“We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Ekaterina Schulman

Ekaterina Schulman. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Ekaterina Schulman on Why You Should Vote
Anya Chesova and Natasha Fedorenko
The Village
September 16, 2016

This Sunday, September 18, the country will vote for a new State Duma, the seventh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of this vote is that it will take place under a mixed electoral system for the first time since 2003. 225 MPs will be elected to five-year tears from party lists, while the other 225 MPs will be elected from single-mandate districts. Several days before the elections, The Village met with Ekaterina Schulman, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). We talked with her about why you should vote if United Russia is going to win in any case, as well as about the changes in store for the Russian political system in the coming years.


The Upcoming Elections

The Village: On Sunday, the country will hold the first elections to the State Duma since 2011. The social climate in the city and the country as a whole has changed completely since that time. Protests erupted in 2011, and the people who protested on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue believed they could impact the political situation. Nowadays, few people have held on to such hopes. What should we expect from the upcoming elections? And why should we bother with them?

Ekaterina Schulman: Everything happening now with the State Duma election is a consequence of the 2011–2012 protests, including changes in the laws, the introduction of the mixed system, the return of single-mandate MPs, the lowering of the threshold for parties to be seated in the Duma from seven to five percent, and the increased number of parties on the ballot. These are the political reforms outlined by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as a response to the events of December 2011. Later, we got a new head of state, but it was already impossible to take back these promises. The entire political reality we observe now has grown to one degree or another out of the 2011–2012 protest campaign, whether as rejection, reaction or consequence. It is the most important thing to happen in the Russian political arena in recent years.

The statements made by Vyacheslav Volodin, the president’s deputy chief of staff, on the need to hold honest elections, Vladimir Churov’s replacement by Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission, the departure of someone more important than Churov from the CEC, deputy chair Leonid Ivlev, and the vigorous sacking of chairs of regional electoral commissions are all consequences of the protests. If they had not taken place, nothing would have changed. We would still have the same proportional voting system, the same seven-percent threshold, the same old Churov or Churov 2.0. Continue reading ““We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Ekaterina Schulman”

Ivan Ovsyannikov: A Wake-Up Call for the Regime

“United Russia. No. 4 [on the ballot]. We hear people. We can get it done.” Photo courtesy of Surkovian Propaganda

Ivan Ovsyannikov
A Wake-Up Call for the Regime
Anticapitalist.ru
September 19, 2016

The most inappropriate reaction to these so-called elections is disenchantment with their outcome. Was anyone really enchanted by them? I can understand the pessimism of moderate liberals, for whom the procedure of voting is democracy’s alpha and omega, but a “constitutional change of power” is the ultimate political daydream. Even smart liberals must realize the Duma is not a parliament, and Russia is not a republic. What, then, are we to make of elections to a body that does not form the cabinet, cannot impeach the president, and, most important, gave up any pretensions to power long ago? What is demonstrated by so-called elections to a body in whose necessity over forty percent of respondents have doubts, according to opinion polls? What does it mean when people vote for parties that in their vast majority are flimflam organizations imitating political pluralism?

Nothing sounded more out of tune in the opposition’s rhetoric of recent months than the campaign slogans of liberals, hoping to cross the five-percent threshold, about effecting a “change of power” by dropping a ballot into a ballot box. Perhaps the statement made by Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Russian Central Electoral Commission, that she was “really, really sorry” not a single non-parliamentary party made it into the Duma, reflects not only her own opinion but also that of her bosses. A few rebellious voices would not have harmed a body one of its former speakers infamously dubbed “not a place for discussion.” They would have made the bureaucracy’s imitation of democracy slightly more believable.

But let us get back to the question of what these so-called elections show us. Maybe, at least, they are a cross section of public opinion, a sincere manifestation of confidence in the regime or, as the opposition is fond of claiming, an index of the populace’s “zombification”? No, they are none of these things, and that, perhaps, is the most troubling news for the ruling elite.

If, after several years of severe economic crisis, and amidst a record-low turnout, a party headed by an unpopular prime minister garners even more votes than it did in 2011, it means that elections to the Duma have finally shed their remaining links with any known social reality. It would be more soothing for the Kremlin if the votes had been divvied up more evenly among the four pro-regime parties. That would have been a sign of confidence in the political system. If Russians had sought an alternative within the current system by voting for the Communists or any other pro-Kremlin party that would have told us that faith in the Putin regime is indeed strong.

