Ivan Davydov: The Russian Protest Federation

614352f5bad27acc282af798084aa5e3Protest rally in Abakan against plans to raise the retirement age. Photo by Alexander Kryazhev. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Republic

The Russian Protest Federation: How Moscow Has Stopped Shaping the Political Agenda. Will Ordinary Russians Realize Pension Reform and Geopolitical Triumphs Are Linked?
Ivan Davydov
Republic
September 27, 2018

The people who took to the streets long ago on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue deserve the credit for the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in Russia. It was a time that would be unimaginable now. There was no war with Ukraine. Crimea had not been annexed. No one had given Syria a second thought. It still makes you wonder why the Kremlin took fright then, albeit briefly. Instead of guessing, we should note it was the capital that led the national protest movement then, confirming yet again the centripetal nature of life in Russia. Over a 100,000 people attended the first two protest rallies in Moscow, on December 10, 2011, and February 4, 2012. Petersburg took second place, sending 25,000 people onto the streets for its February 2012 rally, but no one other city was even close. Protests took place in dozens of cities, including all the major ones, but the best the regions achieved was something on the order of 5,000 people in attendance. In most places, the average crowd numbered around a thousand people.

The opposition failed just like the regime. It transpired the national agenda and the agenda of Muscovites were the same thing. The farther you went from Moscow, the less people were worried about the issues exercising newspaper reporters. Least of all were they worried about their own real problems, about local issues, and thus there was no chance of changing things in Russia.

But the credit for transforming gubernatorial elections into something really resembling elections, albeit quite remotely, must go to the regions. The takeaway message is that the regime’s electoral fiasco in the regions on September 9 is a nationally significant event. The rank-and-file voters there, who cast their ballots for sham candidates from parties other than United Russia as a way of registering their disgust with the local political bosses, have turned circumstances inside out. The regions are now dictating their agenda to Moscow, as governors who seemed invulnerable only recently look shaky, and even Putin himself has been forced to break a sweat.

Airbag
As befits a myth, the Moscow myth that, putting it as succinctly as possible, Moscow is not the real Russia, is not true at all. But, like any good myth with life in it, it is based on real things. As I write this column, water is gurgling in the radiators of the standard Moscow high-rise where I live, because the heating season has kicked off. It is ten degrees Celsius outside, and Moscow’s tender inhabitants would freeze otherwise. Meanwhile, all the news agencies are reporting as their top news item that a place in the queue to buy the new iPhone at Moscow stores will set you back 130,000 rubles [approx. 1,700 euros]. That is expensive, of course, but you would let yourself be seen as an outdated loser at your own peril.

Muscovites protest often, although in fewer numbers than during the fair elections movement. To outsiders, however, protesting Muscovites almost always look like whimsical people who are too well off for their own good. Everyone knows Moscow has wide pavements, new subway stations, the Moscow Central Ring, and perpetual jam festivals and nonstop carnivals on Nikolskaya Street. People who live in places where even today anti-tank trenches pass for roads, and the mayor nicked the benches from the only pedestrian street (urbanism is ubiquitous nowadays, no longer a Moscow specialty) and hauled them to his summer cottage, find it really hard to take seriously people who are up in arms over a new parks whose birches were imported from Germany, and holiday lighting whose cost is roughly the same as the annual budget of an entire provice somewhere outside the Black Earth Region. The residents of “construction trailer accretions” (you will remember that during one of President Putin’s Direct Lines, the residents of a “construction trailer accretion” in Nyagan came on the air to complain) find it hard to understood people protesting so-called renovation, as in Moscow, that is, people who protest the demolition of their old residential buildings and being resettled in new buildings. For that is how it appears when geographical distance obscures the particulars.

The regime has skillfully manipulated this gap. Remember the role played by the “real guys” from the Uralvagonzavod factory during the fair elections movement, or the out-of-towners bussed into the capital for pro-Putin rallies on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium. But the gap functions as yet another airbag for the Kremlin even when it makes no special effort to manipulate it. Moscow is part of Russia when we are talking about national issues and the fact those issues are debated in Moscow as well, but since any sane non-resident of Moscow believes Moscow is no part of Russia, the big issues end up being issues that exercise Muscovites, but do not interest people beyond Moscow.

The Main Political Issue
Alexei Navalny has bridged the gap slightly. His attempt to set up regional presidential campaign offices seemed absurd since everyone, including Navalny, realized he would not be allowed on the ballot and there would be no reason to campaign. He ran a campaign anyway, and his campaign offices turned into local pockets of resistance, into needles that hit a nerve with the regime while simulatneously stitching Russia together and removing Moscow’s monopoly on national politics. His campaign offices are manned by bold young people willing to take risks and good at organizing protest rallies. Of course, even now more people in Moscow attend Navalny’s protest rallies than in other cities, but people have still been taking to the streets in dozens of cities for the first time since the fair elections protests of 2011–2012. Navalny’s campaign offices splice issues that the locals get with national issues, thus producing the fabric of real politics. When I discussed the subject of this column with the editors of Republic, one of them joked Navalny was a “franchise.” The joke has a point, but the point is not offensive.

