“Foreign Agents”: Official Fearmongering Runs Amok in Russia

foreign agents piechartA pie chart, using information from November 2017, showing the numbers and kinds of NGOS designated as “foreign agents” by the Russian Justice Ministry. Moving clockwise, the chart shows that 24 Russian human rights organizations have been registered as “foreign agents,” along with 4 NGOs working on healthcare issues, 2 trade union associations, 6 analytical and social research organizations, 3 women’s organizations, 10 civic education organizations, 9 media support organizations, 3 ethnic minority organizations, 7 NGOs involved in defending democracy and democratic principles, 11 humanitarian and social welfare organizations, and 8 environmental organizations. Courtesy of Deutsche Welle. As of November 15, 2019, there were ten media outlets listed as “foreign agents” by the Russian Justice Ministry, including Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and eight RFE/RL affiliates.

Russian Duma Adopts Law on Designating Individuals “Foreign Agents”
Olga Demidova
Deutsche Welle
November 21, 2019

The Russian Duma has passed a law bill on designating private persons as “foreign agents” in its third and final reading. On Thursday, November 21, the bill was supported by 311 of the 315 MPs who voted. No one opposed the bill, although four MPs abstained.

Two days earlier, the Duma’s committee on information policy approved amendments to the bill in its second reading. The amendments make it possible to designate individuals as “performing the functions of a foreign agent” and thus on a par with legal entities. They can be deemed “foreign agents” if they create content for media outlets that have been designated “foreign agents” or distribute their content while receiving foreign funding.

Media outlets already registered as “foreign agents” will have to establish Russian legal entities in order to operate in the Russian Federation. In addition, they must mark their content as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Leonid Levin, chair of the Duma’s information policy committee, promised the law would not been used against bloggers and current affairs commentators. Individuals would be designated “foreign agents” by the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry, which Levin argued would prevent “unreasonable” rulings.

In July 2012, the Duma amended several laws regulating the work of NGOs. The amendments obliged NGOs that engaged in political activities and received foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” The NGOs were to indicate this designation on their websites, for example, and provide regular financial reports. There are currently over seventy organizations in Russia registered as “foreign agents.”

Thanks to Marina Bobrik for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Grigorii Golosov
Facebook
November 24, 2019

The law on individual foreign agents is innovative in the sense that the people who drafted it and pushed it have not disguised the fact it is meant to be enforced selectively. Certain critics have even remarked that this is a good thing: only a few people will be affected. I think they are wrong, but I wanted to talk about something else. It is no secret that laws are enforced selectively in Russia, but so far none of the laws that have caused a public stir has been meant to be enforced selectively. Now that has changed. A law that is selectively enforced is clearly no law at all, but a specimen of lawlessness, and so the new law is anti-constitutional. Unfortunately, it is pointless to challenge the law in the Constitutional Court, and not only due to the court’s peculiarities. After all, the authorities have not hidden their intentions and motives, but nor have they admitted them aloud. It is their usual M.O., the old “you just try and prove it” gambit. In fact, a good response would be a barrage of lawsuits petitioning the authorities to designate as “foreign agents” public loyalists they would have no wish to hurt, but who are 100% guilty if the letter of this law were obeyed. However, the human rights movement, which could take up this cause, has been defeated, in particular, by the previous laws on “foreign agents.” The way to lawlessness is thus open.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Al Jazeera’s Love Affair with Militant Russian Orthodox Fascist Homophobe Vitaly Milonov

milonovRussian Orthodox fascist and homophobic terrorist Vitaly Milonov is Al Jazeera’s go-to commentator on Russian current affairs. Photo by Sergei Fadeichev. Courtesy of TASS and the Moscow Times

This is how the “progressive” media works.

I accidentally woke up at five o’clock this morning to discover Al Jazeera’s program The Stream wanted me to be on their panel discussing the Moscow elections and protests at 10 p.m. Moscow time this evening.

The only problem was that, aside from a young researcher at Columbia who seemed okay, the other two panelists Al Jazeera had invited were Vitaly Milonov and Maria Baronova.

I spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon persuading the producer who contacted me that inviting Milonov on their program was like inviting David Duke or Alex Jones.

