“March 2018. Russian Presidential Election: We Elect a President, We Choose a Future!” || “March 2018. Russian Presidential Election: Nice Scenery, Bad Play!” Photo courtesy of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD)
Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) Facebook
March 19, 2018
What Has the “Election” Shown Us?
It has shown us that the system for mobilizing dependent Russians (employees, servicemen, etc.) by management at all levels still functions, and that the managers in question (governors, factory directors, and heads of state-sector institutions) are still loyal to the regime. Putin’s personal power rests on the vulnerability of workers, who in Russia have been deprived of the right to strike. It also rests on the loyalty of the bureaucratic caste and corrupted business world, apathy and conformism, and control of the media.
In managed democracy’s topsy-turvy world, voter turnout and Putin’s total share of the vote are indices of political indifference, while boycotting the spectacle is a manifestation of civic activism. Elections in Russia have finally transmogrified into something like an oath of allegiance to the so-called national leader, which has nothing to do with a democratic expression of the popular will.
Undoubtedly, along with the administrative resource, the conservatism of a generation traumatized by the chaotic 1990s, the post-Crimea syndrome, and the careful casting of Putin’s opponents played their role. The Kremlin did its all to divide the forces of protest. Strawberry king Pavel Grudinin served as a scarecrow for voters who did not want a return to the Soviet Union, while Ksenia Sobchak exacerbated the fears of pro-Soviet conservatives vis-à-vis Yeltsinite liberals.
Supporters of the boycott were targeted for assaults and crackdowns. Despite the fact the Voters Strike did not produce a drop in the turnout (too many powerful forces were put into play for that to happen), non-participation in ersatz democracy was the only viable stance, the best option among a host of bad choices. Serving as polling station monitors on election day, we saw what props up both “voluntary” and forced voting. We are glad we did not support this well-rehearsed stunt with our own votes. Russia faces another six years of disempowerment, poverty, lies, and wars—but not in our name.
Only those people who were hoping for a miracle could be disappointed today. Grudinin, whose fans predicted he would make it into the second round, returned worse results than Gennady Zyuganov did in 2012. Some analysts expected that the candidate of the patriotic leftist camp would steal votes from Putin’s conservative electorate, but that did not happen. Nor did Grudinin convince chronic non-voters to go to the polls, since he did not offer them anything new.
Presidential elections, obviously, are not a focal point of politics and an opportunity for change. They are a mode of manipulating public opinion meant to leave everything the way it was.
We need a new politics that undermines the power structures making it possible to manipulate the populace in the interests of the elite. We need a politics that takes on the power of management over employees, the power of the patriarchy over women and young people, and the power of the bureaucracy over local self-government. Since electoral politics has essentially been banned, the democratic leftist movement must rely on nonconformist communities opposed to Putinism in the workplace, education and culture, city and district councils, the media, and the streets.
Only in this way, not as the result of yet more heavy-handed maneuvering by the regime or the opposition to fill the ever more obvious void of popular democratic (i.e., leftist) politics, can a force emerge that is a real alternative to the system. We are going to keep working on shaping that force.
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.
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
Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a “Bad” Prime Minister
Nikolay Mironov Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 1, 2016
Remember the Soviet joke about the plumber who comes to an apartment to fix a leaky radiator?
“The entire system is rotten here: the entire system has to be changed!” he concludes.
The joke is as topical now as it was then, because the system, it seems, has hit rock bottom. But the nation is clearly of two minds. It is seemingly aware of what has been happening in the country, but at the same time it maintains its loyalty to the regime that has brought us to this pass.
On the one hand, we see a president with a huge rating. On the other hand, we see a rapidly failing economy, a deteriorating social sphere, and, consequently, a high degree of public dissatisfaction with the regime. How can it be that as the foundation crumbles, the president manages to maintain his popularity?
The logic of this social attitude was, I think, nicely expressed by a cabbie who recently gave me a lift.
“Putin is going like gangbusters: the West, America, Syria, Donbas. And Medvedev is supposed to be taking care of the economy instead of fiddling with his iPhone.”
And right then and there he served me up a helping of bad news. He has been getting less work. Prices are rising. Who knows where the hell we are headed.