It was Vladimir Putin, however, who really turned the tide or, rather, the federal authorities, of which Putin is the living embodiment. The pension reform has made it abundantly clear the Russian authoritarian state no longer intends to be paternalist. The state has suddenly discovered what people actually liked about it was the paternalism. Or they put up with the paternalism. It is hard to say what word would be more precise. But they did not put up with it due to its victories on the geopolitical front.

The pension reform has erased the line between the big issues, debated by well-fed people in Moscow, and the real issues that constitute the lives of real people. This is quite natural, since being able to claim Russia’s miserly pensions a bit earlier in life is more important in places where life is harder. Moscow is definitely not the worse place in Russia to live. Despite the myth, Moscow is no heaven on earth, either, but the central heating has already been turned on, for example.

So, even a dull, boring, well-rehearsed formality like gubernatorial elections has become an effective tool of protest. The regime made a single mistake, a mistake to which no one would have paid attention to a year ago. (Since when has vote rigging seriously outraged people in Russia? Since days of yore? Since 2011?) The mistake set off a chain reaction. The new single nationwide election day had been a boon to the Kremlin, its young technocrats, and its not-so-young handpicked “businesslike” governors. If the elections had not taken place simultaneously everywhere, and the fiasco in the Maritime Territory had occurred at the outset of the elections season, it is not clear how powerful a victory the no-name candidates from the loyal opposition would have scored.

Maybe Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would have had to disband their parties for fear of reprisals from the regime, since, the way they have long seen things, there is nothing more terrifying than success, and nothing more dangerous than real politics.

A Moscow municipal district council member from the opposition can easily make a coherent, meaningful speech about how the war in Syria has impacted the clumsiness of Mayor Sobyanin’s hired hands, relaying the tile in some unhappy, quiet alley for the third time in a single year. The council member’s speech would elicit laughter, and the laughter would be appropriate. But amidst the customary laughter we need to be able to discern the main question of a reemergent Russian politics.

The issue is this. Will ordinary Russians understand—and, if so, how quickly—that the pension reform (the first but not the last gift to the common folk from their beloved leaders) is part and parcel of the mighty Putin’s geopolitical triumphs, their inevitable consequence, rather than a betrayal and a rupture of the social compact, as certain confused patriotic columnists have been writing lately?

Ultimately, it is a matter of survival for Russia and for Putin. One of the two must survive. As in the films about the immortal Highlander, only one will be left standing at the end of the day.

Ivan Davydov is a liberal columnist. Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia’s Trash Flashpoint

Landfills Become a Problem for the Kremlin
Environmental Protests Move from Local to Federal Level
Yelena Mukhametshina and Yekaterina Bryzgalova
Vedomosti
April 1, 2018

guseva“Volokolamsk right now. Protest rally against the Yadrovo Landfill.” Screenshot of Olya Guseva’s Twitter page. Courtesy of Meduza

According to various estimates, 6,500 to 7,000 people attended this past Sunday’s protest rally in Volokololamsk against the Yadrovo Landfill. This was more than the number of people who attended the rallies on March 3 (approx. 5,000) and March 29 (6,000). (Volokolamsk’s official population is less than 21,000.)

Among the demands made at Sunday’s rally were the closure of the Yadrovo Landfill, the declaration of an emergency, the resignations of Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov and Andrei Vikharev, acting head of Volokolamsk District, and the release of activist Artyom Lyubimov, who was detained by police a day before the rally.

Protesters at the rally held up placards addressed to President Putin, including ones  bearing the message, “Putin, Help!”

On March 21, a strong release of landfill gas took place in Volokolamsk, causing schoolchildren to say they felt sick. Fifty-seven children were hospitalized in the Volokolamsk Central Hospital. Subsequently, Governor Vorobyov fired the head of Volokolamsk District.

Volokolamsk has not been the only town in Moscow Region protesting landfills. During the past year, people have taken to the streets in such towns as Balashikha (after the local Kupchino Landfill was closed there on direct orders from the president, the garbage that used to be transported to the landfill was redirected to Yadrovo), Kolomna, Klin, Sergiev Posad, Tuchkov, and Serpukhov.

A former federal official explained why garbage has recently become a hot-button issue.

“New laws were passed obliging the regions to adopt local waste handling schemes and select regional contractors. A market is emerging. There are different disposal strategies: incineration versus separate collection of recyclables. Different strategies require building different processing facilities, and the stakeholders backing the different strategies are also different, from the federal to the municipal level,” he said.

The stakeholders are in conflict with each other and with the regions. This is especially true of Moscow and Russia’s other major cities, he claimed.

Last week, it transpired that Tver Region Governor Igor Rudenya had warned all heads of municipalities in his region that if the regional authorities found garbage from other regions in local landfills, the municipal heads responsible for this would have problems with law enforcement and Governor Rudenya’s administration.

“You will not import garbage from other Russian regions for any amount of money at all,” said Governor Rudenya, as quoted by Tverigrad.ru.

The president’s retinue is to blame for the flare-up in Volokolamsk. When they were getting ready for his annual Direct Line program, they insisted on underscoring the subject of landfills by way of speeding up the construction of processing facilities. It was then the president ordered the closure of the landfill in Balashikha, argues a source close to the Kremlin.