But people who vote for United Russia in 2016 are not voting for the government’s policies, the annexation of Crimea or even Putin. They vote not because they expect the elections will change things for the better, and not because they are blinded by propaganda or are especially fond of government officials. They fear a change for the worse and take part in a pre-programmed ritual, thus hoping to prevent the collapse of their usual lives. In its own way, this choice is rational, although it smacks of pessimism and conservatism. People are clinging with all their might to a crumbling stability. But what will happen when there is nothing more to cling to?

Turnout to Duma Elections by Year
1993 – 54%
1995 – 64%
1999 – 61%
2003 – 55.7%
2007– 59%
2011– 60%
2016 – 48%

 

Some of the voters who did not go to the polls could have been guided by similar motives. It would be wrong to interpret high absenteeism unambiguously as passive protest. The majority realizes nothing actually depends on Duma elections. Superstitiously, involuntarily or habitually, some partake in this ritual exorcism of hardship and troubles. Others fail to partake in the ritual out of laziness, apathy or contempt. Only an indoctrinated minority literally believes in the campaign slogans.

So the only information the powers that be and we can extract from the election results is that the country is not in the midst of a revolution, and the supplies of public apathy on which the system depends have not run out yet. But as a tool of political leverage, a reflection of the confidence the masses have in the ruling class, and even as a means of studying public opinion, the Duma elections have shown their uselessness. Like routine vote rigging, their outcome is an indication of Putinism’s degradation as a political system rather than its stability.

socresist_knsnjnkbt84-jpg-ecfbe02aa410465c66e5c5c5f251a5e3Ivan Ovsyannikov is a writer, union activist, member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD), and editor of Trade Union Navigator (Profsoiuznyi navigator), the newspaper of the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (MPRA). Translated by the Russian Reader. Previously published on LeftEast

Watching the Watchers

Sveta Erpyleva after finishing her 24-hour shift as elections observer in the wee hours of Monday morning. Photo courtesy of the author
Sveta Erpyleva after finishing her 24-hour shift as an elections observer in the wee hours of Monday morning. Photo courtesy of the author

Sveta Erpyleva
Watching the Watchers
September 20, 2016

I want to articulate a few ideas about the practice of working as an elections observer from a slightly different perspective than people usually write about it. In my view, there are two things that make the practice attractive to many of us.

The first thing is the indescribable feeling of belonging to an anonymous community, a team of strangers involved in an important cause. Such communities are nearly absent in our everyday lives. We have friends and families, but that is not the same thing, of course. We have colleagues and people who share our interests. We might not know them personally, either, but we never come together with them to touch on something that affects the entire country. In this case, however, over the course of twenty-four hours we experience the same events and emotions as hundreds of other observers in different parts of the country. We share our impressions with each other in comments sections on social networks, we all stay awake for days on end, and together we quarrel with members of electoral commissions. It is a very unusual and powerful sensation. I think many people have experienced it, whether they were aware of it or not.

The second thing is the chance to feel we are not couch potato dissidents or whatever it is called, but real citizens, conscientious citizens. We voluntarily get up early in the morning, we wrestle with a large group of people on our lonesome, and we struggle mightily with fatigue. And then, naturally, we write about it, hearing in reply all sorts of compliments from loved ones and acquaintances. But that is what we expected to hear, isn’t it?

In connection with these two things, I think it is important we be aware of the following. An anonymous political community is groovy, but sometimes it is not worth getting carried away with it. Are we certain we want the exact same things as the conscientious, get-up-and-go people who seem so much like us on elections day?

I chatted with a pleasant, conscientious young man who, like me, had come of his own free will to work as an observer at my polling station. Nope, his way was not my way, I discovered. We wanted different things.

As for the second thing, it is quite simple to selflessly surrender twenty-four hours of your life to “civil society” once every two or three years and then hear lots of nice things about yourself. Meanwhile, there are people in our midst who selflessly give up several hours every day to political struggles and social activism. Ninety-five percent of that time vanishes into the mist, because that is the nature of modern politics. These people do not get any doughnuts in the guise of society’s approval for ninety-five percent of their work. I admire people like this if their views are congenial to mine rather than people who have worked as election observers. Sorry.

I am not saying you should not go work as an elections observer. I did it myself, and I imagine I will go and do it the next time round. What I mean to say is that, first and foremost, we should not look at ourselves through rose-colored glasses.