The taxi driver in fact reproduced the classic propaganda formula he hears every day on the TV. Aside from America, bad officials and liberals are the root of our troubles. The government is clearly underperforming, while the president is terribly busy with foreign policy and lifting Russia from its knees. He is the country’s sacred patron, its guardian angel, and the shortcomings of officials do not stick to him.
If you are thinking straight, cognitive dissonance must kick in, of course. The president has a huge number of powers. He appoints the government, and he could, if he felt like it, sack any minister, including the prime minister, without consulting with anyone. He has the power to kickstart any reforms via presidential decrees. And the Duma is at his beck and call, for United Russia holds the majority of seats there. Why does Putin not appoint a good team, dismiss corrupt officials, and announce a policy shift for the country? How will he lift the country from its knees if the economy tanks? If he is weak and incapable of doing it, why should we support him? If he just does not want to do it, that is another strike against him. But the nation, which has a weak grasp of political institutions and sees no credible alternative in sight, is willing to believe that “Putin has it rough,” that “he is fighting,” and that “they are getting in his way.”
The massive brainwashing on this point allows the regime to keep a tight lid on the system and change nothing fundamental about it, thus preserving the current inertial scenario, which is favorable to the elites. It is favorable to them because, were the government to decide to undertake economic reforms, the economic interests of the elites would inevitably take a hit, forcing them to surrender some of their comforts and excess profits.
However, while the costs of the crisis are primarily borne by the masses, somebody has to be made the fall guy, the virtual whipping boy. With the exception of defense minister Sergei Shoigu and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the cabinet has been appointed to this role along with abstract liberal circles, who, allegedly, have a behind-the-scenes influence on officials.
It is obvious that today the head of state cannot officially support the current course, which has resulted in rampant poverty among the population. Equating this policy with the president would be, if not tantamount to suicide, then certainly a powerful blow to his popularity. But Putin has no intention to change course for the reason given above: the interests of the elites. For this reason, on the eve of the election campaigns, the plan is to deliberately unhook the domestic agenda from the president and hang it on Medvedev and his government. Consequently, the prime minister will no longer be the number two man in Russia, but an expendable, a scapegoat.
Moreover, we should not identify Medvedev with United Russia. Their identities are not blurred in the propaganda, and this is no accident. All the negativity towards officials and the head of the government must not devolve on the party tasked with winning a majority in the Duma in September. United Russia members have thus even been criticizing government ministers, pretending that they and the executive branch are different animals, despite the fact they have the same leader (Medvedev) and a majority in parliament, allowing them to make any and all political appointments and legislative decisions.
This is a quite important part of the spectacle. Medvedev has to be a lightning rod for Putin, and yet United Russia, which Medvedev chairs, has to make it successfully through the campaign for the new seating of the Duma. Since this is the task at hand, the regime will do its utmost to control the volume of criticism leveled at the prime minister, including criticism voiced by opposition parties. As for attacks by forces close to the regime (e.g., the Russian People’s Front’s usual philippics against bureaucrats), they will most likely come down to a matter of tweaking the picture to help the president avoid the impact of potential criticism for the current situation. But the propagandists will avoid belittling the government excessively during the election period. “Local officials” will bear the brunt of the negativity. The government, moreover, will be given carte blanche to spend budgetary funds for populist purposes and to mitigate the crisis, including through a temporary increase in dividends paid out by large corporations. (The figures currently quoted range between 300 and 400 billion, which should be quite enough to get through the summer.)
Thus, during the Duma campaign, Medvedev will draw fire upon himself. So-called managed democracy, however, will ensure this fire will not turn into a conflagration and burn the regime and the elites. The president must remain unharmed, since his main play strategically is the 2018 presidential election, a key election for the elites.
The next act in the political spectacle will be Medvedev’s premiership after the Duma elections in September and in the run-up to 2018. Here, too, he will function as a whipping boy and political expendable, readying the way for the launch of Putin’s next presidential campaign.
