The Russian liberal opposition Democratic Coalition fell apart yesterday as anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, head of the unregistered Party of Progress and Vladimir Milov, former deputy energy minister and head of the opposition organization Democratic Choice broke ranks with former finance minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his colleagues in the registered Parnas party.
On his Facebook page, Milov wrote:
“We honestly tried to salvage the situation with various options, colleagues, we tried everything over and over but…”
Kasyanov told TV Rain that he viewed the departure of Navalny and Milov as “a mistake”:
“The pressure on us was expected. But we must continue the movement. If we fear moving further, the government will increase the pressure.”
Earlier Ivan Zhdanov, the lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund announced that he was refusing to run in the primaries because Kasyanov would not step down after the scandal created by the expose of his private life on NTV. Ilya Yashin, the deputy chair of Parnas, also said he was refusing to run in the primaries due to Kasyanov’s refusal to cede the first spot to any other party member not mired in scandal induced by Russian intelligence’s exposure.
Maybe the problem was trying to graft the American idea of “primaries” on to a Russian setting where they haven’t existed or maybe the problem is collectivism wrongly or rightly applied in distributing both party seats and expenses — the democrats fought about both these issues — but it’s important to get beyond the minutiae of these squabbles and look at the larger issues.
1. First, the West should not hold the Russian opposition to a standard of unity they themselves rarely display when it comes to deciding strategies and tactics for dealing with the hard fact of the authoritarian President Vladimir Putin. Italy and Austria break ranks with other European countries such as the UK and even Germany who support maintaining sanctions — even Germany — in order to re-start gas deals. Those countries more dependent on natural gas deliveries from Russia favor an approach of engagement whereas the US hews to a harder line, publicly denouncing the decision to ban the Crimean Tatars’ Mejlis, for example — actually a rare public denunciation for the Obama Administration which began by supporting a “reset” with Russia.
In the US presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump has praised President Vladimir Putin; Hillary Clinton, who has been criticized in media reports for her husband Bill Clinton’s involvement with Putin, appears tougher in denouncing his aggression; Bernie Sanders, who has a history of friendship with the Soviet government does not seem to comment on Putin. Russian specialists are divided on whether Putin’s regime is collapsing or strengthening for the long haul, and whether the West should deter or accommodate him accordingly.
2. Second, again, the “primaries” in Russia have not been part of all the official elections campaign as they are in the US; they are only a kind of “beauty contest” for the opposition itself to see how they do with the public and which of them can go the distance and are of limited value given that the ordering of party lists for parties that may never make it into the parliament is itself a theoretical exercise.
United Russia has also coopted the idea of “primaries” within its party and has been encouraged by Putin to participate in them but this is a very new system and it is not yet incorporated across all parties. United Russia has already been caught forcing the state employees dependent on them to turn out to vote for them, in yet another misuse of the “administrative resource, the Russian term for the incumbents’ use of state coffers for their campaigns.
Given that Putin has revised the election system to make more single-mandate seats available (and thus prevent party momentum), in order to bypass the party issue entirely given the great unpopularity of the United Russia ruling party, it may not matter and only individual campaigns in specific local areas on issues dear to those regions will make a difference.
3. Third, when it comes to funding, no discussion can be had without acknowledging that the Kremlin funds the political parties with factions in the parliament — the Communist Party, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Just Russia – and also Yabloko, which didn’t meet the 5% threshold. These funds matter, as they provide the salaries for the top leadership. It goes without saying that the Kremlin has the obvious advantage of “the administrative resource” as well.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who funds his own Open Russia movement and web sites involved in election education and monitoring does not appear to fund candidates directly, or at least, not those in the opposition parties in the current dispute.
If there isn’t anyone else to fund opposition in Russia, that’s a function of the risk of such support turning into the “kiss of death” for either the candidate or the donor — which is about the vicious capacity for state oppression, not a dispute like that around “Citizens’ United” in the US.
So the abnormality of the Russian election situation regarding lack of funding can’t be fairly said to be only about the unattractiveness of liberal candidates or their disunity. Obviously, even in Russia, “soft money” such as that around an NGO like Navalny’s or which local business may make available for their candidates will play some kind of role but given the context of the overwhelming funding coming from Putin and his cronies for their own choices, and the legalize parties for specious politicized reasons, this is an academic discussion.
5. Fifth, in any event, Navalny, who is not in Parnas but in his own unregistered Party of Progress and who can’t himself run in elections due to the contrived criminal cases trumped up against him, can only put forward his own people in the elections anyway and is likely to do so without any coalition.
The same for the smaller or other lesser-known groups in the coalition. United or coordinated or not, the opposition will still face the same vast array of dirty tricks, outright oppression and public indifference or even hatred to people they’ve been trained to see as exotic and therefore suspect. They will still face these circumstances whether they decide to “hang together” or “hang separately”.
6. Sixth, the opposition doesn’t have to be united to be effective, given their “job” as “non-system” is to show the system’s flaws and establish the gold standard for what a “normal” system would require. Diversity and small, active squads not hobbled by “process” in cumbersome coalitions might work better.
Here Navalny’s people, without any coalition, have succeeded in making the point of fraud and the demand to end it in Barvikha. Even among this small group from one organization, some agreed on the tactic of withdrawing their candidacy at some juncture to make a point, and some did not.
At the end of the day, the parliamentary elections are only a dress rehearsal for the real event of the presidential elections, and here Putin will either extend his reign or come under enough pressure from internal Kremlin factions or external social movements — which the opposition will help to create or inform — either to retire or allow a real alternative candidate.
Remember, in the 1980s and 1990s, unlike Eastern Europe or even some of the non-Russian Soviet republics, very few of the Soviet-era dissidents got into parliament in Russia, much less became leaders of their countries.
By the same token, when the next round of challengers to the Kremlin emerged in recent years in the mid-2000s, very few of them came from those who were in the organized or parliamentary opposition in the Soviet or early Russian parliaments. Perhaps, even now, a child is boarding a plane to Moscow all by herself and braving the odds of being stopped before making a difference nationally.
In the end, the timeless formula of “change from above with pressure from below” to end the stalemate of “the tops will not and the bottoms cannot” could bring about change in Russia as it has before. If it does not, it will not be due to lack of unity among the opposition or lack of sterling character and resume, but due to the unmitigated oppressive forces they face. We in the West have to find our own solutions for this problem.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick