Does It Matter If the Russian Opposition Stays United?

April 27, 2016
Parnas party chairman Mikhail Kasyanov and opposition activist Alexei Navalny (L-R) debate at a Democratic Coalition meeting on December 11, 2015. Photo by Pavel Bednyakov/TASS

Does It Matter if the Russian Opposition Stays United?

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.

So the tiny, beleaguered Russian opposition, made up of people brave enough to keep speaking out despite the assassinations, poisonings, beatings and vilification of their colleagues and themselves, can in microcosm have very different solutions for the inflicted problem of Putin — and that’s alright. There is something to be said for practicing democracy, where factions are a facet of liberty, instead of demanding conformity that doesn’t achieve liberty in any event.

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.

4. Fourth, the problem of Kasyanov did not emerge organically despite pre-existing unity because it was imposed on by the secret police, which filmed him appearing to have an affair with a fellow Parnas party member Natalya Pelevina — and worse, as far as the party members were concerned, both of them were shown speaking disparagingly of their colleagues. Much the same was done to Nemtsov years ago when his cell phone conversations were published in the media. Surprise, surprise, people under pressure don’t behave in the sterling ways some would prefer — that doesn’t mean that their political opponent, Putin, is legitimate.
In other words, the problem that has forced the splitting of the opposition is merely another version of the eternal “what do you do about authoritarian Putin” that always splits political forces everywhere and isn’t special – and also no easier at home than abroad.
Kasyanov and Pelevina and some others believe that when Russian intelligence has subjected you to such an outrageous violation of privacy, clandestine state filming of your life and broadcasting on national state TV, with additional hacking of your phone and web site and publication of your conversations, the answer is not to wilt or cave to the pressure. Kasyanov indicated as much in his statement after the split, saying he decided to run in the elections anyway. Sometimes Russians love an underdog. Perhaps this bravery might help their support or it may be viewed as folly and cost support.
But deputy chair Ilya Yashin and other Party leaders feel that the damage to the opposition with these secret police exposes was too high, and the right thing to do is for Kasyanov either to submit to the scrum of the primaries to sort out his popularity now or step down from the number one seat position in his party (under the Russian parliamentary system, as with others, parties decide which of their members would serve if the party as such gains the 5% threshold of votes in the election required to enter parliament.) Kasyanov is doing neither. Pelevina for her part has also announced she is running for election. There are arguments to be made for both approaches.

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. 

No matter. The elections were officially called off after enormous publicity organized by Navalny about a United Party official who appeared to bus in very recently-registered Tajik workers to pack the ballot votes. It doesn’t even matter if the elections were canceled not formally for that reason, and Ella Pamfilova, the new head of the Central Elections Commission scored by the would-be Barvikha candidates for inaction, ever does anything about it. Without any particular unity or strength of strategy, a handful of opposition people made “Barvikha” the symbol at least for the intelligentsia on social media of one of the worst problems of Russian voting — the carousel or bussing in of workers to vote en masse as their factory director or other boss tells them — sometimes repeatedly in different districts. That’s all to the good.
The purpose for the opposition to participate in elections might idealistically be described as actually obtaining a seat in parliament to influence legislation, but given how docile and controlled that body is anyway, the elections are really an organizing tool to build the kind of social movements required eventually to bring about real change.
Mainly due to Russian propaganda, there is an allergy to color revolutions and a unfounded hysteria about their existence supposedly a function of foreign funding. Much of Putin’s crackdown on civil society in the last 15 years has been falsely predicated on the belief that such social movements can never exist spontaneously on their own but only exist due to the kind of intriguing Russian intelligence itself does abroad. Yet movements like the truckers protesting the unfair road tolls  didn’t come into being because Western capitalists bankrolled them but because of desperation. While they may be placated or coopted, eventually the regime can’t keep putting them down.
7. Seventh, opposition isn’t only about Muscovites and what happens in Moscow. Although it is unlikely, it might be that an opposition candidate in the provinces even unrelated to well-known opposition parties could defeat the Kremlin-backed machine or “approved” contenders from the Communist or Just Russia parties. To the extent Moscow has to do more of this than less, it will be weakened in any event.

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