Ivan Davydov: Unimaginable

volodinVyacheslav Volodin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the State Council, June 26, 2019. Photo by Dmitry Astakhov. Courtesy of Sputnik, Reuters, and Republic

What Russia Cannot Imagine
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 18, 2019

Any periodical would love to get their hands on a star author. Who even thought a few days ago that something called the Parliament Gazette was published in Russia? Yet State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has just published an article there entitled “The Living, Evolving Constitution.” Everyone who follows politics has read it and many have ventured to summarize it. Volodin praises the Russian Constitution and its spirit while arguing certain things in it should be amended.

This is not the first time Volodin has done this. Last year marked the Constitution’s twenty-fifth birthday. The speaker hinted that it was obsolete in parts. Valery Zorkin, Chief Justice of the Russian Constitutional Court, voiced similar thoughts, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev weighed in with a programmatic article entitled “The Constitution at Twenty-Five: Balancing Freedom and Responsibility.”

The little booklet keeps them up at night. They sense it is at odds with reality. They are eager to amend it.

Renaissance Men
Medvedev wrote about the possibility of amending the Constitution. The amendments were needed in order to “update the status of the authorities.” Don’t ask me what that means: the prime minister himself would probably not be able to tell you.

Zorkin spoke of “pinpoint” amendments aimed at restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches. Nineteen years into Putin’s reign, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court suddenly noticed the executive branch had brought the legislative branch to heel.

Volodin’s article has the same bent.

“In my analysis of the Constitution, I pay special mind to the lack of a needed balance in how the legislative and executive branches function. Discrete, pinpoint constitutional innovations might really be necessary in this case,” he writes.

Actually, the speaker has only one proposal: the Duma should have more levers for controlling what the government does.

“It is advisable to further elaborate the rules concerning the government’s accountability to parliament on issues raised by the State Duma, including the evaluation of the performance of specific ministers. It would also be a good thing (this is only my opinion) to further weigh the question of the State Duma’s involvement in selecting ministers in the Russian federal government,” he writes.

It is as if we have gone back to the early twentieth century, no? It was a romantic time. The public enthusiastically discussed “A Manifesto for Improving the State Administration,” published on October 17, 1905. The Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) had the upper hand in the first Duma, and Pavel Milyukov would soon take to the podium to demand an accountable government. Prince Sergei Urusov would soon make his famous speech.

“People with the educations of quartermasters and policemen and the convictions of rioters are deciding the country’s fate,” he said.

His words have lost none of their timeliness, to the woe of our poor fatherland.

No, the man at the podium is Vyacheslav Volodin, a well-educated intellectual whose mind is on a par with the pillars of the Renaissance. He wrote his dissertation about dispending feed to livestock, but his arguments about balancing the branches of government are no worse than what you would hear from a political scientist, although, of course, the irrepressible lover of bad jokes inside all of us would note the parallels between cattle and politicians.

Volodin is at the podium, so we must read between the lines. He could not care less about achieving a “higher quality of interaction and coherence in the government’s work.” The speaker has a different goal, one that is easily discerned.

The Eternal Present
Like everyone else who has spoken about possible amendments to the Constitution,  the speaker is looking to the future. He is looking towards 2024 when the regime will have to figure out how to maintain Putin’s grip on supreme power. It would be unseemly just to reelect him one more time. You do not expect any of the folks occupying important government posts to worry about decency, but the issue does indeed bother them.

Political junkies are regularly excited by rumors of transition scenarios, some of them quite intricate. People in the know, citing anonymous but terribly reliable sources, suddenly claim that a State Council will be established.

They must have seen Ilya Repin’s famous monumental painting, which made an impression on them.

800px-Ilya_Repin_-_Ceremonial_Sitting_of_the_State_Council_on_7_May_1901_Marking_the_Centenary_of_its_Foundation_-_Google_Art_ProjectIlya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903. Oil on canvas, 4.4 m by 8.77 m. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Or they let slip that Russia and Belarus will finally be totally unified.

But the State Council—not the meaningless, powerless State Council that has convened since 2000, but a genuine, proper State Council that would replace all other executive authorities—still convenes only in Repin’s painting, while the would-be tsar of Belarus his own plans and his own heir. He even took him on a pilgrimage to Valaam to show him off to our would-be tsar and thus quash any funny ideas in the latter’s head.