After the election, the prime minister, having received formal carte blanche from the voters, can undertake unpopular measures. (Unless, of course, the oil price suddenly rises miraculously.) It is inevitable. Someone has to pay for the crisis, and, apparently, the elites are still not this someone. In any case, it is Medvedev who will have to make ends meet in the 2016 budget, with its whopping 14.7% deficit on the expenditures side, and then rob Peter to pay Paul when drafting the 2017 and 2018 budgets.
If the situation gets ugly, and the populace’s complaints attain a critical mass, Putin can dismiss Medvedev on the eve of the presidential election, appointing him to some cushy post. And he will again profit from the decision, because in the eyes of the electorate, the president will be seen as a virtual national savior. Having dampened tensions in society this way, he will be re-elected to another six-year term as president, winning an acceptable percentage of the vote. The opposition will again be confounded, and someone like Alexei Kudrin can become prime minister. This will nicely symbolize the compromise between “liberals” and “conservatives,” while also functioning as a nod to the west, whose cheap money we need desperately.
The alpha and omega of all this complicated maneuvering is preserving the system, and thus preserving the privileges and assets of the supreme elites, their lifestyle, and their ability to peaceably transfer their wealth to their children. They will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and once again enjoy the sunsets on the French Riviera and in Italy.
Only time and economic conditions will tell what comes next. If the country’s currency reserves run out, and the oil price does not increase, intrigues around choosing Putin’s successor will kick off. Or a new scapegoat will be found, and so on ad infinitum. Generally speaking, the current regime just does not plan that far ahead.
Only one question remains. What is in all of this for Medvedev himself? Does he enjoy being expendable? Here it is like the line from the classic Soviet comedy film The Pokrovsky Gate: “Life is lived not for pleasure’s sake, but for the sake of conscience.”
I think the answer that immediately comes to mind is also the most likely to be the right answer. Medvedev does his job and is loyal to his boss. He cannot imagine himself outside the system, much less as the creator of a new system.
Another joke comes to mind in this connection. President Medvedev wakes up in a sweat. His wife asks what the matter is.
“I dreamt I fired Putin,” Medvedev replies.
2011 clearly showed that staging a revolution or even serious reforms was beyond the prime minister’s scope. Medvedev’s political career consists of brief ascents followed by a series of humiliations. However, his job has numerous upsides, too. Is it so bad being prime minister of such a rich country as Russia for a whole six years?
The 2016 Elections: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life
Ilya Budraitskis OpenLeft
April 29, 2016
How do the upcoming Duma elections threaten the regime?
Today, it would seem that the upcoming September elections to the State Duma are a cause of growing concern only in the Kremlin. While polls continue to record a low level of public interest in the event, and the tiny number of parties allowed to run in the election wanly prepares to fulfill their usual roles, the president and his entourage are increasingly talking about possible threats.
The rationale of radicalization
At a recent meeting with activists of the Russian People’s Front, Putin noted that external enemies would preparing ever more provocations to coincide “with elections to the State Duma, and then with the presidential election. It’s a one hundred percent certainty, a safe bet, as they say.”
Regardless of their real value, the upcoming elections have been turning right before our eyes into a point of tension on which the state’s repressive apparatus has focused. Beginning with the establishment of the National Guard, the process has been mounting. Each security agency has now inaugurated its own advertising season, designed not only to remind the president and public of its existence but also to show off its unique capabilities, inaccessible to other competing agencies, for combating potential threats.
Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has uncovered a plot by the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, while in his programmatic article, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin essentially suggested canceling the elections since holding them could prove too dangerous. He made a direct appeal to stop “playing at pseudo-democracy” and provide a “tough, appropriate, and balanced response” to the country’s enemies “in light of the upcoming elections and the possible risks presented by the stepping up of efforts by destabilizing political forces.” With the appointment of Tatyana Moskalkova, even the previously neutral office of the human rights ombudsman has, apparently, been turned into yet another bastion of the fight against conspiracies.
This nervousness is certainly due to the fact that the growing economic and social crisis has had no visible political fallout for the time being. There have been no mass spontaneous revolts or sectoral strikes, although there has been an overall uptick in isolated labor disputes. The political realm has long ago been securely purged of any uncontrollable opposition, while the president’s personal rating has remained phenomenally high. Nothing, it would seem, portends serious grounds for political destabilization this autumn. The absence, however, of real threats itself has become a threat to the internal stability of the state apparatus.
