Russia without Putin

1211505Vladimir Putin playing hockey Moscow’s Red Square on December 29, 2018. Photo courtesy of Valery Sharufulin/TASS and RA’s Daily News Blast

Yana Teplitskaya
Facebook
December 27, 2018

Police officers usually realize that, whatever they do, they are breaking the law or disobeying standing orders, and since they are afraid of being found out, they definitely don’t talk to the press. Here we have a different story, which I don’t know how to explain. Petersburg opposition activists are well aware of a police officer from the “Third Department” by the name of Ruslan Sentemov, while other people have not heard of him, likely as not. For some reason, Sentemov operates quite openly, going so far as to give the local news website Fontanka.ru a detailed interview about his work.

I don’t knowwhat happened to Petersburg opposition activist Shakhnaz Shitik at the Yabloko Party’s Petersburg office, but this is what happened at the police precinct, as related by Shakhnaz. It has been corroborated by one police officer, nor has it been refuted by the other officers who were present. According to the shift commander, during the incident, all or nearly all the officers at the 78th Police Precinct were in the duty room and were separated from the incident by a glass door. I also understand that Shakhnaz’s account is borne out by the videotape that civil rights activist Dinar Idrisov and Petersburg city councilman Boris Vishnevsky have seen.

Sentemov and two of his colleagues (their names are also known) used force on Shakhnaz. They pressed her head hard to her chest, causing her agonizing pain. Consequently, in the incident report, according to the social defender, in addition to the injuries she suffered at the Yabloko office, damage to her cervical vertebrae was caused at the police station.

Moreover, the officers grabbed Shakhnaz’s telephone by sticking their hands down her painties. No public witnesses or female police officers were present during this search, nor was an incident report filed. Taken from her but not officially confiscated, her telephone lay in the police department, along with her blouse and other clothing, prior to the Public Monitoring Commission’s visit. During the incident, Shakhnaz was wearing a bra. The blouse was returned to her only at the hospital.

__________________________________________________

Concerning the sadistic tendencies of our police investigators and judges, I would argue this is an allegory, artistic embellishment. Otherwise, what kind of judicial system do we have? These were your words: judicial system. The system includes the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court. Are they sadists, too? We should choose our words more carefully. I realize you wanted to rouse us, you wanted to get our attention. You did what you set out to do. Thank you.

The courts and law enforcement agencies are staffed by our fellow Russian citizens. They live in the places we live. They [were] raised in the same families in which we were raised. They are part of our society. There are probably all kinds of different people everywhere, in all large organizations. If you have a look at the percentage of law enforcement officers convicted of crimes, it has recently increased, and increased considerably.

This suggests the work of housecleaning has not stood still. It has intensified and produced certain results. In order to minimize this, however, we do not need trepressive actions against the justice or judicial system. We need serious, multi-pronged, multi-facted work. That is what we have been trying to do on this Council.

Source: Vladimir Putin, Meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, The Kremlin, Moscow, December 11, 2018. Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for the heads-up.

__________________________________________________

Open Russia Activist Whom Police Assaulted in October Detained in Lipetsk
OVD Info
December 12, 2018

Alexander Kiselevich, the Open Russia activist assaulted by four police officers in October, has been detained in Lipetsk. He has reported the incident to OVD Info.

Kiselevich was stopped near his home by traffic police. After checking his papers, they asked Kiselevich to follow them to the Izmalkovo District Police Department, where he was charged with breaking Article 19.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code (disobeying a police officer’s lawful orders). The policemen told Kiselevich he would be taken to court from the police station.

In October, on the eve of an election to choose the head of the Izmalkovo District Council, Kiselevich was beaten by police officers before being taken to a psychiatric hospital for a compulsory examination. Kiselevich was thus unable to present himself to the competition committee, and his name was struck from the ballot

Kiselevich was charged with breaking Article 19.3 after the incident in October. The police claimed Kiselevich resisted them when they were forcibly delivering him to the psychiatric hospital.

Kiselevich is a well-known opposition activist in Lipetsk Region. In 2016, he was elected head of the Afanasyevo Village Council, but shortly thereafter the majority of council members voted to dismiss him. Kiselevich was charged with embezzlement (Article 160 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code).

UPDATE. Kiselevich has reported to MBKh Media that a court in Lipetsk has found him guilt of disobeying a policeman’s lawful orders and fined him 500 rubles. Kiselevich plans to appeal the sentence.