And then Bloomberg, a source at we cannot sneeze, writes that the Kremlin is planning large-scale electoral reforms. Supposedly, in the 2021 parliamentary elections, 75% of MPs will be elected not via party lists but in single-mandate constituencies. United Russia’s candidates will run as independents. (We have heard this before.) The regime will have total control of parliament. (As if it does not have it now.). Putin will again lead the ruling party and be appointed the prime minister. The powers of the presidency will be curtailed. It will not matter who is elected to this clownish post because Russia will be run by the prime minister.

We have been through this before. There was no need to amend the Consitution. The regime did as it liked anyway.

Rumors spread by an international news agency are one thing, but rumors backed by a programmatic article written by the Speaker of the Duma are another. The picture comes into focus. The regime has come up with a plan, apparently. We can thus say with some accuracy what the future holds for us.

The future will be the same as the present, despite certain formal shakeups that have no bearing on the real lives of ordinary Russians and leave the regime’s domestic and foreign policies intact. The regime will undergo fundamental changes, as it were, but the same people will be in power.

What future lies in store for us? No future at all, a future as dull as the eyes of Russia’s leader.

The Ruling Dynasty’s Motto
On the one hand, all of this stuff is interesting, as it were. You feel like Sherlock Holmes, perusing a boring article with a magnifying glass and figuring out what it has to do with keeping Putin in power. You imagine how the Russian state machine will function after it undergoes a minor facelift. The prime minister will control both the parliament and the government while the president visits summer camps and publishes articles in small-circulation newspapers about what the world will be like in a hundred years. Medvedev would be great for the job, and this would solve the problem of finding another heir.

On the other hand, haven’t we been through this already?

The takeaway message is that none of these schemes accounts for regime change. Our powers that be can draw whatever blueprints they like showing one set of cogs engaging another set of cogs, setting into motion our mighty state, which churns smoke like the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and terrifies the rest of the world with its smell if not its military might.

What they cannot imagine is completely different people at the helm. This is what cannot be imagined in Russia at all.

Neither Volodin, his ghostwriters, and his commentators can entertain the thought power could change hands. Political power in modern Russia has nothing to do with procedures and institutions. You can dream up whatever procedures you like and mold institutions by the bucketful from dung and twigs. Political power in today’s Russia is about people, the small group of people, whose names we all know, led by Vladimir Putin.

Any imitation of change is permissible so long as it makes real change impossible.  This is the perfect way of summing up Volodin’s article and political reforms in Russia, although “reforms” should be encased in quotation marks, which are the most important signifiers in Russian political discourse.

“Changing to prevent change” would be an excellent motto for the current ruling dynasty, a dynasty consisting of one man whom he and his entourage inexplicably imagine is immortal.

Moscow as a Mirror
Even yesterday’s loyal supporters see clearly what pass this dynasty has brought us to. They have no plans of winding up their act and exiting the stage.

What comes to mind is the slightly over-discussed topic, in recent days, of the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Moscow mirrors what happens all over Russia, and it is not a funhouse mirror. In recent days, authorities in the capital have flagrantly and impudently barred independent candidates from running in the elections. They have not attempted to hide the forgeries and falsifications they have used when “verifying” the signatures of voters on the petitions submitted by the candidates.

The independent candidates are young people who can sometimes seem too radical and sometimes seem a bit ridiculous, for idealists always seem a bit ridiculous. Oddly, however, they are open to dialogue. They are keen to accomplish something real in politics and bring about gradual changes in public life.

I wanted to write “perestroika” instead of “changes,” but the word has too much baggage, so the heck with it.

The people who run Moscow, just like the people who run Russia, cannot get their heads around a simple truth. The country’s only real defense, its only chance at survival (and this applies to everyone, including the political bosses) are these slightly ridiculous idealists, who are willing to pull up their sleeves, work, and talk to people. They could try and clean up all the messes the people who run things have made.

But the powers that be toss them out of legal politics like naughty puppies in a sneering show of force that demonstrates they do not understand that destroying room for legal politics is a road to ruin. They do not realize that in this serial’s next episode it will not be ridiculous idealists who take to the streets, playing volleyball at “unauthorized” protest rallies and waiting for the green light to cross the street during banned protest marches, but starved pragmatists whose program will consist of smashing windows and crushing skulls.

All of the tricky plans for keeping Putin in power will come to naught. There will be no Putin, and there will be no power. Maybe there will be an endless remake of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but there is no certainty even that much will happen.

However, by way of toning things down a bit and leaving my readers with a smile on their face, I will close by quoting from Medvedev’s article about the Russian Constitution, which I mentioned earlier.

“While recognizing and protecting human rights, the Russian Constitution limits the claims made on the defense of these rights by not recognizing as rights those that are at odds with Russian society’s traditional values. The idea of human rights is thus given a new interpretation in relation to other constitutions, marking out a particular, original, nonstandard approach to the way human rights are regarded.”