Would she like to see them on her program? I asked her.

No, of course not, she said.

The problem was that she had no idea whom to invite nor did the young researcher from Columbia. (Which is kind of amazing, too, since the subject of her research is protests and civil society in Russia, but I won’t go there.)

The producer asked whether I could suggest people whom she could invite on the panel.

I could and I did. I sent her a long list that included Leonid Volkov, Grigorii Golosov, Alexander Bikbov, Greg Yudin, Elena Mukhametshina, Maxim Trudolyubov, and Ilya Matveev, along with their social media or email addresses.

Any of them, I explained, would make a great panelist, not because I necessarily agreed with them about everything, but because they knew the subject inside and out.

After that, the producer asked me to record a short “video commentary,” which as she explained, would be used in the show.

I choose to speak, briefly, about the Article 212 Case defendants, some of whom were sentenced to harsh prison terms today and yesterday, while some of them had all charges against them dropped and were set free.

When I sent the producer the video, I asked, since several hours had passed by then, who would be on the panel, finally.

Had she managed to invite any of the people I had suggested?

Almost five hours have gone by with no reply from the producer.

Only forty minutes ago did I look at the show’s page and discover that everything I said and wrote to the producer had been utterly pointless, to wit:

[…] Putin has been in power for 20 years and is due to step down as president in 2024. Many younger demonstrators have never experienced Russia under a different leader, and they and others are pushing to take their country in a more democratic direction. This backdrop helps explain why officials are working hard to contain Moscow’s protests. But whether what’s happening in the capital will spread to the rest of Russia remains up for debate.

In this episode we ask, will protests change anything in Russia? Join the conversation.

On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Vitaly Milonov @Villemilonov
Member of the Federal Assembly of Russia

Maria Baronova
Journalist at RT
rt.com

Yana Gorokhovskaia @gorokhovskaia
Researcher at Columbia University

In the midst of all that has been happening in Moscow, one of the world’s most respected news organizations has decided their viewers need to hear from a world-famous militant Russian Orthodox fascist homophobe and a certifiably crazy woman who went from working for Open Russia one day to working for Russia Today the next.

This is a complete travesty.

Oddly, the producer said that Gorokhovskaia, too, had “reservations” about appearing on the same panel with Milonov and Baronova.

She should have had them. // TRR

P.S. As I have also discovered, this was Milonov’s second appearance on the program.

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Anti-Gay Russian Lawmaker Disrupts Opening of LGBT Film Festival
Moscow Times
Oct. 25, 2018

State Duma deputy and notorious anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov reportedly attempted to shut down Russia’s only LGBT film festival on its opening night Wednesday.

Milonov, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, has earned a reputation for his inflammatory anti-LGBT rhetoric and is best known for spearheading Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda.”

The St. Petersburg-based Fontanka news website reported that the deputy, accompanied by six men, physically blocked the entrance to the Side by Side film festival on Wednesday evening.

In footage posted online, the lawmaker is heard accusing festival-goers trying to get into the venue of participating in an unsanctioned demonstration.

“Dear citizens, you know yourselves that you are perverts; you need to disperse,” he is heard saying.

“We are Russian people who are on our home soil. And you’re not. Your motherland is Sodom and Gomorrah,” he adds.

According to the festival’s organizers, Milonov claimed that a hostage crisis had unfolded inside the cinema and called the police.

Prompted by Milonov’s call, police officers reportedly evacuated the building. According to Fontanka, around 400 filmgoers who bought tickets were unable to attend the screenings planned for Wednesday.

“The first day of Side by Side was interrupted in an outrageous manner and eventually disrupted by State Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov,” the festival organizers were cited as saying.

Milonov denied that he had alarmed the police about a possible hostage crisis, saying that he came to the event because he believed it may have been “violating Russian law.”

The festival organizers rejected Milonov’s claims that they had broken Russia’s “gay propaganda” law — which bans promoting LGBT values among minors — as minors were not allowed to attend the festival.

Side by Side, Russia’s only annual LGBT film festival — now in its 11th year — has in the past been threatened by government officials and nationalist activists.

The organizers said that the festival would continue as planned this week, despite what they described as Milonov’s “illegal actions.”

Two Russian Nationals Jailed in Tripoli

Two Russian Nationals Jailed in Prison in Tripoli Suburbs
RBC
July 6, 2019

Two Russian nationals, previously detained by Libyan authorities, have been jailed at Mitiga Prison in the suburbs of Tripoli, according to Alexander Malkevich, president of the National Values Defense Fund [sic], as reported to TASS.

Malkevich confirmed that two Russian nationals, sociologist [sic] Maxim Shugaley and interpreter Samer Hasan Ali, who is a  dual Russian-Jordanian national, had been jailed. There were a total of three people in their research group [sic]. Malkevich also claimed fund staff members had not meddled in election campaigns in Libya. Their work was limited to monitoring the situation there.

The Russia-based National Values Defense Fund (FZNTs) reported on July 5 that their staff members had been detained in Libya. It claimed they had only been carrying out sociological surveys and researching humanitarian, cultural, and political conditions in Libya.

According to Bloomberg, the Russian nationals were detained in May of this year. In particular, two of them had arranged a meeting with Saif al-Islam, son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Saif al-Islam is considered a possible Libyan presidential candidate.

As noted in a letter sent by the Libyan Prosecutor’s Office to PNE [sic], the information found on laptops and flash drives confiscated from the detainees proved both of them worked for a company “specializing in meddling in the elections scheduled in several African countries,” including Libya. The prosecutor’s office also noted a third Russian national had managed to leave Libya before the special services arrested the men.

Thanks to Grigorii Golosov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

fundRussian Orthodox Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Russian MP Vitaly Milonov, and Alexander Malkevich presenting the National Values Defend Fund at a press conference at Rossiya Segodnya News Agency in Moscow in April 2019. Photo courtesy of Znak.com

Grigorii Golosov
Facebook
July 7, 2019

As for the National Values Defense Fund, which sent a poor spin doctor (identified as a “sociologist”) to Libya, it is a new project, obviously run by [Yevgeny] Prigozhin. Its website makes it clear it is going to defend Russian national values primarily in Africa.

You can read more about the project here.

I realize Putin’s ex-chef Prigozhin has long been more than an errand boy for the man with whom he has been involved in the asymmetrical albeit profitable relationship of vassal and liege lord. Prigozhin has his own business interests in Africa. Russian foreign policy is now so arranged that Prigozhin’s business interests are Russia’s national interests.

So be it. China also has interests in Africa. They are backed by colossal investments that are gradually exchanged for political influence. This happens really slowly because the Africans are quite touchy about it: Chinese influence makes people unhappy. But the investments it makes go a long way toward containing the unhappiness.

Russia has taken a different route. It helps its cause to educate African army officers at the relevant Russian universities, but that is a long-term deal. The powers that be want things to happen quickly, hence the appearance on the continent of mercenaries [like Prigozhin’s Wagner GroupTRR] and spin doctors to aid dictators in fixing their so-called elections and squashing protests through trickery.

In other words, the Chinese approach involves spending money now to obtain influence later, while the Russian approach involves trying to gain influence now in order to make money later. I don’t need to tell you there is no better way to make “Russia” a swear word in Africa and elsewhere, and all Russian nationals into automatic personae non gratae.

Our current rulers will surely take pride in the fact they managed to make as many countries and regions as possible hate Russia. This how they imagine defending national values.

Thanks to Louis Proyect for the link to the article about Jane Goodall’s campaign against Chinese influence in Africa. Translated by the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov: The Year 2020

DSCN6650Living it up with Russia’s shrinking “middle class.” Sulphur Island, St. Petersburg, 19 May 2018.  Photo by the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov
Facebook
February 5, 2019

Many people have been citing a 2008 article in Rossiiskaya gazeta.

“By 2020, Russians will be earning an average of $2,700 a month, a family of three will have no less than 100 square meters of living space, and the middle class will constitute over half of the population.”

This is a paraphrase of the “Social and Economic Development Strategy to 2020,” drafted at the time by the Russian Economic Development Ministry.

The article goes on.

“Experts have already dubbed the strategy a ‘breakthrough scenario’ that will see Russia establishing itself as a leading world power by 2020.”

The Economic Development Ministry was wrong, of course, but the experts were right. Russia has already established itself as a world power, albeit in roughly the same sense as North Korea and Iran. It has gone even farther. Iran and North Korea, at least, are not in everyone’s face all the time, while Russia butts in everywhere nowadays.

We should look for the root of the Economic Development Ministry’s mistake in the machinations of Russia’s enemies, of course, although the reason Russia has so many enemies is to be sought in the circumstances that also explain its promotion to the same league as North Korea and Iran.

That is the intriguing dialectic at work here.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov: An Anti-American Dictatorship

An Anti-American Dictatorship: The Russian Concept of Sovereignty
The regime is sovereign, not the people, and only if it does not seek to benefit from cooperating with the US
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
November 9, 2017

4f1d12efea4954e40cedcc6cf03e3d2bVladislav Surkov. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant

Recently, after a long silence, Vladislav Surkov made another public appearance in print. The article itself, entitled “A Crisis of Hypocrisy” and written in a style typical of intellectually pretentious picture magazines, is not very interesting. It is not that Surkov rebukes the west for insincerity. That would be like the pot calling the kettle black. He does claim, however, that the effectiveness of hypocrisy as a means of control has been forfeited in modern democracies. Surkov thus finds himself agreeing with “prophetic comics” and other authoritative sources that a king of the west might appear to forcibly lead the world out of chaos. A good example, perhaps, of how such a king might act is Surkov’s own work in the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.

As many of you will remember, until his forced immersion in the affairs of a neighboring country, Surkov laid claim, albeit not very successfully, to the role of the current Russian regime’s ideologue. It was Surkov who back in the day coined the controversial term “sovereign democracy,” which was supposed to be either an alternative to western democracy or a variation on it. In this case, Surkov messed up royally, as was pointed out to him with appropriate severity by his more senior comrades. The point of Russian electoral authoritarianism, like electoral authoritarianism anywhere else, is to feign being a democracy without actually being a democracy. Since everyone realizes there really is true democracy in the west, any juxtaposition is invidious. Russia has democracy, and that is that. It is no worse than other democracies. It is just like them. There is thus no need to qualify it with any adjectives.

Now Surkov, being a person who is, on the one hand, quick on the uptake and, on the other, not averse to particular flights of fancy, has adopted the politically correct stance while creatively elaborating on it in the sense that democracy in the west is on its last legs, even as Russia still cherishes the ideal of people power. Naturally, there is no point in debating the nature of democracy when the issue is put this way, and sovereignty comes to the fore as in Surkov’s original take on the matter. Sovereignty is the central concept of modern Russian ideology.

Sovereignty is now the talk of the talk of the town, the favorite topic not only of the media but even of those people who speak from the highest bully pulpits. The Russian concept of sovereignty includes two axioms that we should examine thoroughly. I should note in advance that neither of these aspects is unique. Each of them is ordinarily found in any logically consistent concept of sovereignty. The whole trick is how they are applied specifically to modern day-to-day circumstances.

The first axiom states that all decisions about power in a given country are taken at a purely national level.  The point is incontestable. It suffices to have a look at how acutely the Americans react to any outward attempts to shape their own politics to be convinced that they, too, operate in full accordance with the axiom. The specific nature of the Russian interpretation, however, is nevertheless apparent. To detach it from its basic content we should look at the events in Syria.

The cause of the events was the crisis generated by the extremely brutal, truly barbarous dictatorship established in Syria by the Assad family. Only an intellectually unscrupulous person could publicly state the Assad regime had been the choice of the Syrian people, at least at some point in time. The Assads came to power in a military coup and were elected to the country’s presidency solely on an uncontested basis, under circumstances in which all opposition was quashed. An uprising took place in 2011. The regime survived it, but was unable to crush it completely. A civil war broke out. It is characteristic of modern civil wars in more or less important countries that they involve outside actors.