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

“The Rowdies Have to Be Apprehended Legally, So We Can Have a Celebration in the City on March 18, not Bedlam”

8792CD92-EE28-452C-859C-77B15F02744B_w1023_r1_sThe political performance “Clanking Chains,” March 11, 2018, Petersburg. Photo by Tatyana Voltskaya. Courtesy of RFE/RL

Petersburg Puts Oppositionists on Pause: Eight More Activists Detained
Maria Karpenko, Kseniya Mironova and Anna Pushkarskaya
Kommersant
March 13, 2018 (updated March 14, 2018)

The arrests of opposition activists continue in St. Petersburg. In the last two days, police have apprehended eight activists, three of whom ended up in police custody at the courthouse, where they had gone to support their comrades. The court has already remanded eight people in custody for their alleged involvement in a protest rally that took place a month and a half ago. At Petersburg city hall, Kommersant was told, “The rowdies have to be apprehended legally, so we can have a celebration in the city on March 18, not bedlam.”

On Tuesday, Smolny District Court in St. Petersburg sentenced three opposition activists—Viktor Cherkassov, Yekaterina Shlikhta, and Ilya Gantvarg (son of Mikhail Gantvarg, ex-rector of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and Russian Federation People’s Artist)—to ten days in jail. Police had apprehended them on Monday for involvement in the so-called Voters Strike, a protest rally held on January 28 by supporters by Alexei Navalny. Yegor Ryabchenko, who was also apprehended, was only fined.

On Tuesday, police apprehended another three activists—Vladimir Kazachenko, Alexander Kirpichov, and Darya Mursalimova, who had come to support their comrades—right in the courthouse. Mursalimova and activist Sergei Belyaev, also apprehended on Tuesday, were sentenced by the same court around 11 p.m. in the evening. Mursalimova was given fifteen days in jail for repeated involvement in an unsanctioned rally, while Belyaev was sentenced to seven days in jail and twenty hours of correctional labor.

Kazachenko and Kirpichov’s court hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.

The new wave of arrests was prefaced by a flash mob [sic], entitled “Clanking Chains,” during which ten activists marched down Nevsky Prospect in chains and prisoners’ outfits. The [performance], which took place on March 11, was held in support of oppositionists who had already been jailed.

The defense attorneys of all of the activists jailed on Tuesday plan to file appeals in St. Petersburg City Court. If the appeals are unsuccessful, the activists will be released only after the presidential election on March 18, just like the three oppositionists already in police custody on the same grounds.

In early march, the court sentenced Alexei Pivovarov, Open Russia’s regional coordinator, Denis Mikhailov, head of Alexei Navalny’s Petersburg headquarters, and Artyom Goncharenko, an activist with the Vesna (“Spring”) Movement, to twenty-five days in jail for their involvement in the Voters’ Strike.

Moreover, Mr. Mikhailov had just served thirty days in jail for organizing the same event, while Mr. Goncharenko had not attended the rally at all. He had merely displayed an inflatable yellow duck in the window of his apartment building, past which the protesters marched. St. Petersburg City Court rejected an appeal to overturn their jail sentences, despite arguments made by the defense that the “deferred punishment” for violating the rules on rallies was “politically motivated.”

The January 28 protest rally was peaceful. Police detained around twenty people, which was very few compared with previous unauthorized protests in Petersburg. Except for Denis Mikhailov, all of the detainees were released from police precincts after police had so-called preventive conversations with them. They were not even written up for administrative violations.

Our source at Petersburg city hall explained what was happening.

“The rowdies have to be apprehended legally, so we can have a celebration in the city on March 18, not bedlam.”

Thanks to Comrade NN for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Lev Schlosberg: The Veil of Public Opinion

 

Lev Schlosberg is a member of the Pskov Regional Assembly and the Yabloko Democratic Party’s national political committee. Photo courtesy of Pskovskaya Guberniya Online

The Veil of Public Opinion: Russian Opinion Polling Has Become Part and Parcel of State Propaganda 
Lev Schlosberg
Pskovskaya Guberniya Online
1 March 2018

Public opinion polls are constant companions of politics and national election campaigns. In democratic countries, polls are reflections of the public discourse surrounding politicians, ideas, political platforms, and conflicts. They echo public opinion in all its fullness and thus facilitate the public discourse itself regardless of who is involved in it: the authorities, the opposition or society at large. In twenty-first century Russia, political pollsters have a different job. They are tasked with persuading society the regime is terrific and everything (or nearly everything) is going great. During elections, they are supposed to generate the illusion of nationwide support for the authorities.