Where does the threat lie? In recent times, it has become obvious that decision-making at all levels and whatever the occasion has been subjected to a rationale of radicalization. Its principle can be described roughly as follows: no new decision can be less radical than the previous decision. Bureaucratic loyalty is measured only by the level of severity. MPs must propose more sweeping laws against latent traitors. Law enforcement agencies must expose more and more conspiracies, while the courts must hand down rulings that are harsher than the harshest proposals made by the security officials and MPs. Permanently mounting radicalism enables officials to increase budgets, expand powers, and prove their reliability, while any manifestation of moderation or leniency can cost them their careers. This radicalization, whose causes are rooted in the political psychology of the Russian elite (which suffers from an almost animal fear of uncontrollability), has set off an extremely dangerous bureaucratic momentum. Its main problem is the inability to stop. It is not only unclear where the bottom is, but who is ultimately interested in reaching that bottom and leaving it at that.
All this generates a strange situation vis-à-vis the elections, which have generally functioned primarily as a political balancing mechanism for the Putinist system, and even now function in this way. Elections have always been a reminder—not to voters, but to the elite itself—that varying opinions within a clearly defined framework have not only been possible but have also been encouraged. This reminder has been important not out of faithfulness to an abstract principle, but as confirmation that political bodies (first of all, the presidential administration) have had the monopoly on deciding domestic policy, not a military or police junta.
Fixing the broken mechanism?
For the Kremlin, the upcoming elections are overshadowed by the political trauma of 2011, when the smoothly functioning system of managed democracy suffered a serious breakdown. The current chief political strategist Vyacheslav Volodin has more or less consistently focused on making sure the failure of five years ago is not repeated. Volodin’s mission is to fix the broken mechanism with political methods, not by force.
It is worth remembering that, for the greater part of the Putin era, parliamentary and presidential elections were parts of a single political cycle, in which the same scenario was played out. The triumphal success of the ruling United Russia party was supposed to precede and ensure the even more resounding success of Vladimir Putin. In December 2011, however, the cycle’s unity backfired against the Kremlin’s plans. The interval between elections enabled the protest movement to maintain its grassroots energy for several months.
The political rationale of Putin’s third term is now aimed not only at technically but also at conceptually disrupting this cycle. Amidst a sharp drop in confidence in the government, the Kremlin decided last summer to move parliamentary elections up from December 2017 to September 2016, and, on the contrary, postpone the presidential election from March 2017 to March 2018. The point of the maneuver is obvious. The presidential and parliamentary elections must now represent not two parts of the same script but two completely different scripts. In the first script, a limited number of parties, which make up the symphony of the Crimean consensus, will criticize the government and each other, thus competing for the sympathies of the dissatisfied populace. In the second script, the natural patriotic instinct of voters should leave no doubt as to the need to support Putin unconditionally.
The new ideological content was embodied by Volodin’s famous statement: “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” This personification virtually means that, as a symbolic father, Putin transcends everyday politics. You can be a liberal or a nationalist, a proponent of greater intervention in the economy or a fan of the free market. You can choose not to like the government or government officials. But the nexus Putin-Crimea-Russia is beyond any doubt. Those who fundamentally disagree with it are simply removed from the Russian political spectrum and branded “national traitors.”
In keeping with this rationale, responsibility for the sharp drop in living standards and the consequences of the neoliberal “anti-crisis” measures has been borne by ministers, MPs, and governors, by anyone except the president. Even now, when the propaganda effect of the “reunification” of Crimea has obviously begun to fade, the president’s personal rating remains high. Thus, according to the latest opinion polls, 81% of respondents trust Putin, while 41% do not trust Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and 47% do not trust his government overall.
Within the new-model Crimean consensus, United Russia will no longer play the role of the backbone it played in the noughties. Untethered from the non-partisan figure of the president, it will take on the burden of unpopularity borne by its formal leader, Dmitry Medvedev, and his government. The mixed electoral system will enable candidates from local “parties of power” in single-member districts to dissociate themselves from United Russia, presenting themselves as “non-partisan Putinists” criticizing the soulless federal authorities. Volodin’s scheme involves loosening United Russia’s grip on power and slightly increasing the value of the pseudo-opposition as represented by the Communist Party and A Just Russia.