Sveta Erpyleva is a sociologist who works at the PS Lab (Public Sociology Laboratory) in Petersburg. This past Sunday, she volunteered as an elections observer at a polling station in the city’s Central District. My thanks to her for allowing me to translate and publish her remarks here.

A Guide for the Perplexed Russian Voter

A Voter’s Strategy
Grigorii Golosov
Polit.ru
September 6, 2016

Campaigning on the streets of Moscow, August 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Kirill Zykov and Moscow City News Agency

Compared with previous elections to the Duma, the parliamentary elections scheduled in Russia for September 18, 2016, have a number of peculiarities. And it is not only because the elections will be held under a mixed system, proportional and majoritarian simultaneously. The 2016 election campaign is different from all previous campaigns.

Grigorii Golosov, a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, talked to Polit.ru about the unusual aspects of the current election campaign, its likely outcome, and alternative scenarios and strategies that the politically active segment of society should keep in mind.

It is obvious what is unusual about these elections: they are taking place in September rather than December. They were not scheduled for September accidentally, of course, but to things easier for United Russia.

The election campaign has gone completely unnoticed. In addition, it is quite short compared with the campaigns we have had earlier. It is completely obvious [the regime] is counting on the fact that it will fail to catch voters’ attention at all.

Campaigning on the streets of Moscow, August 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Kirill Zykov/Moscow City News Agency

This means people are basically expected not to have political motivations to vote in these elections. What motivations could they have if they simply know nothing about the elections or who is running in them? This, in turn, means the people organizing the election campaign are counting on the fact that the bulk of voters will be people who are obliged to vote for one reason or other, or have a material stake in voting.

We essentially know what segments of the populace these are: employees of state-funded organizations; pensioners; and employees of certain major enterprises where management may be able to influence how they vote. Since their reasons for going to vote are so unpolitical, they will vote as they are told to vote, meaning for United Russia.

Voting during United Russia’s primaries in Khabarovsk, May 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of United Russia

Given such a scenario, it follows that United Russia will receive a substantial majority. I think this year they won’t go after the really big numbers that you can achieve only by falsifying the turnout. Probably, however, the optimal scenario for the authorities would involve United Russia’s getting fifty to fifty-five percent of the proportional vote according to party lists.

In addition, it is already clear, given the fact that the electoral districts are mainly controlled by the regional authorities, that United Russia will also get an overwhelming majority of the seats in the [single-mandate] districts. Thus, in tandem with their numbers in the proportional voting part of the ballot, United Russia will again be able to control the Duma completely and reliably support the legislation drafted by the presidential administration and the government.

The alternative scenario would consist in more people coming out to vote, and some of them coming out for political reasons.

Frankly speaking, even those people who support Vladimir Putin have no particular political motivation to vote for United Russia, because Dmitry Medvedev is heading the party in these elections. He bears no responsibility for foreign policy, whose successes have been trumpeted constantly. Both Medvedev and United Russia are linked in voters’ eyes with domestic policy and, thus, with the economic situation in Russia. A considerable part of Russian society now senses that it is getting worse.

Dmitry Medvedev meeting with pensioners in Lipetsk on August 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of United Russia

However, many parties involved in these elections exhibit no less loyalty to Putin and his foreign policies than United Russia does, and under these circumstances, politically motivated voters have no particular incentive to vote for the ruling party.

We should also not forget that support even for Putin’s foreign policy is not universal in Russia, and pollsters have always recorded a fairly considerable group of people who do not support this policy in any way and oppose Putin. Strategically, the current election campaign is meant to discourage this segment of Russian voters from going out to vote at all. They have been sent a variety of signals to the effect that voting is pointless, the elections are pointless, and they had better stay home.

Will it work? It is quite likely that it will, and so I find United Russia’s optimistic scenario more plausible. However, there will undoubtedly be a certain number of politically motivated voters turning out for the elections. How many votes the United Russia list will garner in proportional voting will depend on this number.

Regardless of the published opinion poll results, the spread could be quite wide. I would suggest somewhere between forty percent (in the event that the turnout of political motivated voters is quite high) and fifty-five percent. But this will have no significant impact on the makeup of the State Duma, because in any case it will be controlled through the single-mandate MPs.  Besides, many parties who might get votes from politically motivated voters are not likely to clear the five-percent barrier for entering the Duma.

However, precisely because the outcome of these elections are politically unimportant in terms of controlling the State Duma, they could be politically important as a demonstration of Russian society’s attitude toward the authorities in general, meaning the attitude of its politically engaged segment. In this sense, I would argue opposition-minded voters should understand they can reduce United Russia’s vote total, thus showing it does not enjoy unanimous support, or they can increase it by not coming out to vote.

What should they do if they do come out to vote?  If they do not dislike it intensely, they can vote for the party that has adopted a directly oppositional stance, i.e., for PARNAS. Or they can vote for a party that, while generally deferent to the authorities, exercises this deference in a particular way, i.e., for Yabloko.

PARNAS on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy of Alla Naumcheva and PARNAS

Taking into account what I have said about small parties not clearing the five-percent barrier, voters can, nevertheless, vote for the small parties. If, for whatever reason, they definitely do not feel like voting for either PARNAS or Yabloko, they can vote for other small parties, even if they do not particularly like them.

It would probably be pointless to vote for parties who have no chance of garnering votes, but there is a limited number of minor parties that have some chances. I would identify the Communists of Russia, the Pensioners Party, the Party of Growth, and, possibly, Motherland. I have mentioned Motherland partly because there is nationalist feeling within society, and party because they ended up in the first slot on the voting ballot. During the free elections that took place in Russia in the 1990s, first place in the voting ballot always gave the party listed there a palpable bonus of about one percent of the vote.

Communists of Russia campaigner handing out the party’s pamphlets. Kirov Region, September 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of comros.info

It is not a matter of whether these parties are decent or not. During these elections, if they espouse genuinely oppositional views, the strategy of politically motivated voters should be based not on facilitating a particular candidate’s victory or impacting the breakdown of mandates. (From this point of view, it does not matter who gets into the Duma.) Their strategy should be based only on showing the policies now pursued by the Russian authorities do not enjoy unanimous support. And this can be achieved by doing what I have talked about.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Living Levada Loca

Komar & Melamid, Russia's Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation
Komar & Melamid, Russia’s Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation

The Picture Is Going to Get Prettier
Greg Yudin
Vedomosti
September 6, 2016

The latest attack on the Levada Center (this past Monday, the organization was labeled a “foreign agent”) provoked a justified outcry from people in various parts of the ideological spectrum, from the center’s friends competitors, and opponents. The formal basis of the attack was the insane law that punishes people and organizations for something that should be rewarded. If Russia wants to be strong in academic research, then here were researchers who collaborated with serious foreign partners. (The University of Wisconsin, with whom the Levada Center had been working, has traditionally been a powerhouse in sociology.) Worse, the law construes “political activity” as something unsavory right at a time when Russia really needs to awaken an interest in politics, and any NGO willing to study the dynamics of political life in Russia deserves all the encouragement it can get.

The Russian Ministry of Justice can paralyze the operations of one of the country’s three major public opinion polling factories one and half weeks before national and regional parliamentary elections on September 18. In this case, the elections will be held with a newly configured polling industry, which has not changed for a long time. Putting our emotions aside, however, the assault on the Levada Center seems unexpected. For the past decade, the organization has objectively worked to maintain the current regime’s legitimacy.

The public opinion research field, a field once populated by many players, was purged by the Kremlin ten years ago, leaving only three companies standing. Two of them, FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) and VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) are substantially affiliated with the Kremlin, since they are wholly dependent on the commissions they regularly receive from the presidential administration and other government agencies. The Levada Center, on the contrary, has been financed independently of the Kremlin, and the liberal views of its senior staff have put the company almost in political opposition to the current regime. Yet the outcomes of the Levada Center’s polls have rarely diverged from the data published by its colleagues and competitors. The numbers adduced by all three pollsters have usually generated a sense of broad or overwhelming support for everything the authorities do, however aggressive and irrational it sometimes might appear.

Praise from the enemy is worth twice as much, especially if it is voiced publicly. Vladimir Putin has confessed on several occasions that polls mean a lot to them, and when the Levada Center records public support for him, this is proof the support is undeniable. Look, even our opponents are forced to admit the people are behind us, the regime’s supporters say time and again. These same people sincerely believe research results depend on who pays for the research.