“The landfill was closed. The garbage from there was shipped to nearby landfills, and the flow of garbage to these landfills increased manifold. First it was necessary to put the infrastructure in place, and then close the landfills,” he said.

Environmental protests by people concerned with specific issues are a considerable risk to the system’s stability, and the regime is very concerned about them, saif another source close to the Kremlin.

“The president pays great attention to the environment. Last year, he personally telephoned activists in Chelyabinsk to show he supported them. This is quite important, especially in circumstances when environmental measures are given short shrift to save money.”

Last year was officially the Year of the Environment in Russia. During the presidential campaign, Putin held meetings in Krasnoyarsk on improving the ecological situation and  reducing the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Political scientist Andrei Kolyadin argues the issue of landfills cannot be solved quickly. Several years would be needed to do that.

“This abscess has long been ripening, and now it threatens people’s lives. As the risks to people’s live increase, the risks to the regime increase as well.”

A final decision on the future of Governor Vorobyov, who faces elections in the autumn, has not yet been made, said Kolyadin.

“If the protests balloon, he could be made their scapegoat. He has been doing his best to wiggle his way out of the subject politically, but he has not been able to do this economically. If the elections are handled by the authorities, he will not have complications, but if they are run more or less honestly, the districts in which anti-landfill protests have been taking place will not turn out to vote for him.”

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov argues such protests ordinarily wane quickly. In this case, however, the boiling point has not yet been reached. Various grievances, such as Governor Vorobyov’s less-than-happy appointment of a new head of Volokolamsk District, have been building up.

“I get the feeling there will be a new wave [of protests] that will help solve the problems that have accumulated. People feel they are in the right, and it gives them a strong impetus to protest,” he said.

Given current conditions, in which protests have been de facto banned, any socio-economic protest takes on political overtones, Vinogradov concludes.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Putin’s Alleged Popularity

FE9FD947-5946-4532-AB21-04C649F35EC1_w1023_r1_s.jpgIf you’re a sucker for rigged elections and skewed opinion polls, like most western journalists, you would have to admit that Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is Russia’s most popular politician, not Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of RFE/RL

Putin’s Unique Popularity (Spoiler: It Doesn’t Exist)
Alexei Navalny
April 5, 2018

This special video is for you, dear whingers. I find it impossible to read, three weeks running, articles discussing the unique way Putin picked up 76% of the total vote at the March 18 presidential election and see the mobs of people agonizing in the commentaries to these articles.

“Lord, how terrible! 76%. What horrible people Russians are! 76% voted for their own poverty and slavery. The only way out is emigration. It’s time to make a run for it,” etc.

Here is what I have to say about Putin’s alleged “largest percentage of votes ever” and his status as the “most popular politician.”

We simply have to get one thing through our heads. At this stage in our authoritarian country’s evolution, any moron who stands for election on behalf of the regime gets 80% of the vote. Literally. But this percentage means nothing at all.

Are you horrified by Putin’s huge vote total? Then why aren’t you groaning and moaning about the vote totals the regional governors have won in elections? Did you know you would have to try very hard to find a governor who got a smaller percentage of the vote the last time he was elected than Putin did this time round?

You don’t believe me? Here is a chart showing the percentage of votes the country’s regional leaders got the last time each of them stood for election. See whether you can find our so-called national leader, allegedly, the country’s champion when it comes to popular support.

Ranking Name Region Total Votes (%)
1 Ramzan Kadyrov Chechnya 97.9
2 Aman Tuleyev Kemerovo 96.7
3 Rustam Minnikhanov Tatarstan 94.4
4 Nikolai Merkushkin Samara 91.4
5 Vladimir Volkov Mordovia 89.2
6 Vadim Potomsky Oryol 89.2
7 Alexei Gordeyev Voronezh 88.8
8 Andrei Bocharov Volgograd 88.5
9 Alexander Yevstifeyev Mari El 88.3
10 Alexander Tsydenkov Buryatia 87.4
11 Valery Shantsev Nizhny Novgorod 86.9
12 Vladimur Yakushev Tyumen 86.6
13 Boris Dubrovsky Chelyabinsk 86.4
14 Ivan Belozertsev Penza 86
15 Sholban Kara-ool Tyva (Tuva) 85.7
16 Alexander Nikitin Tambov 85.5
17 Alexander Kokorin Kurgan 84.9
18 Vladimir Vladimirov Stavropol 84.2
19 Alexei Dyumin Tula 84.2
20 Veniamin Kondratiev Krasnodar 83.6
21 Alexei Orlov Kalmykia 82.9
22 Alexander Drozdenko Leningrad Region 82.1
23 Maxim Reshetnikov Perm 82.1
24 Oleg Korolyov Lipetsk 81.8
25 Rustem Khamitov Bashkortostan 81.7
26 Anton Alikhanov Kaliningrad 81.1
27 Pavel Konkov Ivanovo 80.3
28 Yuri Berg Orenburg 80.3
29 Nikolai Lyubimov Ryazan 80.2
30 Roman Kopin Chukotka 79.8
31 Georgy Poltavchenko St. Petersburg 79.3
32 Dmitry Mironov Yaroslavl 79.3
33 Andrei Vorobyov Moscow Region 78.9
34 Andrei Turchak Pskov 78.4
35 Alexander Brechalov Udmurtia 78.2
36 Vasily Golubev Rostov 78.2
37 Alexander Bogomaz Bryansk 78
38 Vladimir Miklushevsky Maritime Territory 77.4
39 Vladimir Putin Russian Federation 76.7
40 Igor Koshin Nenetsk 76.7
41 Vladimir Ilyukhin Kamchatka 75.5
42 Alexander Levintal Jewish Autonomous Region 75.4
43 Alexander Zhilkin Astrakhan 75.3
44 Valery Radayev Saratov 74.6
45 Svetlana Orlova Vladimir 74.3
46 Vladimir Pechony Magadan 73.1
47 Alexander Karlin Altai 72.9
48 Igor Rudenya Tver 72.1
49 Anatoly Artamonov Kaluga 71.3
50 Dmitry Ovsyannikov Sevastopol 71.1