Polling is a tool of political manipulation in the hands of bureaucrats. Polling data is meant not merely to testify to broad support for the authorities but also to persuade dissidents they are few and far between, to discourage them and sap them of their will.

There is a whole set of techniques behind manipulating public opinion. The findings of public opinion polls, allegedly obtained scientifically, by means of formal research methods, are supposed to convince people of their objectivity and impartiality.

Honest political polling and sociological research is something that goes on in free, democratic societies. When answering questions on a questionnaire or taking part in a group or individual focused interview, a person should be sure she can speak openly and safely, even when she criticizes the authorities.

Fear is the enemy of honest polling. In authoritarian and, especially, totalitarian societies, people are afraid of making critical statements with their names attached to them, whether that entails filling out a standardized questionnaire or answering a question openly and at length. The classic set-up is when the interviewer knocks on someone’s door or comes up to someone on the street and asks, “How would you rate Vladimir Putin’s performance? Do you support him completely, partially or not at all? To ensure the quality of our poll you may get a follow-up telephone call. Please give me your name and telephone number.”

How do you think approximtely 86% of respondents would behave? Well, that is, in fact, how they behave: by giving the “right” answer.” There are many examples of this.

Now put yourself in the shoes of rank-and-file Russians, who are regaled round the clock with tales of Putin’s 86% popularity rating by all manner of mass media: TV, radio, newspaper, the internet.  People who do not agree with the authorities but are not experienced in the nitty-gritty of politics will imagine they belong to an obvious, hopeless political minority. They are social outcasts, virtually bereft of kindred spirits.

This is the impression the people behind such political pressure polling want to achieve. A picture of absolute political domination stifles a person’s will and reduces his willingness to voice his stance and take action. This extends to getting involved in politics and voting in elections.

When a person feels insignificantly small, she is made tired and exhausted by the very feeling of her smallness and insignificance. Thoughts of emigrating often occur to people who feel they are in the minority, trapped in a political ghetto.

Political pressure polling is a new means of combating dissent, of attacking the opposition.

VTsIOM recently reported that, according to the findings of an extensive telephone poll (one of the least reliable polling methods), 81% of voters plan to vote in the March 18 Russian presidential election.

Enthusiastic nationwide support is the dream of all dictators. As people who suffer from hypertrophied inferiority complexes, dictators compensate by demanding the entire nation love, adore, and admire them. This popular love must be constantly corroborated by public opinion polls and elections.

Under authoritarian regimes, all authentic democratic institutions are reduced to imitations and desecrations, and public opinion polls are very revealing instances of this.  The mirror of society is turned into a fake painted on a blank wall.

Political pressure polling performs another vital function by setting the bar for electoral fraud.  If the polls anticipate a voter turnout of 81%, officials at all levels will work to ensure an 81% turnout. If the polls say 70% of Russians support the so-called national leader, officials will encourage election commissions at all levels to ensure he takes home 70% of the popular vote.

A vicious circle is produced. One lies begets another, and the lies generate fear and violence. To top it all off, lies generate aggression. Public opinion research serves as a means of zombifying and corrupting public opinion.

Instead of a portrait of society, we see a caricature of society.

At the same time, the authorities lose society’s feedback. They do not know or understand what people think and want, sending themselves and the entire country into a dead end. In the absence of honest polling, the authorities and society are blinded. God knows where the road could lead if no one can see the road itself and no one understands where the country is headed.

Political pressure polling is a veil that conceals the truth of events from the authorities and from society. This is quite dangerous and can produce tremendous shocks.

Until the last minute, the dictator has no clue what people think about him. Then the moment of disaster dawns. On the eve of his overthow and execution, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s official popularity rating was 95%. It did not protect him, but rather hastened his terrible demise.

Currently, Russian society lacks a reliable map of public opinion, because fear has paralyzed many people, and because when the authorities pimp an honest profession, far from all of the people who practice it remain faithful to its standards. Doing so is difficult and takes great courage.

Enveloped in such darkness, we need to understand a few things.

First, it is impossible to stop the course of history. An unfree society will yield to a free society. Our responsibility is to go in the right direction.

Second, the less the authorities know the truth, the sooner the regime will come to an end. It takes time and patience.

