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

Chop It All Down!

Chop It All Down! Molotov Cocktails versus Woodland Defenders in the Town of Zhukovsky
Maria Klimova
Mediazona
July 13, 2016

Photo by Fyodor Karpov

Over the past month, several environmentalists in the Moscow Region town of Zhukovsky fighting against the illegal logging of trees to make way for construction have suffered at the hands of persons unknown. Two of them have had their cars set on fire and burned, while a female activist had a Molotov cocktail thrown at her windows. Municipal authorities see no reason to worry yet, although the victims are certain someone has been trying to intimidate them.

Around four o’clock in the morning on June 15, a Molotov cocktail was tossed at the windows of the flat occupied by Zhukovsky activist Olga Deyeva, who lives on the first storey of a block of flats. Hearing a bang, which set off the alarms of cars parked in the yard, she looked out the window and saw shards of glass on the pavement. What turned out to be a broken bottle was wrapped in electrical tape and a thick layer of solvent-soaked cloth. According to police summoned to the scene by Deyeva, the persons unknown had failed to ignite the cloth, which had been soaked in a flammable liquid. According to Deyeva, the assailants had aimed at her window but had missed, and the bottle had hit the window frame.

A week and a half later, on June 27, a Ford Focus owned by Mikhail Yuritsin, an environmentalist and member of the grassroots organization Lyubimy Gorod (Beloved City), was torched and burned. According to Yuritsin, he heard the loud sound of glass being broken at around three in the morning, looked out the window, and saw his car burst into flames. Yuritsin was unable to extinguish the fire, and the car was completely destroyed. Cars parked next to it were mildly damaged, as firefighters arrived quickly on the scene.

In addition, a car used Svetlana Bezlepkina, a Yabloko Party member who sits on the Zhukovsky city council, was torched in the early hours of July 7.  Although the car was registered to the council member’s sister-in-law, Bezlepkina often used it herself.

“Yes, I have used the car. I used it for business when I needed, and everyone knew it. You couldn’t think of anything more cynical: my brother and sister-in-law had their wedding that day. After celebrating at a cafe, they came home and parked the car, and during the night it was torched. Then the police showed up, took our testimony, and that was all. They didn’t really take a hard look at anything. On the other hand, what do you expect from a police force who back in the day guarded loggers chopping down a forest,” said Bezlepkina.

A suspicious incident happened the same day to Fyodor Karpov, leader of the Yabloko Party’s Zhukovsky branch. Persons unknown torched an abandoned car, which had recently been left outside the gate to his garage.

Karpov related the sequence of events.

“The abandoned car drifted around the yard for two weeks, and then it ended up in front of my gate. I gently shoved it away from the gate, but on a day I was attending a court hearing on illegal construction in the forest, it was torched.”

Except Karpov, all the victims are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Zhukovsky city hall and businesswoman Irina Gorodnova, who has been given permission to build a consumer services center on Nizhegorodskaya Street and a children’s center on Semashko Street. Both lots slated for construction are located on woodlands in the city limits.

Local residents began vigorously fighting to save their woodlands in 2012, when the authorities announced the construction of an access road from the M5 Ural Highway that would pass through the Tsagov Forest. When workers began clear-cutting a twelve-hectare site, grassroots protests erupted throughtout the city, and activists set up a camp in the woods, later dispersed by private security guards. The protesters proposed several alternate routes for the road. Several months later, Sergei Shoigu, who had recently been appointed governor of Moscow Region, intervened in the conflict. He criticized the actions of the Zhukovsky authorities and spoke of the need for dialogue with the public, but his statements had no impact on the situation. The access road to the city was built through the forest.

1109928 02.05.2012 Плакат в лагере защитников Цаговского леса в Жуковском. Гражданские активисты-экологи протестуют против вырубки леса для строительства новой трассы. Артем Житенев/РИА Новости
A placard in the camp of people defending the Tsagov Forest in Zhukovsky, May 2, 2012. The placard reads, “Occupiers! Get the hell out of Zhukovsky.” Photo: Artyom Zhitenyov/RIA Novosti

A year after the conflict over clear-cutting in the Tsagov Forest broke out, Alexander Bobovnikov, mayor of the city, lost his post. He resigned after a meeting with Andrei Vorobyov, who had succeeded Shoigu as governor of Moscow Region. Andrei Voytyuk was elected to Bobovnikov’s post. In 2013, protests against logging in Zhukovsky broke out again when it transpired that municipal authorities had issued long-term leases to woodland lots. 5,000 square meters of woodland were allocated for construction of a consumer services center on Nizhegorodskaya Street, while another lot measuring 6,000 square meters was allocated for construction of a leisure center in the woods near the railroad station. Activists entered into a prolonged legal battle with city hall and the potential developer.