If I asked you what the 89% vote tally for Vadim Potomsky, ex-governor of Oryol Region (who claimed Ivan the Terrible had visited St. Petersburg), meant, you would replay without hesitating, “Nothing. It doesn’t mean a thing.”

“He had no support,” you would say, laughing.

Then why does the alleged support for Putin scare you? Do you think that, in his case, the powers that be have employed other methods for generating support?

Of course, they haven’t. They have used the very same methods. Real rivals are not allowed to stand for elections. The public is smothered with lies and propaganda. Officials rig the vote, stuff the ballot boxes, and falsify the final tallies.

These are the three factors for turning political bosses in Russia into wildly popular politicians. Remove any of them from office and they will end up in the same place where all the former champions of the ballot boxes have now ended up, whether we are talking about Shantsev, Merkushkin or Tuleyev. As soon as they are removed from office, a wave of the magic wand turns their popularity into a pumpkin.

Tuleyev had almost unanimous “support” the last time he was elected: nearly 97% of all votes cast. How many of those people took to the streets to support him when he resigned? No one did.

The new governor of Kemerovo Region, Sergei Tsivilyov, is the new proprietor of that 97%.

Under this system, if Putin were placed tomorrow with his most unpopular underling—say, Dmitry Medevedev or Dmitry Rogozin—his replacement would get the same “record-breaking” 76% of the vote if an election were called.

So, there is no reason to worry and snivel.

Dig in your heels. Get involved in political debates. Expose official lies. Tell and disseminate the truth. Fight for your country and your future.

Translated by the Russian Reader

 

Igor Averkiev: Elections That Kill Democracy

photoIgor Averkiev

There Are Elections That Build Democracy, and Elections That Kill It: The Tricks Is Not to Confuse Them
Igor Averkiev
igor-averkiev.com
March 13, 2018

1. If you relate to elections solely as a value, you will never grasp their essence. You will never tame them.

2. In the modern world, the presence of elections per se in a particular country is neither an achievement nor a value, except for liberal democratic fundamentalists. In the modern world, it is the political outcome of elections that is an achievement and value. In some countries, elections build democracy, while in other countries they kill democracy. In Russia, they kill democracy.

3. There are about two hundred countries in the modern world. The vast majority of them (around one hundred and eighty) hold elections more or less regularly. Around fifty countries in this vast majority are more or less classic democracies. There are another forty countries that hold elections and are more or less classic authoritarian regimes. The other hundredsome countries that hold elections are ruled by a variety of transitional, semi-authoritarian, and hybrid regimes. Meaning that elections per se do not vouchsafe democracy at all. Morever, in most of the world’s countries, people voting in elections does not produce democracy.

4. Elections are merely a social know-how that can be used by anyone for any purpose.  Know-how is a simple thing: if you wield it, you can profit from it in keeping with your interests. An axe is similar in this respect. It matters who wields it: a carpenter or a killer. In the hands of some people, elections produce a democratic regime, while in the hands of others they produce an authoritarian regime. Democracy is not programmed into electoral know-how itself. Democratic elections thus coexist on our planet with authoritarian elections: everything is decided by the person who presides over the elections. If you want elections in Russia to produce democracy, first you have to gain control of them. Elections serve democracy only when they are monitored at all phases by political forces with a stake in democracy. Nor is it only a matter of monitoring the tallying of votes.

5. Elections serve democracy only when the question of power has already been resolved to the benefit of pro-democratic forces or during an unstable transition period in which an authoritarian regime is still in power, but can longer dismiss pro-democratic forces out of hand. Therefore, in order to use elections to advance democratic interests, they must first be taken away from the old authoritarian boss. Or he must be so scared he has to take the interests of pro-democratic forces into account when elections are held. There is no other way. This is how things are done the world over, but millions of freedom-loving Russians for some reason still believe that regularly going to vote in elections presided over by someone else will in itself hasten democracy’s victory in Russia.

6. What is democracy? I won’t go into high-flown arguments, but the democracy that freedom-loving Russians like so much gels only when the country is run by politicians who have no desire to restrict political competition. They are willing, if push comes to shove, to lose elections; moreover, they are willing to accept defeat until the next elections. That’s all there is to it. That is why there is no democracy in Russia: because the people in power restrict political competition and have no intention of losing elections under any circumstances, much less accepting defeat. They are assisted in their restriction of political competition by the selfsame democratic know-how and institutions. It is just that without democratic politicians inhabiting them, this know-how and these institutions are only formally democratic, not democratic in fact.

7. The pro-democratic forces include not only the liberal democratic parties but also all political and civic organizations—leftist, nationalist, imperialist, religious, environmentalist, alternative leftist, alternative rightist, etc.—whose political interests are not bound up with Vladimir Putin’s personalist regime, who have no plans to limit political competition in Russia, and are willing, depending on the outcomes of elections, not only to come to power but also to cede power. Putin’s authoritarian regime can be opposed only by a broad pro-democracy coalition, without necessarily becoming a formal coalition. The trial version of this broad pro-democracy coalition presented itself to the country during the nationwide protest movement that kicked off in December 2011. We should not expect extremely well-coordinated joint actions from a broad pro-democracy coalition. (The “Decembrists” overplayed their hand in this respect.) It is enough to head in the same direction along more or less parallel routes, coordinating actions at certain critical points.

8. An electoral authoritarian regime, such as Russia’s, is organized quite simply. All the democratic know-how a modern country is supposed to have—elections, representation, separation of powers—functions smoothly, but not all comers have access to it. It is even simpler than that. An authoritarian regime simply does not allow potential competitors, that is, leaders and organizations, to get on their feet politically and grow organizationally to the extent they would be able to surpass the two- or three-percent minimumthreshold of votes needed for admission to the political arena. It does this by refusing to register parties, intimidating leaders, limiting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in a pinpoint fashion, etc. If, despite everything, they nevertheless grow and thrive, they are simply not admitted to elections, as I have mentioned. In Russia, therefore, democratic procedures do not serve democracy. The soul of democracy is not know-how, procedures, and institutions, but people willing to use them in a particular way. In Russia, politicians interested in democracy simply do not make it into formal democratic politics. Thanks to the political regime built by Vladimir Putin, year after year only pro-authoritarian political forces make it into Russia’s formally democratic politics, and year after year they limit the involvement of pro-democratic forces in democratic procedures. It is a vicious circle. There is democracy, and there is no democracy at the same. Putin’s authoritarian regime is even elegant after a fashion.

9. Elections in authoritarian countries do not increase the supply of democracy, nor do they prepare the way for it, since they do not facilitate competition, do not put the opposition through its paces, and do not put rank-and-file voters in circumstances where the country’s fortunes depend on the choices they make. In authoritarian countries, elections function as a full-fledged authoritarian institution for legitimizing the regime. In authoritarian countries, elections are required only as a source of power, nothing more. Everyone involved in these elections is involved solely in legitimizing the regime. They are doing nothing else.

10. In authoritarian and hybrid countries, including modern Russia, elections have another vital political function. Elections are also an outlet for the liberal public, a valve, installed by the regime, for releasing oppositional steam and keeping opposition politicians busy somehow. The Putin regime has used elections to satisfy the need many freedom-loving Russians have to “fight for democracy” in a safe, comfortable way, a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. Everyone comes out on top. The liberal public engages in self-actualization, and the regime does not find it frightening.

11. If the liberal democratic opposition’s sole aim is symbolic involvement in election campaigns within the authoritarian regime, but year after year the regime does not permit it to grow politically and organizationally, and does not allow it to run in elections, the opposition will gradually wither and become marginalized. This, in fact, is the kind of opposition we have nowadays. If we realize, however, that elections serve democracy only after the question of power has been decided to the benefit of pro-democratic forces, it means we need a different opposition altogether, one radically different from the opposition that has filled the niche the past fifteen years. We need a liberal democratic opposition that is not hung up on being involved in meaningless elections governed by someone else’s hostile rules. We need an opposition focused on vigorous, direct political action and a propaganda duel (a fight over values) with the regime in order to command the attention and respect of the so-called Putinist majority, those very same “ordinary people” who, when a window of opportunity opens, would at least not oppose the new, free-minded political alternative. There is a big problem with the word “new,” however.

12. The creation of a new, free-minded opposition is encumbered by the liberal democratic fundamentalism that holds sway in the minds of Russia’s freedom-loving public. One manifestation of this fundamentalism is, in fact, the irrational cult of elections: all elections are good, regardless of their political essence and their consequences. Two other burdens are the extreme political impracticality and even archaicism of today’s liberal democratic platform. Currently, we have nothing to offer people from the standpoint of a future regime. Here is a simple question. What can we offer the average Russian family, something they would really need and value, that the Putin regime either cannot give them or promise them? The keywords in this case are “really need and value.” Moreover, in the obviously adverse conditions of a post-Putin Russia, the current liberal democratic prescriptions would necessarily lead the country into new crises the very first year they were implemented and, consequently, to new outbursts of the conservative revolution. It is ridiculous to discuss this with educated people, but thinking outside the box is now more important than doing things. At very least, it is more important than running off to vote in Putin’s elections.