Third, in order to know and understand the truth, it is enough to ask yourself, “What do I think? What do I believe? What are my convictions?” Under no circumstances should you give up on yourself.

The job of free people in today’s Russia is not to lose face.

Ultimately, it will change the face of the entire country.

Thanks to Comrade Preobrazhenskaya for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Maria Eismont: Moscow’s Municipal District Opposition

DSCN0811
Like other municipal district councils in Russia’s major cities, Petersburg’s Vladimirsky Municipal District Council has a meeting space and offices, and enough money to publish a newspaper and fund very minor improvements in the neighborhood, but it has virtually no political power and survives only at the mercy of city hall and the city’s legislative assembly. Photo by the Russian Reader

How Things Are Going for the Municipal District Opposition
New politicians searching for a new agenda
Maria Eismont
Vedomosti
November 23, 2017

Sergei Sokolov was the only opposition member in the previous sitting of Moscow’s Konkovo Municipal District Council.

“I could not beat pro-regime council members when things were put to a vote, but I still managed to discourage them from doing things the neighborhood did not need,” says Sokolov, recalling his preceding five-year term on the municipal district council.

In September 2017, a team of Konkovo activists, led by Sokolov, won neighborhood elections, taking eight of the fifteen seats on the municipal district council. Sokolov was named head of the district, since Konkovo’s charter stipulates a simple majority of votes by council members to elect a district head, unlike other municipal districts. In other neighborhoods where the opposition won majorities on councils, their candidates for district heads ran into problems, since they needed the backing of two thirds of council members to win the posts, but they came up short on votes.

For the first time in many years, independent candidates won majorities in several Moscow municipal districts. In several instances, they won overwhelming majorities, but the question of whether grassroots self-government is possible in Moscow remains open.

The fact that Moscow’s municipal council members have scanty means at their disposal and insufficient powers was well known before and during the campaign. Yet now the new democratic politicians, who have taken power at the lowest level of Russia’s political totem pole, must show themselves and their voters that this is, in fact, the beginning of big and important changes in Russia.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, now head of the Krasnoselsky Municipal District, has already gone public with the new council’s first legislative undertaking. They have suggested eliminating the current system of so-called golden parachutes for outgoing municipal district council members and municipal district heads.

Konkovo’s independent council members have gone further. Within ten days of taking office, Sokolov sent the Moscow City Duma a request for 19 million rubles [approx. 275,000 euros] in additional funds for Konkovo’s budget, paid for with an increase in the allocation of personal income tax revenues.

“There are no rational explanations for the inexplicably low, discriminatory amount of personal income tax revenues allocated to the Konkovo Municipal District’s budget,” Sokolov wrote.

Council members have proposed spending the money on neighborhood improvements, accessible legal aid for low-income people, and a Southwest Moscow History Museum.

Last week, Konkovo council members came out with a legislative initiative to amend the Moscow City Law “On the Budget’s Structure and the Budgetary Process in the City of Moscow,” proposing to set the amount of allocations to municipal district budgets from personal income tax revenues at five percent. (It is currently set at 0.96%.) Economist Vladimir Milov helped draft the bill.

“I had been thinking about this initiative for a long time, and our team was organized for this purpose,” says Sokolov.

There are traces of picture frames that once held photographs of the president and prime minister on the wall in Sokolov’s office. They have been replaced by a hand-drawn portrait of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“I have no illusions about the bill. United Russia still has a majority in the Moscow City Duma,” says Sokolov. “I don’t yet know how we are going to lobby the bill, but we will  be employing our usual methods: media outreach, rallies, and similar public things.”

It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which Moscow city officials would meet the opposition municipal districts halfway, voluntarily giving up some of their money and authority. But it seems extremely important the reform of local self-government continues to be discussed and elaborated.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Three Years Later: Suicide by Crimea

Suicide by Crimea
Nikolay Klimenyuk
oDR
March 17, 2017

As long as Russia maintains its grip on the Ukrainian peninsula, significant changes for the better at home are impossible.

In the three years that have passed since the annexation of Crimea, a consensus has taken shape in Russia. Everything having to do with the Ukrainian peninsula is Russia’s internal affair, and far from the most important one.