“According to the documents, in 2010, Natalya Lebedeva, head of Stimul-K, Ltd., obtained preliminary permission to rent the lot. But Lebedeva herself claims she never came to Zhukovsky in 2010, and signed no rental agreement. In 2012, she decided to get rid of the company and she transferred it to another person so he would close it. But he failed to do this and, apparently, used the company. Later, the lot was transferred to Gorodnova,” explains Olga Deyeva.

According to Deyeva, permission to lease the lot had been issued, apparently, by Stanislav Suknov, Bobovnikov’s deputy, who served as acting mayor of Zhukovsky for a couple of months in 2013.

“We have been trying to prove in court there was no preliminary agreement to rent the land. The paperwork was drawn up after the fact so as not to violate the city’s General Development Plan, adopted in 2012,” explains Deyeva.

The right to rent the woodland lots now belongs to businesswoman Irina Gorodnova. Zhukovsky activists are afraid municipal authorities might try and bypass the 2012 General Development Plan and rezone the woodland lots to permit construction of residential buildings and shopping centers on them. That, ultimately, was what happened to the lot on Nizhegorodskaya Street. Without holding public hearings and without involving city council members, the Zhukovsky City Court rezoned the area from recreational use to residential use and thus suitable for redevelopment. Immediately after obtaining the construction permit, Gorodnova also obtained a permit from municipal authorities to fell deadwood. According to Deyeva, however, workers cut down healthy pine trees while clearing the deadwood.

“When this came to light, Gorodnova batted her eyes and said, ‘I don’t know how it happened. I was abroad at the time.’ Policemen guarded the logging process. Ultimately, the ‘illegal’ loggers were not located and punished, but the story made such a big splash that Gorodnova was unable to open the consumer services center she had built on the lot. On the basis of this violation, the municipal authorities went to court and terminated the lease on the land,” says Deyeva.

Now it was Gorodnova’s turn to go to court. She demanded the court recognize her ownership of the consumer services center, and in October 2015, Zhukovsky City Court granted her claim. Activists asked city hall to appeal the decisions, but the local authorities failed to do this.

“City hall was not about to challenge the ruling. They could not even explain why. So now we have been handling the litigation ourselves,” explains city council member Bezlepkina.

The appeal hearing has been scheduled for July 25.

The status of the second woodland lot, on which Gorodnova’s company had planned to build a leisure center, has not yet changed. It is still zoned for recreational uses, where it is forbidden to erect any structures.

In February 2015, however, activists discovered large round holes in the bark of pine trees on the site of a planned clear cutting. The holes had been presumably made with a drill. A total of seventy-eight trees had been damaged in this way. Local residents marked each of the trees with green paint and photographed them, subsequently filing a complaint with the police. After an inspection was carried out, police refused to open a misdemeanor investigation. Staff at the Zhukovsky municipal environmental and land management technologies department had assured police there was no danger of the trees weakening and dying. Many of the damaged pine trees that once grew on the lot slated for development have now indeed died. The forest’s defenders believe they were damaged deliberately. Developers thus decided to get rid of trees that were preventing them from launching construction.

According to Valentin Ponomar, who has been representing Gorodnova’s interests in court, the land plot rented for construction of the leisure center is now not being used by anyone in any way.

“The lease runs out soon, in 2017. During this time, the city has to issue a construction permit. There is no permit at present, just as there are no plans to build the children’s center,” Ponomar explained to Mediazona.

According to Ponomar, without such permission, the development company cannot commence construction in a green belt zone. Moreover, city authorities cannot issue such a permit due to the land plot’s status. Ponomor was unable to explain why his client concluded an agreement with the city on such conditions.

In an interview with Mediazona, Zhukovsky Mayor Andrei Voytyuk said he was unaware of the arsons of the urban activists’ cars, although he had heard about the Molotov cocktail thrown at Deyeva’s window.

“I’ll tell you this. If they had wanted to set fire to her, they would have done it,” the mayor commented on the incident.

He expressed his willingness to meet with the urban activists victimized by criminals.

“They can meet and talk with me if they wish, but so far no one has reached out to me,” said Voytyuk.

Bezlepkina is certain the torching of the cars will never be investigated.

“Now it is a matter of intimidation, but no one knows how far it might go. Our families are fearful. They have asked us not to attend the court hearings. They are afraid they might be in danger,” says the city council member.

The case of the Molotov cocktail tossed at Deyeva’s window has been assigned to the local beat cop.

“I went to see him, but, apparently, they are not planning to make any complicated moves in this connection. There was no damage either to my health or my flat. So I wouldn’t rule out the police will be working in keeping with the principle ‘No body, no case,” Deyeva admits.

Translated by the Russian Reader