Now, what are you going to do about that?

Translated by Thomas Campbell

 

 

Wave Theory, or, Everyone Is Police

FRANCE. Essonne. Near Juvisy-sur-Orge. 1955.Henri Cartier-Bresson, Près de Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, 1955. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Can you imagine reading an “expert” opinion, like the one I have translated and reproduced, below, published by a political commentator in a more or less democratic country?

I won’t bother arguing about the accuracy of the analysis. It may, in fact, be wildly inaccurate. Actually, if you read it two or three times in a row, you would find that is ridden with glaring contradictions.

For example, it is strange to accuse Alexei Navalny, who was jailed nearly the entire time, of being on the sidelines during the anti-pension reform protests when, in fact, his team’s activists organized protests all over Russia, some of them quite large, and this despite the fact that dozens of them were also treated to so-called preventive arrests by the Putin regime’s legally nihilistic law enforcers.

It is even stranger to argue that Navalny matters so little to the Kremlin now that it has decided it is high time to send him to prison and throw away the key.

I am no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn’s, alas, but I am grateful, nonetheless, that Theresa May and her minions could not even contemplate framing him on trumped-up charges and sending him down for however many years they think would “neutralize” him.

If you do not understand this essential difference between flat-out authoritarian-cum-fascist countries like Putinist Russia and the world’s democracies, most of them in bad shape, like May and Corbyn’s UK, you should probably disqualify yourself from commenting on politics.

Because this is police, not politics, as Jacques Rancière would have put it, even if it is only expressed as a prediction by a think-thankerette-cum-spin doctor who claims to have inside knowledge of what the Kremlin has been contemplating, but for some reason lives in a suburb of Paris. {TRR}

____________________________________________

Tatiana Stanovaya
Facebook
October 2, 2018

The Kremlin is seriously discussing a tangible prison sentence for Alexei Navalny. There are several key arguments that would favor making such a decision.

First, Navalny was sidelined during the anti-pension reform protests. By and large, no one was able to saddle the wave of discontent. The Kremlin thinks it would be better to neutralize Navalny now while it is not too late. It would be harder later.

Second, Navaly’s negative rating [sic] is high. Television has done its job. The expectations are that, if Navalny were sent down, no serious wave [of protest] would rise up. Society would fail to notice it, and liberals hardly worry anyone, while the liberals who are in power would risk losing a lot [if they came to Navalny’s defense].

Third, the Zolotov factor has played its role. The head of the Russian National Guard was so hurt by Navalny’s exposé that he himself has become a source of concern. The Kremlin believes it is better not to rub him the wrong way, since an angry Zolotov is a danger not only to the regime’s alleged enemies but also to the regime itself or, rather, to various spin doctors [sic].

Fourth and finally, while Putin was previously opposed to sending [Navalny] down, fearing it would make Navalny a hero (this, supposedly, was Volodin’s argument), Putin now sees this risk as too trivial compared with other risks, including an abrupt drop in his own rating and the general sense that everything has been set in motion, and he does not have time for Navalny [sic].

If, in the very near future, something does not happen at the grassroots that would interfere with sending [Navalny] down, it is nearly inevitable. And yes, the current domestic policy spin doctors take Navalny much less seriously than their predecessors [sic].

Tatiana Stanovaya is identified on her Facebook page as a “Columnist/Commentator at Moscow Carnegie Center” and “Former [sic] CHEF DU DÉPARTEMENT ANALYTIQUE, CENTRE DES TECHNOLOGIES POLITIQUES” who lives in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France. Thanks to The Real Russia. Today mailer, compiled daily by Meduza, for the heads-up. Kudos to its editor for realizing suddenly that Russian social media are an important source of information, gossip, and fairy tales about Russian politics. The emphases, sics, and italics in the text are mine. Translated by the Russian Reader

Harmacy

DSCN6345.jpg

Back to the World of Me-Too Drugs: How Anti-Sanctions Will Deal a Blow to the Mental Health of Russians
Takie Dela
May 2, 2018

The ban on the import of drugs from the United States and other “unfriendly” western countries, tabled by MPs in the Russian State Duma, will worsen the mental health of Russians. Two psychiatrists discussed the consequences facing people with mental illnesses if brand-name drugs are replaced by domestic lookalikes.

The Big Picture
In early April, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced the imminent expansion of countersanctions by Russia towards the US and other western countries opposed to the Russian Federation’s foreign policies. In particular, there are plans to introduce a ban on the import of drugs from the countries on the sanctions lists, but only on those drugs for which there are domestic counterparts. However, many foreign-manufactured psychotropic drugs have domestic counterparts, and they will be banned, therefore.