It is worth noting that the very existence of a bureaucratic mega-party previously played a stabilizing role by dampening intra-elite conflicts. Now they will inevitably come out into the open, including in the shape of inter-party struggles. Of course, the presidential administration counts on being able to effectively ensure compliance with the clear rules of this competition, but there are no guarantees. The managed multi-party system with the “father of the nation” towering over it consummates the new architecture of the Putin regime as a personalistic regime, and becomes more and more vulnerable.
In the new reality of the crisis, Putin’s depoliticization also facilitates a more intensive “natural selection” among bureaucrats at all levels by culling those who have not mastered the art of maintaining the conservative sympathies of the populace while simultaneously implementing what amount to aggressively anti-social policies. The September campaign is supposed to go off without a hitch, culminating in a predictable outcome. Having given a human face to the Central Elections Commission, which was seriously discredited by the previous leadership, Ella Pamfilova is meant to increase this manageability and predictability. It turns out that the upcoming elections are the primary pressure test of the new, post-Bolotnaya Square design of managed democracy. The future of Vyacheslav Volodin and his team, as well as Putin’s willingness to trust them with the extremely important 2018 presidential campaign, probably depends on how smoothly they come off.
From the foregoing it is clear that the objective of reestablishing the rules of managed democracy is directly at odds with the above-mentioned rationale of radicalization, whose standard-bearers are the competing law enforcement agencies. Their individual success in the internal struggle is vouchsafed by the failure of the political scenario, which would give rise to the need for a vigorous intervention by force. After all, the National Guard’s value would be incomparably increased if it put down real riots instead of sham riots, and Bastrykin’s loyalty would all the dearer if, instead of the endless absurdity of the Bolotnaya Square Case, he would uncover real extremists. To scare someone seriously, the ghosts have to take on flesh and blood.
Life is everywhere
Marx said that putrefaction is the laboratory of life. Now we see how Putinist capitalism has embarked on a process of gradual self-destruction. The upcoming elections provide a clear picture of how this has been facilitated by two opposing rationales, the political rationale (Volodin and the presidential administration) and the law enforcement rationale. Thus, the first rationale, in order to generate the necessary momentum and expand the range of opinions, must respond to social discontent by providing United Russia’s managed opponents with greater freedom to criticize. Restoring the internal political balance will inevitably lead to the fact that topics related to the crisis and the government’s anti-social policies will become the centerpiece of the entire election campaign. On the other hand, the security forces will destabilize the situation outside parliament. Together, they will do much more to undermine an already-flawed system than the long-term, deliberate efforts of any western intelligence agency.
Of course, Russian leftists should in no way count on events following an automatic course. But it is absolutely necessary to take into account the conflicts of interest within the elite and understand their decisive influence on the shape of the upcoming elections. These elections have nothing to do with the real struggle for power or traditional parliamentarianism in any shape or form. But they are directly related to the internal decomposition of an authoritarian, anti-labor, and anti-social regime. So our policy vis-à-vis these elections should be flexible and remote from all general conclusions. That means we can and should support certain leftist candidates in single-member districts. We must use all the opportunities provided by the leftist, socialist critique of the Medvedev government’s so-called anti-crisis policies. We must be ready to go to the polls. Or we must be ready to reject them, taking to the streets when the time comes.
Ilya Budraitskis is a writer, researcher, and editor at OpenLeft. Translated by the Russian Reader
When Process Is More Vital than Outcome
December 29, 2014 Zhukovskie Vesti
At six o’clock in the morning on 28 December 2014, Alexei Gaskarov, a defendant in the Bolotnaya Square Case, was transferred out of Butyrka remand prison in Moscow. Gaskarov will ring in the New Year while in transit to a medium security prison where he will serve his three-and-half-year sentence. In August, Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow sentenced four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case—Gaskarov, Alexander Margolin, Ilya Gushchin, and Elena Kohtareva—finding them guilty of involvement in rioting and using violence against authorities. The recent decision of the appellate court was adamant: it upheld the lower court’s verdict. On the eve of the New Year’s holiday, Gaskarov summed up this difficult year, spent away from loved ones, and speculated on what is happening in the country.