The “accession” of Crimea has even quite succesfully happened in the heads of the regime’s opponents. In November 2016, while arguing on Facebook with Crimean Tatar journalist Ayder Muzhdabaev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky expressed a stance then supported by many publicly prominent liberals, including activists and intellectuals. Russian society, he argued, wants to deal with other problems. The opposition’s biggest task is regime change, but returning Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction by democratic means would be impossible because public opinion would be opposed. Crimea is not mentioned at all in Alexei Navalny’s 2018 presidential campaign platform.

Russian media outlets generally considered “liberal” (these media usually eschew the word “opposition”) havealso swallowed the annexation and most of the rhetoric surrounding it without a peep. TV Rain, RBC (even before its top editors were replaced), and the online Meduza, which operates out of Latvia and is not not subject to Russian laws, have all long routinely called and depicted Crimea as part of Russia. The standard explanation—it is required by Russian law, and insubordination is fraught with penalties—sounds like an excuse. The law does not require that questions about Crimea be included in a quiz on knowledge of Russian cities (which was amended after public criticism) or that reporters term the annexation a “reunification” (Meduza edited the latter term to “absorption.”)

At the same time, Russian reporters usually have no problem demonstratively violating Ukrainian laws (which require them to enter the occupied territory through the checkpoint at Perekop) and flying to Crimea from Russia (as Deutsche Welle reporter Yuri Resheto did), because it’s cheaper, faster, and simpler, and because Ukraine’s rules are cumbersome, inconvenient, and nonbinding.

After that, you can write critical reports on human rights violations in Crimea till the cows come home, but it won’t change what matters. The voluntary observance of inconvenient Ukrainian rules is tantamount to acknowledging Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea, and hardly anyone in Russia wants to do that.

In fact, the seizure of Crimea has been the cause of many pressing problems in Russia that have been on the Russian opposition’s agenda. It has laid bare peculiarities of Russian society that existed longer before the attack on Ukraine.

For example, not only did the extent of imperialist moods become clear but also Crimea’s place in how Russians see themselves as a society and a nation. The imperial myth, still alive and well in Russia, was concocted during Catherine the Great’s reign. From the moment they were implemented, Peter the Great’s reforms had provoked a mixed response. They smacked of “sycophancy,” and modeling the country on Holland seemed somehow petty.

Catherine, on the contrary, conceived a great European power, rooted in antiquity, Byzantine’s direct heir, the Third Rome, a Europe larger than Europe itself. Her ambitious Southern Project, which involved defeating Turkey, uniting all the Orthodox countries in a single empire, and installing her grandson the Grand Duke Constantine on the throne in Constantinople, was brought low by political reality. The only one of her great fantasies she made come true was seizing the Crimean Khanate, in 1783.

The conquest was extremely atypical of Russia. A troublesome neighbor was not subjugated. Rather, the annexed lands were completely reimagined and rewritten. The rewriting was attended by the first mass expulsion of the Crimean Tatars. They did not fit at all into the pictures of the radiant past that Grigory Potemkin was painting in reality on the annexed lands. Crimea was resettled with Plato and Aristotle’s Orthodox descendants: Pontic Greeks, Great Russians, and Little Russians (i.e., Ukrainians). Naturally, all these particulars have been forgotten long since. What has not been forgotten is Crimea’s central place in the self-consciousness of a “great European nation,” as manifest, for example, in the absurd, endlessly repeated expression, “Crimea has always been Russian.”

The saying perfectly illustrates the peculiarities of historical memory in Russia. Crimea’s current “Russianness” is the outcome of over two hundred years of the uninterrupted genocide and displacement of the “non-Russian popuation,” which culminated during the Second World War. After the two Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1944 (ethnic Germans, Greeks, Bulgarians, Italians, Armenians, Karaites, and Crimean Tatatrs were deported), losses during battles, and the Nazi extermination of Jews and Crimeans, only a third of Crimea’s pre-war inhabitants were left. It was resettled with people from Russia and Ukraine, especially by military officers and veterans of the Party and the secret services.

Naturally, few people in Russia today regard Crimea as a conquered and ravaged country, in which a full-fledged state existed until relatively recently, an indigenous culture was long maintained, and Russians were never the ethnic majority even during the lifetimes of the present elder generation.

Regarding Crimea as a territory, not a society, and treating Crimeans as an annoying inconvenience, was a habit in Catherine’s times and has survived into the present. The formal excuse for the Russian incursion was the “defense of Crimea’s Russophone population,” and yet the “Crimea is ours” attitude of Russians to the peninsula’s residents has been quite skeptical from the get-go. They imagine the main business of Crimeans is leaching off tourists, and the only thing that attracts them about Russia is high wages.

