Coordinating Council: A Big Experiment of Democracy

May 20, 2013
Voters line up to elect members to the oppositional Coordinating Council. Source: Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press

The Russian opposition’s Coordinating Council has been under fire from both the government and the protest movement itself since its election in October 2012.  At least 29 out of 45 members of the Council have faced harassment from authorities or their employers in recent months; three are in pre-trial detention or under house arrest.  Every week, government-controlled TV stations accuse opposition leaders of being foreign agents, hooligans, criminals, etc.  But the hardest criticism comes from the very people who elected the Coordinating Council.  Indeed, it has become almost a sign of good manners among opposition activists to complain about the Council’s passivity and inefficiency.

To be sure, there is good ground for this criticism.  Most of the news that comes from the Coordinating Council is about its various internal scandals.  During the winter, an emotional discussion was taking place between its moderate and more radical members as to whether the opposition should seek a complete regime change or to merely influence and improve the existing system.  One of the most outspoken radicals (or republicans, as they call themselves), Andrey Piontkovsky, resigned from the Council because a certain question was simply proposed for a vote (not even passed).  Two other members had to leave the body at requests of their political parties.  At the most recent session, opposition leaders spent most of their time discussing whether one of them, journalist Oleg Kashin, should had been allowed to speak at a recent protest rally or not.  Besides, the rally itself was only the second one organized by the Coordinating Council in seven months, and the date of the next one is still uncertain.

All of a sudden, Russian pro-democracy activists realized that just being elected doesn’t automatically make their leaders accountable and hard-working.  However, criticism went further than holding specific Coordinating Council members accountable for their bad work.  Many supporters of the opposition already question the very concept of this institution.  A typical comment from an activist to Piontkovsky’s resignation: “[M]embership in [the Coordinating Council] is a stain on any liberal’s reputation” (besides, liberals have a majority there).  Disappointment with this experience is so widespread that the next Coordinating Council’s election scheduled for this fall may attract fewer voters than the original one or not happen at all.  This is obviously an overreaction; it is as if Americans decided to abandon the Congress because its members failed to pass an important law.

The Coordinating Council’s problems are a fault of both its members and ordinary activists.  Many people, even those who have spent years of their lives fighting for democracy, have very little understanding how it actually works.  Democracy doesn’t eliminate conflicts; it just brings them to the surface and allows them to be resolved.  It requires discussions and arguments that should not be confused with quarreling and infighting.  Democracy doesn’t also guarantee good leaders, but it makes it possible to replace or educate bad ones.

It is all quite difficult to internalize for people who had spent most of their lives under authoritarian rule.  One can’t expect to see tolerance for dissenting opinions in a country where the ruling party is called United Russia, its political system is referred to as “a vertical of power,” and the motto of its long-time Speaker of the Duma was “The Parliament is no place for political discussions.”  Such a society instinctively sees conflicts and arguments as signs of disharmony and weakness.  For opposition activists things get even more complicated and ambivalent.  While living in the same environment and absorbing the same attitude, they have also accustomed to distrust authority—in fact, any authority because in Russia, they change names but not their nature. And so, when a Coordinating Council appears as a sort of an opposition parliament, it is already viewed with suspicion.  Contradicting things are expected of it simultaneously: to allow for a free discussion and to not have fierce arguments, to represent broad spectrum of the society and to act as one, to be absolutely democratic and to act swiftly and consequently.  No surprise the Council is failing the test: it consists of the same sort of people as its electors and critics.

Still, even though it is unclear whether the opposition Coordinating Council will be effective in advancing the protest movement’s goals, it has already taught and keeps teaching the public lessons of democracy.  The first lesson was the original election of the body.  It was the first free and fair election in many years for most its participants and for some, like myself, first in my lifetime.  It taught candidates to campaign, to discuss important issues and to accept election results, whatever they were.  It taught voters to choose and to experience that strange feeling when you don’t know who is going to win.

The second lesson is being taught right now.  Members of the Coordinating Council have to learn how to live up to their voters’ expectations: working together despite different opinions, tolerating opponents, reaching compromises and standing one’s ground, staying in touch with their constituencies. For opposition supporters, it is also a lesson: in monitoring their representatives’ work, in being critical but realistic, in not losing faith in democracy despite individual problems.  It takes a lot of time, patience and good sense to learn all these lessons.

The Coordinating Council is a unique experiment in democracy.  It is bigger and has higher stakes than any “game of democracy,” yet it is not quite like “real” politics.  It is one of the few examples where the process may be more important than the result.  If the avant-garde of Russians learns how to deal with democracy, odds for a successful transition to it on a national level will greatly improve.