Research studies, however, are much more complicated, and the results of Levada Center’s polls have had nothing to do with the political stance of its executives. Instead, they are stipulated by the way polls are conducted. In daily life, Russians show little interest in politics, so if you deluge them with a wave of news reports about some issue of little importance to them, such as relations with Turkey, and then ask them the next day whether we should be afraid of Turkey, they will respond in good faith based on the information they got the day before. With few exceptions, the Levada Center has humbly tackled the political agenda set by television, and asked the same questions as the other pollsters, questions focused on this agenda, predictably garnering nearly the same outcomes as the other pollsters. However, the center’s alleged oppositional status made the answers more important for the authorities and, at the same time, indirectly increased the credibility of the other companies. The depressive antidemocratic discourse about the stupid, aggressive common people with which the middle classes have been spooking each other nationwide has largely been the product of the Levada Center’s poll numbers, even if the outcome was unintentional.

You need a good reason to shoot the goose that has been laying golden eggs. What compelled the authorities to break off a piece of the rigging propping up its legitimacy? I should explain right off the bat how the Levada Center does actually differ from the other two major Russian pollsters. The difference has nothing to do with honesty or professionalism. The myth that one group of sociologists does honest work, while the two others fake the numbers is not even worth discussing seriously, and yet they all get the same results.

What matters much more is the fact that the Levada Center does not get commissions from the Kremlin. The Kremlin cannot tell it what questions to ask and what results to make public. We should not forget the poll results reported in the Russian media are only the poll results the client has allowed them to publish. The client can impose a temporary or permanent veto on publication of the results. The media’s picture of public opinion thus passes through two powerful filters nowadays. First, the client imposes on the polling organizations the subjects for which he is willing to pay, and then he decides what information he would like to make available to the public. The Kremlin can easily ban publishing results that shatter the image of monolithic public support for its decisions, and it has often done this.  It has no such power over the Levada Center, although in recent times it has not needed it, since the company has not produced polling data that would put the Kremlin in a vulnerable position.

Polling data has been long the main fodder from which Russians shape their notions about the balance of power at election time and decide how to vote. The numbers act like a tranquilizer, persuading voters not to waste time and energy by getting involved in elections whose outcome is clear in any case. Simultaneously, they send a signal up and down the power vertical about how much “slack” needs to be made up at the local voting precincts. The main thing is not diverge to too radically from the polls. If the Kremlin has had to break with this way of doing things on the eve of the elections, it means the independent player had become too dangerous. The mirror reflected something that forced the Kremlin to throw a stone at it.

If the Levada Center is forced to suspend operations, the credibility of poll numbers will drop, and the client will increase pressure on the remaining players. We will have to treat the polling numbers we see before and after the elections with a bigger grain of salt. If before, the public was shown only the pretty half of the picture, while the ugly was hidden from it, now it will see even less of the picture.

Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg: How Low Can You Go?

Elections to the State Duma and regional legislative assemblies throughout the country are scheduled for September 18, and the campaign, such that it is, is in full swing. Journalist and Yabloko Party member Boris Vishnevsky has behaved the way a real city councillor should during his first four years representing part of Petersburg’s giant Central District. So it is no wonder the ruling party, United Russia, has taken aim at him by running a loyalist like Maria Shcherbakova, longtime head of the Central District, against him in the city’s second single-mandate electoral district. And her campaign, it would seem, is pulling out all the dirty stops, confident it will never ever have to pay for its crimes. TRR

"Opposition candidate Boris Vishnevky.

“Opposition candidate Boris Vishnevsky. Residents of the Central District! I must become a deputy in the [St. Petersburg] Legislative Assembly. To make this happen, transfer 1,000 rubles to my special election campaign account. Account no. 40810810956049000026.” The fine print in this counterfeit campaign poster creates the impression the poster was ordered by Vishnevsky himself and lists other fake details, such as the print run and the name of the print planting where the poster was, allegedly, printed, along with its address.

_________

Boris Vishnevsky
Facebook
August 26, 2016

WARNING: FAKE!

Friends and colleagues, especially those of you from the Central District:

The district has been pasted with fake ads, allegedly endorsed by me, suggesting that people transfer money to my election campaign account.

I think this is a reaction to my complaints against illegal campaigning on behalf of Maria Shcherbakova, United Russia’s candidate [for the seat in the Legislative Assembly currently held by Vishnevsky] and head of the Central District. Likely as not, the fake were posted early in the morning by employees of the housing and maintenance service. By the way, the number of the election campaign account is fake too, of course.

There is nothing surprising about this, friends. They don’t know how to campaign any other way and they won’t do it.

Complaints have been filed with the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the Municipal Electoral Commission.

First, don’t believe fakes.

Second, this is proof I have real support from people, and city hall is scared of me.

