll be focusing on streetlights, not street demonstrations.

Martha Wexler, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.