13. For free-minded Russians and Russian politicians, the issue today is not how to win Putin’s authoritarian elections, but how to behave and build a reputation in society today in order to win future democratic elections in which the former so-called Putinist majority would be among the voters. If you want to facilitate the collapse of the Putin regime, you need to work less with the Putinist state and more with the Putinist majority.

14. The main problem freedom-loving Russians face in the impending presidential election is not what choice to make, whether to vote or not, and certainly not who they should vote for. The main problem is that whatever choice each of us makes—to vote or not vote, to vote for Yavlinsky or Sobchak—it will have no impact whatsoever on the fortunes of Vladimir Putin and his political regime. Any electoral action we take will change nothing about the election or the regime. Judging by various opinion polls [sic], there are between ten and fifteen million of us in Russia. Even if we assume the incredible—that all of us would act in concert in this election, and thanks to our monitoring the elections themselves would be extraordinarily fair—we cannot have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, even if each of us to the last man boycotted it or we all voted for Ksenia Sobchak or Grigory Yavlinsky.

15. Everything is seemingly quite simple. In Putin’s Russia, elections have nothing to do with building democracy and vanquishing the Putin regime. Why, however, does something so evident not get through to many advocates of liberty and diversity in Russia? How did the perverted cult of mandatory involvement in all elections take hold among such a considerable segment of the Russian liberal public? There are explanations. First, many opposition politicians, speakers, opinion leader, and experts have a professional stake in Putin’s elections. Some of them try and run in these elections (the simplest way of being an opposition politician in an authoritarian regimes), while others assist the elections professionally, serve as polling station monitors, analyze the whole megillah or write about it. This entire mob would simply be out of a job, in the broad sense of the word, if the opposition-minded public did not vote in authoritarian elections. Thus, in the opposition milieu, they are the principal propagandists and agitators for the idea of voting in these demonstrative non-elections. Since, as a rule, they are the most intelligent, energetic, and authoritative people in opposition-minded communities, their opinion is quite important. Second, as I have mentioned, above, involvement in authoritarian elections (“but they are elections all the same”) has served a considerable segment of the liberal public as a safe, comfortable way to “fight for democracy,” a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. The notion that it is foolish and nasty for an advocate of democracy to vote in authoritarian elections immediately nullifies the opposition’s semantic space, the space of election enthusiasts, plunging them into the “desert of the real.” Everything is so painful and disturbing in that desert. You have to acquire a new civic faithfulness to yourself, redefine yourself in terms of the meanings and tools of your opposition, what normal risks are, who your supporters and opponents are within the opposition, and so on. “No, it’s better to vote in Putin’s elections.”

16. On the other hand, if nothing really depends on us in Putin’s elections, is it worth persuading our allies not to vote in them? Why hassle people? Why prevent them from doing what they deem important? Because things won’t get any worse for us if they do vote in the election anyway, right? I think it is still worth pestering them. Politics, after all, depends on political sentiments and emotions, and thoughts are tangible things even when they are not true. If millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “How can I vote in authoritarian elections the right way, so that it benefits the opposition’s cause?” that is one kind of opposition. But if millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “What else, besides voting in authoritarian elections, can I do to dismantle the Putin regime and bring about the victory of freedom and democracy in Russia?” that is a completely different opposition.

Igor Averkiev is the chair of the Perm Civic Chamber. Photo courtesy of Igor Averkiev. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

For Sobchak

sobchak poster

This is literally the only Ksenia Sobchak campaign poster I have seen in Petersburg since the Russian presidential campaign officially kicked off.

The poster, which reads, “For Sobchak. For Truth. For Freedom,” was half hidden in the gateway of a residential building on a street in my neighborhood when I photographed it a week ago today.

I imagine the people working in the city’s housing maintenance and street cleaning services have standing orders to tear down any and all “visual agitation” on behalf of the other so-called candidates (each and every one of them vetted and approved by the Kremlin) running in the so-called Russian presidential election, an utterly rigged farce scheduled for this Sunday, March 18.

The world’s largest country should be ashamed to conduct important national business in such a creepy, petty fashion, but until the self-declared heir apparent to the Romanov throne and his gang of crooks and thieves are chased out of town, there can be no movement on that front, alas.

Or any other front, for their matter, even though I have lots of friends on the left here who think the country is pullulating with “social movements” unfairly ignored by the general populace. To their mind, the rank-and-file Ivans and Natashas currently gumming up the future socialist works should magically learn about these nearly invisible social movements and just as magically support them, without my friends the leftists having to build and deploy anything that resembles even the shadow of an effective grassroots political organization that could reach out to the allegedly benighted Russian rank and file, enlighten it, and give it a doable road map to a better future.

One of the few people in Russia who understands something about political organization and tactics, Alexei Navalny, has been leading a boycott of the presidential election or what he calls a Voters Strike. For their pains, the election boycott activists, most of them young Russians, have been increasingly targeted in a crackdown by Russian security services and police. The plan seems to be to put as many of them as possible in jail on trumped-up charges and keep them there until after March 18, at the least.

My friends on the left, who claim not to like Navalny for his nationalist views, but really resent him because he knows a thing or two about national grassroots political organizing, while they seemingly know next to nothing about it, although they talk about it incessantly, are in no hurry to express their solidarity with the mostly “liberal” activists who have been mowed down by the Kremlin’s dragnet. (In Russia, “liberal” is a powerful swear word employed by leftists and rightists alike.) Their sense of solidarity extends only to those people who more or less share their political views and their lifestyles.

The most shameful thing is how many seemingly intelligent Russians are sanguine about this desperate state of affairs and think talking seriously about domestic politics (although they are often, on the contrary, extraordinarly keen to talk about politics in other countries) is like holding forth in great detail at a swanky dinner party about your daily bowel movements. TRR

Free and Fair, or, The All-Russian University of Justice

Tests on Protest Rallies and Compulsory Voting in Workplaces: What Is Happening in Petersburg’s Public Sector Institutions as the Election Nears
Vladislav Chirin and Sofia Volyanova
Bumaga
March 7, 2018

In early March, a test about the law on protest rallies was distributed to lecturers in Petersburg’s tertiary educational institutions. Pupils at Petersburg schools have been forced to take the same test, while employees of schools and hospitals report they have been forced to apply for absentee ballots and vote at different polling stations under threat of punishment.

Bumaga has been monitoring the goings-on in Petersburg’s public sector institutions in the run-up to the March 18 presidential ballot. In the following article, we discuss what violations have already surfaced.

Schoolchildren Required to Pass Test about Law on Protest Rallies 
Pupils at a school in the Vyborg District told Bumaga that on March 6 all groups had been excused from classes in order to take a test on protest rallies. In particular, the pupils were quizzed on whether participants of public events had the right to bear arms and under what circumstances demonstrations could be held on Palace Square and Nevsky Prospect.

test“Tests like this have been handed out in Petersburg schools. This is only the second page of the test, featuring questions about the Field of Mars, invitations to protest rallies via the internet from persons unknown, etc.” Post courtesy of Telegram channel Somebody Else

According to senior pupils at the school, teachers removed them from their second period classes and made them stay during the break to familiarize them with the test. In the event, the teachers explained to the pupils what the right answers were.

When the pupils asked whether the test was connected with protest rallies organized by opposition politican Alexei Navalny, the teahers replied the test was being administered since a pupil at the school had been detained at one such rally and fined.

Central District School Headmaster and Vocational School Employee Talk about Compulsory Test
Svetlana Lebedeva, headmaster of Gymnasium No. 168 in Petersburg, also talked about the test. According to her, the prosecutor’s office had sent them the test, demanding it be administered to upperclassmen.

“It was by order of the district prosecutor’s office. The order was sent to Nelly Simakova, head of the Central District education department. They sent it to us. All the schools did it. The test was on Saturday, and today the pupils who were absent on Saturday took the test,” Ms. Lebedeva told MR7.ru.

On March 6, the same test was administered to students at all the city’s vocational schools, an employee at one of them told Bumaga.

MR7.ru also published a screenshot of the letter sent to educational institutions.  The letter makes it clear the testing had been administered at the behest of the city’s education committee after an urgent request from the Petersburg prosecutor’s office.

A pupil at Lyceum No. 126 has also told Bumaga that, during an event for war veterans on March 6, one of the guests took to the stage and urged attendees to vote for Vladimir Putin.

The prosecutor’s office and the education committee did not return our telephone calls.

Council of Rectors Sent Test on Protest Rallies to Lecturers at Tertiary Educational Institutions
Lecturers at Petersburg’s tertiary educational institutions allegedly received the same test about the law on protest rallies, only electronically.

Echo of Moscow reporter and Higher School of Economics graduate student Valery Nechay published a letter allegedly sent to Petersburg’s tertiary educational institutions. The letter asks university employees to take the test online “at the request of the Council of Rectors.”

letter“Dear colleagues! At the request of the Council of Rectors, staff at all educational organizations in St. Petersburg, including the Higher School of Economics, are being tested in order to determine the level of their knowledge of the laws on rules for holding and attending large-scale public events and the penalties for violating them. We strongly encourage to take ten minutes from your busy schedules and answer the questions before March 12, 2018. The correct answers will be provided immediately after you complete the test. To take the test, follow this link.” Post courtesy of Telegram channel Unexpected Joy.

The test, a link to which Nechay has published, features questions about the rights of people attending protest rallies and punishment for extremism. Some of the questions describe particular circumstances, for example, “You have been invited on the internet to attend a protest rally on the Field of Mars. The rally in question has not been authorized by the relevant executive authorities for the exact time or day listed. You are curious, however, and so you go to the rally. Have you violated the law?”

Students at Petersburg University Say They Have Been Forced to Monitor Elections 
First-year students at the Petersburg campus of the All-Russian State University of Justice have been assigned “compulsory on-the-job training” on March 18: they must attend the presidental election as grassroots monitors. They told the organization Petersburg Observers about their plight.