Third, when you see something like this, call my campaign headquarters immediately at +7 967 596 5021.

Maximum repost. People should be aware of dirty campaign tricks.

Translated by the Russian Reader

_________

But that is definitely not how low the regime can go. That was just a party trick, so to speak.

Meanwhile, some more productive Petersburgers have produced this nifty map of the city’s subway system. Unlike all other maps of the system, and there have been plenty since it went online in 1955, this one shows the depths, in meters, of all the stations in the subway.

The deepest, at 86 meters, is Admiralteiskaya, a relatively new station, opened in 2011, and located near Palace Square and the Hermitage, as well as, naturally, the Admiralty.

What do Petersburgers do as they ascend and descend the long escalators that take them down into and up out of the underground, rides that can take over five minutes in the most profound cases? Well, they do lots of things, including reading, chatting, meditating, listening to music, etc. One thing they are not doing a lot of, I am afraid, is thinking about the upcoming elections. But that is no accident, just as it was no accident all those fake Vishnevsky campaign posters were plastered all over downtown. TRR

spb-metro depths

Source: VKontakte; thanks to Comrade DE and others for the heads-up

Alexander Zamyatin: Three and a Half Theses on the Elections

Three and a Half Theses on the Elections
Alexander Zamyatin
Anticapitalist.ru
July 24, 2016

Thesis No. 0: The Obvious
The parliament in Russia has been reduced to such a condition there is no point in talking about a hypothetical leftist faction or a group of MPs from single-mandate electoral districts tabling or blocking law bills independently of the presidential administration. If there has been anything consistent about the political reforms of the past fifteen years, it is that legislative bodies, the Duma foremost among them, have been stripped of the power to influence the government’s social and economic policies, even despite their formally voting budgets up or down.

The elections to the Seventh State Duma are not a chance to transform the political regime or even have an impact on it.

The entire campaign is controlled to a lesser or greater extent by the presidential administration’s Office for Domestic Policy. The leaders of the current Duma factions have long ago left no doubt as to the complete absence of conflict within parliament. Even such a harmless identity as “systemic opposition” has taken a backseat to rallying round the president by way of combatting the “fifth column.”

1000_d_850Boris Titov. Photo courtesy of Rossiyskaya gazeta

This stricture applies as well as to the Party of Growth (Partiya Rosta) and its leader Boris Titov, the federal commissioner for the rights of entrepreneurs. The handiwork of spin doctors, the party’s emergence has marked the utter degeneration of the idea of founding an independent right-wing party, a project that has dragged on since the late nineties in shape of parties such as Boris Nemtsov and Nikita Belykh’s Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Leonid Gozman and Mikhail Prokhorov’s Right Cause (Pravoe delo). The fortunes of the Party of Growth’s forerunners have been telling: they immediately fell apart, absorbed by the so-called Crimean consensus.

Despite the transparency of the schemes involved, any conversation about parties and elections has to begin with these textbook truths, not only because they are not obvious to many people but also because certain actors in this process, including people comfortable with leftist ideas, call them into question by the way they behave.

Thesis No. 1: The Possible
A considerable number of the Kremlin’s actions in domestic and foreign policy over the past five years has been aimed at preventing the recurrence of the events surrounding the 2011 parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that, in retrospect, the White Ribbon rallies and Marches of the Millions seem harmless, they were an unprecedented challenge to the Putin regime, a challenge that, moreover, meshes perfectly with the ruling elite’s view of the world.

The ouster of spin doctor extraordinaire Vladislav Surkov and his projects for building “sovereign” democracy and preventing the “orange threat” by establishing quasi-fascist youth movements, and his replacement by the hard and taciturn Vyacheslav Volodin as domestic policy chief were obvious reshuffles meant to be read literally. During Putin’s third term, not even the pretense of political liberalism must remain.

This would seemingly contradict the preservation of certain liberal gains in the realm of electoral law made during Dmitry Medvedev’s single term as president: reduction of the electoral threshold for parties hoping to enter the Duma from 7% to 5%; the return of the mixed voting system, with 225 seats (out of a total of 450) up for grabs in single-mandate districts; and a reduction of the number of members required to officially register a party (from 50,000 to 500). But attempts by the independent right-wing liberal opposition to run in “warm-up” regional elections in 2013-2015 have shown that everything remains under the Kremlin’s total control.