Here is Gaskarov’s letter to the readers of Zhukovskie Vesti, written a few days before his transfer:
In December, the Laboratory of Public Sociology (a project based at the Centre for Independent Social Research in Petersburg) published the results of its study of civic movements in the wake of the 2011–2012 protests. The main conclusion was that the critical attitude to the regime had not faded, but had been forced to transform into different local initiatives and “small deeds.” The mass mobilization for fair elections and the experience of joint action had made public politics an integral part of life and an essential element of self-realization on a par with caring for loved ones and professional success.
Perhaps one of the key case studies in the research project was the evolution of civic initiatives in our own city, with the caveat that, by Russian standards, we have always had an active civil society and, as far as I know, Zhukovsky has to some extent been an example to all other Russian cities. The internal logic of the observed transformation is quite obvious and is reflected in the well-known dissident argument that those who give up freedom for sausage (stability) ultimately lose everything. The more strongly public space is constricted, the more noticeable are the crises in all other areas of public life, and not giving into pressure is a very rational choice in terms of the common good, even if one has to retreat at some points.
With its demands for democratic reform, the tentative Bolotnaya Square movement cannot lose separately from the rest of society, even if for the majority it remains a case of protest for its own sake. For the right question to ask in the current crisis is not why oil prices have fallen, but why nothing has been done over the past fifteen years to overcome our country’s economic dependence on the vagaries of foreign markets.
We cannot know the reasons for certain decisions, and I am far from saying that all those in power are “crooks and thieves,” but there is no doubt a society that has chosen an authoritarian model of governance is incapable of building an effective economy. Consequently, the harder the screws are tightened, the closer the denouement.
The lack of political competition leads only to an increase of incompetence in decision-making. For the sake of mythical manageability, the system is deprived of a complex but effective system of checks and balances, turning into a primitive vertical, which functions in an improvisatory mode.
A simple example from recent days is the Central Bank’s independence. The president’s friend needed 625 billion rubles,* and they up and printed them no questions asked, instantly causing the currency market to collapse and transferring all the costs to the entire population. On television, of course, they explained that “the West” and a “fifth column” were to blame for everything. This would not be possible in any democratic country. In Russia, however, absolute power goes on corrupting absolutely.
Despite the fact that there was more talk of dignity, freedom, and intolerance of hypocrisy and lies at the opposition rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011–2012, the regime faced a fairly simple choice: either dialogue and reforms, or crisis and stagnation, which still means change, ultimately, but at a completely different price. It is almost an axiom, so people should not get upset if they were unsuccessful, for example, in defending a forest, challenging vote rigging in court or changing urban planning policies. The experience of collective action, rather than short-term outcomes, is vital in its own right.
In Argentina in 2001, the economic crisis produced such contradictions between society and authorities that the people’s only demand was Que se vayan todos! (“Out with them all!”). And the world witnessed one of the largest societal reconstruction projects based on self-organization and local government, something that had seemed unreal, as it does now in Russia. Who could have predicted the shameful flight of the once-strong Yanukovych in 2013? It is possible that if there is no liberalization and political thaw, at some point those who now appear important and confident will just disappear, and no one except we ourselves will be able to make decisions for us. And it will be right at such a moment that we will need the know-how of collective action and a vision for the future of both our city and the country as a whole.
* In the original, Gaskarov writes that “the president’s friend”—an obvious reference to Rosneft chairman and Putin insider Igor Sechin—needed “25 billion rubles.” I have corrected this to the figure of 625 billion rubles cited in the press as the amount of Rosneft’s recent bond issue, especially because before his arrest, Gaskarov worked as an economist and would not otherwise be prone to such mistakes. The figure of 25 billion rubles is thus either a typo or reflects his restricted access to information.
Editor’s Note. This translation was previously published, with an introduction and afterword by Gabriel Levy, on People and Nature. Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of personalsuccesstoday.com