Russia is not a happy country in terms of psychiatry. Every fourth Russian suffers from mental illness at some point in his or her life, and between three and six percent of the populace needs to take medications regularly.

Due to severe conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder, hundreds of thousands of Russians lose the capacity to work and are unable to adapt to society. Many of them commit suicide. Modern drugs are effective enough to let most patients lead full lives. Their well-being depends on drugs, which they must take for many years and, sometimes, their whole lives.

The drugs in question are antidepressants, antipsychotics, tranquillizers (sedatives), and normotics (mood stabilizers). Nearly all the brand-name drugs in the field are produced in Western Europe and the US. If theban is adopted, they will vanish from Russian pharmacies, since nearly all these drugs have counterparts (i.e., generics), with the same active ingredients, that are produced in Russian and Eastern Europe.

When discussing the possbile stop list, experts named two popular antidepressants: Paxil (France) and Cymbalta (USA). Many other drugs popular in Russia, including the antipsychotics Zyprexa (Eli Lilly, UK) and Seroquel (AstraZeneca, UK/Sweden), and the antidepressant Zoloft (Pfizer, USA), could be included in the ban. What would be the consequences for millions of patients?

Increasingly Ineffective Treatment
Mental equilibrium is a delicate matter, and selecting drugs to treat psychiatric conditions can much more complicated than selecting drugs to treat somatic illnesses. The optimal outcome is for the individual not merely to stop experiencing severe symptoms like obsessive suicidal tendencies and hallucinations, but also to remain capable of working and leading a social life, rather than turning into a lifeless vegetable.

People with clinical depression, which can last for years, know well the laborious process of choosing the right drug and the right dosage that will finally let them live a normal life. The process can take weeks and months.

Matters are even more complicated with bipolar disorder. The disease’s two opposite phases require different medications, and an unsuitable drug can even worse the outcome of the illness. Schizophrenia presents such a variety of symptoms that a veritable cocktail of drugs is sometimes needed, and attending physicians have to make sure the side effects do not outweigh the benefits of treatment.

“Current guidelines for pharmacotherapy recommend prescribing the brand-name drug and not substituting a generic without good reason,” says Maria Gantman, a psychiatrist at the Mental Health Center.

Dr. Gantman prescribes her patient brand-name drugs, which have undergone high-quality trials on thousands of patients and have a proven effect. Generics also undergo trials when they are licensed, trials that prove their similarity to brand-name drugs, but the evidentiary base is filled with too many gaps, she notes.

“Generics are usually less expensive, and we start off with them if the patient cannot afford the brand-name drug. The abrupt replacement of one generic with another can produce a change in the effect. Due to the peculiarities of their ingredients, generics may be absorbed at a greater or lesser rate and generate a different concentration of the active ingredient in the blood. The people who suffer most are those forced to switch from a brand-name drug they have been taking for years and that was laboriously selected for them to a generic,” explains Dr. Gantman.

She fears the Russian authorities will approach the issue in a perfunctory manner.

“For example, there is a drug that is effective in treating schizophrenia, Rispolept. There are Russian lookalikes, sold under the generic name risperidone. But if the brand-name drug is banned, it hard to imagine what lies in store for people who survive by taking Rispolept Consta (Belgium), which does not exist in this form as a generic in Russia,” says Dr. Gantman.

“The problem is that theRussian pharmaceutical industry hopelessly lags behind the western pharmaceutical industry. There are certain types of drugs Russia just cannot produce, because it does not have the resources, the equipment or the research,” continues Anatoly Shepenyov, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. “Say, the antidepressant Cipralex (Denmark) cannot be synthesized in Russia. Folic acid is an indispensable drug, too. In Russia, it cannot be produced in the form needed for the synthesis of serotonin, that is, in the form needed for maintaining normal brain function.”

Side Effects
The side effects of psychotropic drugs are numerous and varied. Mental impairment, convulsions, fainting, anemia, and fever are only some of them. Predicting them ahead of them is impossible: they are the individual body’s reactions. A drug that simultaneously provides relief while not producing agonizing side effects is a valuable find for many patients.

Dr. Shepenyov illustrates the circumstances by mentioning the antidepressant Paxil (France). It has generics, for example, Rexetin (Hungary). Rexetin works, but its therapeutic effectiveness is lower. To get the same effect she would get from 20 mg of Paxil, thae patient would need to take at least 30 mg of Rexetin. As dosages increase, so do the side effects.