Moving the date of the Duma elections from November to September reveals one of the regime’s main wagers: the election campaign should be as inconspicuous and cushy as possible for all vetted candidates, and the turnout on voting day must be minimal. Previously, parliamentary elections immediately preceded the presidential election, but now, finally, the figure of the president has been detached from the bureaucratic and political body of the country with all its shortcomings.

Should we expect independent candidates in the single-mandate districts who are capable of taking advantage of the simplified electoral procedures, as described above? Hardly. To get his or her name on the ball0t, an independent candidate has to collect the signatures of at least 3% of voters in the district. (Until 2003, they were required to collect the signatures of 1% of all voters and put up a cash surety.) In reality, this amounts to collecting the signatures of 5-6% of all voters in the district [because local electoral commissions make a habit of invalidating large numbers of signatures—TRR], meaning tens of thousands of signatures.

The only legal loophole for independent candidates is to run in single-mandate districts as the nominees of parties, which are not required to collect signatures. This applies to parties that hold seats in the Duma or one of the regional legislatures. All other parties must collect around 200,000 signatures to be registered in the elections. There are only fourteen such parties among the seventy-seven parties registered in the country.

Thesis No. 2: The Unlikely
The right-wing liberal opposition’s march to the elections using the slain Boris Nemtsov’s mandate as an MP in the Yaroslavl Regional Parliament was frustrated after the Democratic Coalition’s primaries proved a failure, with only a tenth of the planned 100,000 participants registering to vote.  The infighting that ensued ended with the dubious, to put it mildly, ex-PM Mikhail Kasyanov being joined on the PARNAS list by the extreme right-wing populist blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev, who is totally at odds with the party’s moderate electorate, and Professor Andrei Zubov, famously sacked from MGIMO (Moscow State Institute for International Relations) for his anti-regime remarks about Crimea, but a man who is otherwise given to alternately spouting liberal truisms or utter monarchist nonsense. That is all you need to know about the Democratic Coalition at present.

yavlin1_1428604380Grigory Yavlinsky. Photo courtesy of Polit.ru

The only source of intrigue in these elections has, perhaps, been the good old Yabloko Party. For the first time, the party has supported independent politicians from outside the party’s central apparatus, thus benefiting from the collapse of the Democratic Coalition. Yabloko’s willingness to blur its identity both on the right (there are members of Democratic Choice of Russia among Yabloko’s single-mandate candidates) and the left, has given hope to many opposition castaways. At the same time, Yabloko has proposed a strategic deal to everyone who has asked the party’s help in getting access to state campaign financing. Grigory Yavlinsky will need broad support in the 2018 presidential election.

Basically, the intrigue boils down to how honest Yavlinsky and Co. are in their intentions to give the regime a fight and compete with Putin in the presidential election. The first answer that comes to mind would question their independence. The party has been perfectly integrated into the system since 1999 (or even 1996). Party functionaries are kept on a short lease by state financing, and access to national media leaves no doubt as to the existence of an agreement between Yavlinsky and the presidential administration or the president himself.

Yet a more cunning answer is possible as well. Yablokov’s moderateness gives it a tactical advantage over opposition politicians who held the bar high for radicalism in 2012 and are now political outsiders driven to the verge of legality. We will be able to clarify which of these hypotheses is closer to the truth after the elections.

Be that as it may, these parties have been talking seriously about overcoming the five percent barrier and forming a faction in the Duma. Is this possible without a serious mobilization of the protest electorate?

Thesis No. 3: The Imperative
What does the radical left have to do with any of this? The paradox of the situation in which we find ourselves is that while our programs and main slogans answer to the interests of tens of millions of people in Russia (and, in a sense, of the entire society), our campaigning hardly goes beyond a few thousand people. We are excluded from the political process, which is now dominated by anti-popular and, sometimes, simply dangerous forces.

The fact that Russia lacks a full-fledged bourgeois parliamentary democracy sometimes leads people to draw the false conclusion that the country lacks a political process. Of course, it is imitated to a considerable degree by constructs, controlled by the presidential administration, that imitate pluralism in hysterical debates with Alexander Prokhanov and Vladimir Solovyov on national TV. But the very origins of these costly imitations, cultivated for years on end, indicates the presence of political antagonism, in which there are, at least, two sides: the current elite, playing to maintain the status quo, and the active segment of society, opposed to the elite and trying to organize alternatives.