Moreover, this opinion is common across the entire political spectrum. Sergei Parkhomenko, a liberal journalist and public figure, expressed it in a very telling way.

“If first you take five days to explain to the population of Crimea that if they return to Ukraine’s jurisdiction, their wages and pensions will be increased, and they’ll also be permitted to build even more chicken coops for holidaymakers in the coastal zone, and only then you ask them to vote in a referendum, 95% will vote for going back. […]  These people have proved they could not care less what country they belong to. And if there is anyone for whom I now feel not an ounce of sympathy as I read about how they are being fooled, robbed, milked, and put under the rule of gangsters pretending to be officials and bosses, it is the population of Crimea.”

The massive support of Russians for the annexation has much more serious and immediate consequences than a display of deeply rooted chauvinism. Having signed off on “Crimea is ours,” Russians have deemed their own power above the law and sanctioned its use in violating all laws and treaties for the sake of higher interests or “justice.” The Russian authorities had behaved this same way previously, but now they have obtained the relevant mandate from society. Quite naturally, the crackdown following the seizure of Crimea has been chockablock with spectacular acts of lawlessness.

One such act was the demolition of commercial kiosks and pavilions in Moscow, which happened despite legalized property rights and court rulings. There was nothing accidental about the fact the Moscow authorities justified their actions by citing the law adopted for settling real estate disputes in Crimea. And the twenty-year-sentence handed down to Oleg Sentsov set a new ceiling for verdicts in political trials. Before Crimea, activists would get a dvushechka (two years) for especially vigorous protests. After Crimea, the Russian authorities have been sentencing people for reposts on VK and holding solo pickets.

Actually, any regime that tasks itself with establishing the rule of law in Russia will first have to annul this “mandate to lawlessness.” The Russian opposition’s attitude to Crimea shows the rule of law is not among its priorities at all. Bewitched by the figure of Putin, the opposition does not regard regime change as a product of the rule of law. The fact that it cannot offer a realistic scenario for regime change is not a problem in itself. Russia’s currrent regime does not presuppose a peaceful change of power. Systemic change might happen as it did in the Soviet Union, at the behest of the bigwigs and under the impact of external circumstances: the state of the economy, public sentiment, foreign policy factors.

The opposition’s most serious problem is that it doesn’t have a meaningful outline of what would come next.

If we believe the alternative to Putin is neither Navalny, Khodorkovsky nor anyone else, but a democratic state based on the rule of law, there are two obstacles in our way: Crimea and Chechnya. The opposition has no vision of how to establish control over Chechnya and incorporate it into Russia’s legal system, but it is possible in theory, at least. There is no such possibility with Crimea. It is impossible to hope for international recognition of the peninsula as part of Russia, and if we keep regarding it as part of Russia, it will thus remain a legal anomaly. Moreover, no rule rule of law is even formally possible without observance of international law.

When discussing Crimea, the Russian opposition evinces a notion of democracy that differs little from Putin’s, although it is consonant with the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the European populists: that democracy is rule based on majority support and not burdened by the observance of laws, procedures, and international obligations. Khodorkovsky, for example, considers “democratic procedure” not the restoration of law, but the adoption of a decision on Crimea based on the opinion of the majority, which, allegedly, is against giving Crimea back to Ukraine. Navalny has suggested holding a new, “normal” referendum.

Yet what the majority really thinks, whether there is such a thing as public opinion on any issue and how to measure it, obviously means nothing at all either to Khodorkovsky, Navalny or many other members of the opposition. By the same token, since Putin is supported by the majority of the Russian population, there is nothing for the opposition to do at all. All these contradictions can be eliminated only by unconditionally recognizing both the illegality of Crimea’s annexation and the total impossibility of keeping it in the Russian Federation on any grounds.

With Crimea in tow, Russia has no positive alternative to the current regime. And as long as the Russian opposition is concerned only about regime change and avoids discussing Crimea, the only thing it can offer is a Putinist Russia sans Putin. Whoever ends up in his place, however, the changes won’t be too noticeable.

Nikolay Klimenyuk writes about politics and culture in Germany and Russia. He was an editor at Forbes Russia, Bolshoi Gorod, and other periodicals. He has lived in Berlin since 2014 and writes for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other German mass media. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader