The millionaire farmer who’s running to lose against Putin
By: Anna MALPAS
A debonair businessman who boasts million-dollar earnings, Pavel Grudinin came as a surprise choice as Russia’s Communist candidate for president.
Nicknamed the “strawberry king”, the 57-year-old has a pick-your-own fruit farm and dairy herd on a chunk of valuable real estate on Moscow’s outskirts.
The grey-haired politician with his ready smile is the first fresh face in years to stand for the red-flag-waving party led by 73-year-old stalwart Gennady Zyuganov.
In a predictable March 18 presidential election, Grudinin is likely to be runner-up to President Vladimir Putin, though he lags far behind in state-run opinion polls at around seven percent.
He appears to have all the credentials for a Communist candidate: he runs an agribusiness named after Vladimir Lenin and has praised Stalin, to whom he bears a passing resemblance.
Yet he is not a member of the Communist party and much of his wealth comes from renting and selling highly valuable land bordering the Moscow ring road to hypermarkets.
“My earnings over the last six years were 157 million rubles (2.2 million euros, $2.7 million). I don’t earn badly,” he told reporters recently.
He hit controversy in March when the Central Electoral Commission ruled that he failed to declare Swiss bank accounts containing $1 million before registering his bid.
The commission finally ruled there were no grounds to deselect him but decided to display notices in polling stations saying he provided unreliable information.
Analysts see his role in the Kremlin scenario as boosting turnout — but not taking votes away from Putin.
Grudinin is willing to criticise policies but not the strongman himself.
“This is not a battle between people, it’s a battle of ideologies,” he said.
In the past he publicly supported Putin and even joined the ruling party.
– Lenin State Farm –
Communist leader Zyuganov has praised Grudinin for enacting socialist principles, from building a turreted Disney-style kindergarten to paying workers above-average wages.
The Sovkhoz Imeni Lenina, or Lenin State Farm, covers a whole district, entered through elaborate gates decorated with strawberry motifs.
Zyuganov calls it a “territory of social optimism”.
Inside are strawberry sculptures, a cafe called Berry and street lights in the shape of the red berry.
The farm was founded in 1918 as a showcase for Soviet agriculture. In 1995, it became a limited company with Grudinin as director.
Journalists on a recent tour were shown how he has modernised the operation, with lasers zapping cows’ udders in an automated Dutch milking parlour.
Profits are ploughed back into community facilities that look much better than state-provided ones.
At the school that opened last year, children study computer modelling and Ancient Greek democracy while the spotless kindergarten has a whole room of Lego.
Grudinin may be a “capitalist”, but his treatment of workers and the local community play well with Communists too, said political analyst Konstantin Kalachev.
Communist MP Valery Rashkin insisted there was “no schism” in the party over Grudinin’s candidacy, calling him “our man, flesh of our flesh”.
– ‘Negative stuff and dirt’ –
Grudinin is a “dark horse” and the only candidate who could do better than the Kremlin intends, analyst Andrei Kolesnikov from the Carnegie Moscow Center told Vedomosti business daily.
According to state pollster VTsIOM, Grudinin’s public support stood at 7.1 percent in early March, while Putin’s was 69.7 percent.
At the start of the year 73.8 percent of respondents had said they would back the Kremlin strongman.
The downward trend for Putin prompted a wave of hostile coverage of Grudinin in pro-Kremlin media, his supporters say.
“It’s going badly,” said MP Rashkin, complaining that “everyone has turned on Grudinin and they’re chucking negative stuff and dirt at him”.
He said this came after Grudinin’s rise in popularity “prompted fear and dismay in Putin’s campaign office”.
He suggested Grudinin could get 30 percent and force Putin into a second round — a scenario the Kremlin wants to avoid at all costs.
– ‘Heavy artillery’ –
The use of “the state’s heavy artillery”, including television, points to the involvement of Putin’s minders, wrote journalist Oleg Kashin.
For analyst Kalachev, the media campaign reflects Kremlin fears Grudinin could perform well, particularly with women voters.
Grudinin could also win some anti-Putin protest votes, he added, with top opposition leader Alexei Navalny barred from standing and urging a boycott of the election.
Like Navalny, Grudinin has wooed young people.
He recently gave an interview to popular video blogger Yury Dud that has been viewed more than five million times.
The Kremlin is torn over Grudinin, said Kalachev.
“On the one hand, they need a good turnout and Grudinin can bring new voters to the polls. On the other hand, if he bites off any of Putin’s share, they’ll have to scupper him.”
Grudinin is rumoured to be aiming for the job of Moscow regional governor and needs to stay on the Kremlin’s good side by gaining no more than 15 percent of the vote, Kalachev said.
“It’s in no one’s interests for his campaign to mar the election result for Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) or to take anyone’s vote away from him.”