Another common mistake appears at this point in the otherwise correct argument that the right-wing liberal opposition offers no real alternatives and stands programmatically for the very same neoliberal reforms as the regime. Trading the Putinist elite for someone from the opposition, such people argue, would not entail any consequences for the country except, perhaps, the flagrant acceleration of the selfsame unpopular economic reforms.

This claim completely ignores the real state of affairs, in which the loss of power by the Putinist elite (even under a smooth and sophisticated transfer of power to someone from outside that elite) would be tantamount to its death.

Whoever came to power afterwards, the chance to make public the details of how the president’s friends personally enriched themselves both at the expense of individuals knocked out of the game and at the expense of the Russian state and the entire Russian people, would give this person colossal power over the current members of the ruling class. This is clearer to the ruling class than to anyone else, so they have been doing everything to make sure that stripping them of power would be prohibitively costly to their opponents and, thus, the entire country. It is therefore quite likely that the departure of the Putinist elite would be accompanied by tectonic shifts in the societal and political landscapes, shifts that could have quite different consequences. This state of affairs has become a risk factor even for the well-off segments of society, not to mention its least socially protected members.

Coupled with the systemic depravity of the current economic model, the developing political crisis at some stage could bring the country to yet another historical fork in the road. Expectation of this moment, when the accumulated contradictions are revealed as keenly as possible, unites more or less everyone in the leftist opposition. But does our budding leftist movement currently have any sense of how to hasten this moment? No. Does it have a clear, confident answer as to how to prepare for it? No. Nor could it have such an answer, because we cannot know anything about the political struggle without being involved in it. Of course, economic struggle is supposed to shape an organized working class. But it is a classic mistake to believe that by disconnecting ourselves from the “bustle of bourgeois politicking” and redeploying all our forces to the economic struggle and organizing, we will accelerate the awakening of working class consciousness.

Involvement in the political struggle, which in any case does not abolish the economic struggle, encourages the movement to take on qualities necessary for the establishment of a real political force: the know-how of spirited political agitation among the depoliticized masses, the know-how of debating opponents, and, finally, a place in the media that report on politics and society. It is important that even in the embryonic state in which we find ourselves we can begin working in this direction.

When freedom of assembly is practically nonexistent, and freedom of speech and the freedom to agitate are subjected to well-known restrictions, elections remain a venue for developing the three qualities mentioned above. But there is another consideration at work here. It is only during election campaigning that we have a chance to speak to people with the hope of being heard. If you simply hold pickets and hand out leaflets, the only means of drawing considerable attention to yourself is by engaging in tawdry moralizing. As an election campaigner, however, you play a role to which people are accustomed, a role in which they either ask you what we should do or vigorously object to your arguments. And that means you have made contact. What you do with it depends on your skills as a campaigner.

vy_nas_b_1“You don’t represent us.” / “You can’t even imagine us.” Banner at Fair Elections rally in Petersburg, December 2011. Photo courtesy of Colta.ru

Is there currently a party we could support in these elections? No, but that means only that it will have to be created. There is nothing surprising about the fact we still have not founded a party in a country where, with some reservations, there are no independent, grassroots parties, parties not generated by the Kremlin. It is amazing to think it will always be this way and it is not necessary to prepare for change.

The lack of such a party poses the most difficult question: how can we be involved? First, it is possible to back candidates running in single-mandate districts, candidates whose campaigns we can join without forfeiting our own identity. Now, when the registration process has almost ended at the Central Electoral Commission, we can identify such candidates in our districts.

Second, oddly enough, there is the hypothetical possibility of running a campaign against involvement in the elections, since there is no political force advancing a leftist agenda. This campaign tactic could become part of the political struggle if it were run as a full-fledged campaign with a highly refined appeal every activist would be able to defend. There are two significant drawbacks to this option: a) unlike a campaign in support of a particular candidate, there is no source of funding; and b) campaigning “against all” candidates appears more dubious to the authorities than legally campaigning for a registered candidate and is likely to be prohibited altogether.

This paltry slate of options for active involvement in the upcoming elections to the Duma might get a big boost from the municipal council elections scheduled for next fall. Registering as an independent candidate for a municipal council is an accessible option for where we are at now, and all the advantages of running an election campaign can be realized in this case as well.

We have a whole year to answer the question of whether the leftist movement needs to be involved in elections and prepare ourselves should the answer be yes. From this point of view, this September’s elections are useful at least in the sense they confront us with the issue of political involvement, even if some imagine that it has been decided once and for all.

Translated by the Russian Reader