The last point has been at the heart of the Russian concept of sovereignty. Frightened out of their wits at one time by the specter of “color” revolutions, the Russian authorities, first, regard any regime in any country, except Ukraine, as legitimate, and any attempt to overthrow it, however bloody and tyrannical it may be, as solely the result of outside interference. I would again underscore that outside interference is a perpetual occurrence, but nor does Russia miss its own chance to catch fish in troubled waters. This aspect is always secondary, however. Western political thought has traditionally argued the people’s sovereignty consists, in particular, in its ability to put down tyrannies. Since elections in such circumstances are not a tool for doing this, all that remains is civil disobedience and insurrection. If we approach the matter differently, the notion of sovereignty has been replaced by the notion of the regime’s sovereignty. This is exactly how sovereignty is treated in modern Russian ideology.

Second, the Russian concept of sovereignty consists in the notion that all decisions on foreign policy must be taken at the national level. When expressed in such concise form, the claim is also indisputable. However, when it is applied in Russian public discourse, the claim is more controversial: since most national governments take the interests of the US (or, alternately, the EU) into account when making foreign policy decisions, their sovereignty is limited.

The problem with this interpretation is that it is advantageous to pay attention to the interests of the United States or the European Union, or both. This coincides with the preferences of most governments. They themselves limit their freedom to maneuver when it comes to foreign policy. Take one of Russia’s biggest grievances against the west: Nato’s eastward expansion. It is true that when the Eastern European countries joined Nato, they limited their freedom to operate, but they did this not merely voluntarily, but with colossal enthusiasm. They applied to join Nato and celebrated their joining the alliance as if it were a national holiday. Ask Donald Trump why they wanted to get in. He would tell you what percentage of the alliance’s expenditures are footed by American taxpayers. It is not even worth enlarging on the fact that the new European Union members received certain perks. Actually, back in the old days, even Vladimir Putin was given to saying it would not be a bad idea for Russia to join the western alliances. It follows that he saw the benefits.

For it would be wrong to say no one takes Russia’s interests into account. Even some of the Eastern European countries, which the Russian media arrogantly disparages as satellites of the western powers, occasionally express a dissenting opinion on issues sensitive to Russia, such as sanctions. When they do this, are they limiting their own sovereignty in favor of our country? No, they are just taking care of their own business. The general rule, however, is that most countries regard the interests of the US as more important than Russia’s interests. There are exceptions: Iran, North Korea, Syria, and five or six other countries. By a coincidence that is hardly strange there is not a single democracy amongst them. All of these countries are small or medium sized. It is naive to believe China is one of these countries. China regards the US as more important.

We no longer speak of sovereign democracy. The idea has not vanished, however, but has merely acquired a more appropriate guise as an anti-American dictatorship. It is this guise that has become Russia’s own political pole star. And why not? It is a matter of choice. We should be aware, however, that how you define yourself defines how people treat you, taking this into account when assessing the prospects for improving relations with the rest of the world.

Grigorii Golosov is a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader 

Grigorii Golosov: Democracy without Democrats in Russia

Democracy without Democrats: The Prospects for Parliamentarism 
Under a well-functioning system, even the current parties can be a good defense against autocrats
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
August 25, 2017

As hopes for Russia’s becoming a democratic country in the foreseeable future fade, the question of the institutional structure of a future Russian democracy is overstated. Even the best-intentioned commentators often argue that none of the conventional mechanisms fit Russia. A presidential system would not do, because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one man and his retinue, leading directly to dictatorship. That sounds plausible. However, as Alexander Morozov recently wrote on Facebook, a parliamentary system would not do, either. If I understood him correctly, his main argument was that the roster of political players would be maintained under this system, and so “the same fools from the current parliamentary parties would remain in power.” That also sounds plausible.

One of the problems with such dramatic assessments is obvious. They imply that Russia’s current political trajectory is unique, and the systems of governance tested and proven workable in other countries would thus never function in Russia. Theoretically, we cannot exclude such options. North Korea, for example, has now generated a political configuration I am willing to acknowledge unique both in terms of structure and possible consequences. However, there is no mystery as to the miserable country’s future. If it is destined to rid itself of the Kim dynasty, it will have to associate itself with South Korea under conditions acceptable to China and the US. It would be pointless to go into the details, but the overall picture is quite clear.