“The main difficult is not synthesizing the right substance, but isolating it in pure form. I’ll give you an example. The antidepressant must fit the receptor in the brain the way a key fits a lock. When generics are synthesized, a whole slew of impurities emerge, extra ‘keys,’ if you like. If you use this ‘dirty’ molecule, you won’t open the lock, but there will be something jammed in it,” notes Dr. Shepenyov.

The use of generics thus introduces the risk there will be a lack of therapeutic effect coupled with a slew of side effects that would never be produced by brand-name drugs. The liver also suffers more from the constant intake of “dirty” drugs.

“Take the most popular Russian-made antidepressant, Fluoxetine (a generic version of the US-produced Prozac). It is terrible in terms of side effects. Although its benefits are weak, patients suffer from phenomenal absentmindedness,” explains Dr. Shepenyov.

Withdrawal Syndrome
If western-produced drugs one day vanish from Russian pharmacies, thousands of patients will undergo withdrawal syndrome, the body’s physiological reaction to the absence of a substance to which it is accustomed.

“I felt terribly sick within a few days. I had a terrible chill, severe dizziness, nausea, weakness, and insomnia,” a female patient described her withdrawal from Paxil.

It is necessary to gradually reduce the dosage to avoid this effect, which means having a good supply of the drug and then just as gradually increasing the dosage of the new drug. This means weeks of enduring shaky health.

The Anti-Placebo Effect
“The anti-placebo effect is no less frequent and severe than the placebo effect. The patient knows she has taken another drug. This exacerbates her anxiety and could ultimately destabilize her condition. So, if an individual has taken the same drug for years and feels fine, there is no need to give her another drug. It’s risky,” says Dr. Gantman.

Both doctors are agreed that patient health should not be a geopolitical bargaining chip. According to Dr. Gantman, medical issues should be left out of the political games countries play, and she calls the State Duma’s plans to ban the imports of foreign-made drugs “profoundly unethical.”

“If Russian MPs adopt such a law, we should oblige them to be treated solely with Russian-made drugs, drive Russian-made cars, and use Russian-made telephones and computers. Those would be excellent sanctions that would finally force them to use their brains before making radical decisions without having the foggiest notion about either medicine or how the body functions,” concludes Dr. Shepenyov.

Translated by the Russian Reader

*******************

Anastasia Plyuto
VK
May 12, 2018

A group picket was held on Saturday, May 12, 2018, in Petersburg’s Ovsyannikov Garden, to protest the Russian State Duma’s tabling of a bill that would ban the purchase of drugs abroad. Yes, we have heard that legislators have suggested removing the word “drugs” from the wording, but we know much freighted the phrase “and other goods” can be.

To increase the chances city authorities would authorize the picket, activists applied for several venues at once. The authorities waited until the last possible moment to render a decision, and so there was no time to inform the public about the planned protest. Around a dozen people were in attendance, including a diabetic who depends on imported insulin, and several people outraged by the politics and statements of our MPs.

One of the placards featured a toy pyramid for little children, which MP Iosif Kobzon gave to a teenaged cancer patient while visiting a hospital in Simferopol in 2015. In our view, the incident reflects the lack of understanding displayed by our bigwigs when it comes to the needs of patients.

There were few visitors in the garden, and nearly none of them had heard of the law bill, but no one, from schoolgirls to a seventy-year-old female pensioner, was left unmoved by the subject. They reacted with surprise, indignation, and complete support for the picketers.

meds-1“You want to ban imported drugs? Start with yourselves. Treat your ailments with oak bark!”

meds-2.jpg“Insulin addict. Bring it on! Deprive us of our doses, assholes. ‘Life in Russia is no picnic: you can survive without insulin.’ Insulin or formaldehyde? Neuroleptics or belladonna? You choose, Russia!”

meds-3“State Duma! By banning the import of drugs, you are killing people!”

meds-4“Ban yourselves from driving Geländewagens! Hands off the drugs!”

meds-5jpg“Viva asymmetrical responses! (Genocide)”

Photos by Mikhail Ryzhov and Anastasia Plyuto. Thanks to Victoria Andreyeva for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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

Ekaterina Schulman. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

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

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


The Upcoming Elections

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

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

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

Alexander Zamyatin: Three and a Half Theses on the Elections

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

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

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

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

1000_d_850Boris Titov. Photo courtesy of Rossiyskaya gazeta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

yavlin1_1428604380Grigory Yavlinsky. Photo courtesy of Polit.ru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ilya Budraitskis: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life (The 2016 Elections)

Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life Is Everywhere, 1888. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life Is Everywhere, 1888. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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