The correspondence published by Petersburg Observers makes it clear that if the students fail to report for duty they have been threatened with administrative punishments and bad marks in their permanent record. But if they show up for duty, they allegedly will have a day off on Monday, March 19, and be sent official thank-you letters.

observerss“Where do the fake election observers come from? On March 4, 2012 [the date of the previous presidential election] grassroots oversight was usually portrayed by pensioners and state employees. Over the past six years, however, the fake election observers movement has mastered the streams of financing, gone large scale, and become much younger. For example, first-year students at the Petersburg campus of the All-Russian University of Justice received this message from their class leader: ‘March 18 is a school day, compulsory on-the-job training, meaning that everyone will be a grassroots election observer at the polls. Sponsored by the Association of Lawyers, our university is officially taking part in the Observers Corps for Clean Elections event, so if you do not show up you face administrative penalties and a bad mark in your permanent record.’ In addition to free food and transportation on voting day, letters of gratitude and a day off from classes on March 19 have been promised to the students. Basically, this is how correct public opinion is forged: in return for a day off, free grub, and a certificate of [political] trustworthiness.” Screenshot of a post on the VK community page of Petersburg Observers for Fair Elections 

A student at the Petersburg campus of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) has told Bumaga that out-of-town students at the academy are going to be forced to vote in the presidential election. However, he was unaware of whether the students would be encouraged for turning out or punished for failing to vote.

ranepa“Very Important Information! In the next 30 minutes ALL out-of-two students need to shoot back the following information: what resources you will use to vote in the March 18 Russian presidential election; where you will vote (at what polling station); how you will register to vote. Send it to https://vk.com/%5Bdeleted]. […] Basically, we have been asked by [illegible] to register as many people living in each section as possible to vote. Meaning that each manager is responsible for his section and, subsequently, for sending everyone off to vote. The section in which the most people vote will get the Prize Sector [a reference to the “prize” section on the spinning wheel in the Russian version of Wheel of Fortune]. Ideally, you could assemble your entire section and all go together to the district voting commission. This is a mandatory request that concerns everyone. I think it is in our interest to give our vote . . .” Screenshoots of correspondence among RANEPA students. Courtesy of Bumaga

Schoolteachers and State Employees in Petersburg Say They Are Being Forced to Apply for Absentee Ballots and Vote Somewhere Other than Their Own Polling Stations
A teacher at a school in the Central District has told Bumaga that the school’s headmaster has obliged the entire teaching staff to report to the polling station in School No. 183 [an English-language magnet school on Kirochnaya Street in downtown Petersburg] on voting day. According to her, the teachers in all Central District schools have been given the same orders.

According to the teacher, if staff fail to vote as instructed, they will be given extra work during the spring holidays, from March 26 to April 1. When the voting is over, the headmasters of the Central District’s schools will receive lists of teachers who reported to the polling station in School No. 183, the teacher said. Her headmaster added, however, the orders were “not his whim,” but that all school headmeasters had received the same orders from the “top brass.”

Instances in which the heads of state-sector institutions have tried to force staff and students to apply for absentee ballots and vote at other polling stations have been reported by Petersburgers claiming to be employed at the Center for the Social Rehabilitation of Disabled People and Disabled Children in the Krasnoye Selo District, the Center for Social Assistance to Families and Children in the Central District, the Alexander Hospital, Children’s Health Clinic No. 68, Children’s Health Clinic No. 71, the Leningrad Regional School for Culture and Art, School No. 684 [a kindergarten and grammar school in the Kirov District in the city’s south], and the Municipal Monitoring Center.

Violations Reported by Members of Several Petersburg Election Commissions 
Member of Precinct Election Commission No. 1164, located in City Hospital No. 15, have reported that Irina Nikolich, the polling station’s deputy chair, had drawn up absentee ballot declarations, based on photocopies of four voters’ internal passports, although the voters themselves were not present at the polling station, and Nikolich came to the polling station when it was not her shift.

The polling station was visited by police officers, who interviewed witnesses and submitted the evidence to the Investigative Committee.

Members of Territorial Election Commissions No. 1 and No. 14 have reported to Bumaga that in their electoral districts, precinct commissions had in several instances approved four ballot boxes for at-home voting, although only three ballot boxes are legally required. The extra ballot boxes could lead to vote rigging and ballot box stuffing.

UPDATE
On the evening of March 7, Territorial Election Commission No. 1 reduced the number of mobile ballot boxes in its district to three.

Students at St. Petersburg State University of Film and Television Complain They Have Been Forced to Vote (Updated March 10, 2018) 
A student at the University of Film and Television told Bumaga he and his classmates in the Screen Arts Department had received a message from the student leader of second-year students.

The message made it clear that the master of the filmmaking course had informed the student leader that students who did not vote would be threatened with explusion, said the source. The dean’s office had allegedly issued the orders, and all students were required to register to vote at the same polling station.

Another student at the university told Bumaga she and her classmates had received messages containing a list of five polling stations at which they had to register to vote. Information about whether a student had registered to vote or not would allegedly be reported to their department. The students were promised they would be given postcards at the polling stations that could be used to get into a private screening of the film Dovlatov, the young woman told us.

Translated by the Russian Reader