Russia is a different story. I do not see anything unique about Russia’s circumstances. By world standards, we have a quite ordinary authoritarian regime. All the signs point to the fact the regime is in the upward phase of its trajectory, that is, in the process of consolidating. We are thus unable to say anything definite about how it will cease to exist.  Hardcore opposition politicians (of whom, I think, Alexei Navalny is the last man standing) have it simpler than analysts. Politicians simply fight the good fight, using any means available. They do not need to gaze far into the future. But analysts do need to see into the future and would like to see in the future. They are not very good at it, however.

Hence the cognitive error they make, an error best described by the classic metaphor of the black box. There is an initial state and a set of possible outcomes, but the box conceals its interior from us, what is in the middle. Since the initial state makes optimism groundless and has not even fully manifested itself, an optimistic assessment of possible outcomes seems implausible. It is impossible to avoid the error, but we can minimize its consequences if we ignore what might be inside the black box, that is, if we temporarily forget about “progressive” generals, lizards from the planet Niburu, and even about Navalny and other possible drivers of democratization in Russia. Instead, we should focus on democracy’s structural features.

Yet, the first hypothesis we have to take into account is that liberal democracy, regardless of its institutional shape, entrusts the decision of who holds power to a majority of voters. Hence, if the absolute majority of votes in an election are conferred on a potential dictator or his party, the return to authoritarianism is a question of time, and it matters not a whit whether the potential dictator holds the office of president or prime minister. Recent events in Turkey vividly bear this out. The country’s parliamentary system, which had existed for several decades, was unable to withstand a head-on collision with a single-party monopoly. The fact that Erdogan did indeed become the full-fledged president merely capped off the transformation, but the process itself took place within the parliamentary system.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara. Photo courtesy of Umit Bektas/Reuters

It follows that the main danger to a democracy under a parliamentary system consists not in the absence of succession among parliamentary elites, but in the establishment and long-term reproduction of a political monopoly in parliament. The experience of many countries, from Eastern Europe, where it was neutralized by the project of joining the EU, to Africa, where it has not been neutralized and has caused efforts at democratization to fail on several occasions, testifies to the fact that the danger is quite real. It is natural, after all, that at the first elections after democratization people vote en masse for the most persuasive opposition party and hand it a majority in parliament. The country’s main democrat then becomes a dictator, since there is no institutional counterbalance to prevent it.

This should make us look at the prospects of the current parliamentary parties after democratization.  One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is bound to survive, while two others, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the so-called party of power, United Russia, have good chances of surviving. It is unlikely they would enjoy idyllic relations with a new regime. Then, as becomes clear from the argument I have made, above, the survival of these parties would serve as a positive factor in democratization. They themselves are unlikely to become advocates of democracy, but that does not matter. What matters is that their presence in parliament, if it is considerable, would help restrain the authoritarian impulses of the new ruling group, if they manifest themselves.

I believe the MPs in the current parliamentary parties are neither fools in the mundane nor the political sense. Mainly, they are cunning, experienced wheeler-dealers who have managed to maintain their places at the top of Russia’s turbulent political heap. Clearly, however, they have used their tenure in parliament to preserve features of the current system that benefit them. In other words, they would lobby against progress under a new system, and this would indeed inject a hefty dose of stupidity into the work of building democracy in Russia. The dilemma is this. To stave off the new regime’s authoritarian impulses, they would have to be influential, but they would fritter away their influence on impeding reform.

Hence, I am inclined to think that a semi-presidential system would be optimal in a democratic Russia. The president would have serious powers, albeit powers severely limited by the constitution. Structurally speaking, it would approximate the European parliamentary system more than the presidential system of the US and most Latin American countries. However, it is now utterly useless to go into the details of this system, because they would depend greatly on the transition to democracy, now concealed from us by our imaginary black box.

However, I do not see any particular problems with a parliamentary system in a future Russia. Democracy is not only the rule of “democrats” as a party (a truth we in Russia have already swallowed, it seems), but nor is it necessarily the rule of politicans who adhere to democratic views. The presence of such politicians is extremely beneficial. But views are a shaky thing, and what matters more in a democracy is the structure of political competition. We know several examples of successful democratization, from late eighteenth-century France to modern Bangladesh, in which the role of card-carrying democrats in the initial state of the transition was extremely modest, and the main fight took place among several dictatorial factions. What mattered was that they successfully prevented each other from establishing a new dictatorship.

Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

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