A Political Mess

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Russia’s political opposition is made up of a wide variety of different ideological groups. A small number, referred to as the “systemic” opposition, are parties that the federal government has granted official registration and have representatives in bodies of government. Despite technically counting as the opposition, most of these parties regularly toe the Kremlin line.

In contrast, Russia’s “non-systemic” opposition consists of an enormous number of political movements, organizations, and coalitions that have either been denied registration and are thus unable to participate in elections, or who don’t bother trying since they know they won’t be allowed to obtain it. Despite representing an extremely wide variety of viewpoints, what all of these groups have in common is that they are true alternatives to the current ruling regime.

In September, a group of four prominent opposition leaders announced the formation of a new coalitional party called “For Russia Without Tyranny or Corruption.” Coalition leaders said they intend to attempt to register the party and participate in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Their party, though coalitional, would not include as wide a variety of opposition viewpoints as, for example, the Other Russia.

One large question that remains about the future of the new coalition is whether or not Solidarity – one of the most prominent non-systemic opposition movements in Russia today – will join it. In this recent op-ed, United Civil Front leader and Solidarity co-leader Garry Kasparov explains why doing so could easily create more problems than it would solve.

A Political Mess: It’s not yet time to create an ideologically narrow coalition
By Garry Kasparov
October 8, 2010

The news about the creation of a new liberal coalition has evoked an extremely positive, if not enthusiastic, response from supporters of the liberal political wing of our country. Liberal-minded journalists are describing its prospects in the most opalescent tones. And there’s a perfectly rational explanation for such euphoria.

The idea of a union of democratic forces is a panacea for all the troubles and misfortunes that our country encounters, which are not new and trace back from the time of the endless history of the unification of the SPS [Union of Right Forces – ed.] and Yabloko. Naturally, as control of the regime was tightened under Putin, discussions about unifying the opposition gained strength. And the common argument that asks how you could trust people to run the country who can’t even agree amongst themselves is as popular as ever among both supporters of the opposition and its opponents. For some reason, most of these discussions refer to the liberal opposition, although discord among the left and national-patriotic opposition forces is no less serious.

The desire of people who generally take no part in politics to speak out with dissatisfaction about the current state of affairs by simply dropping a ballot into a ballot box is perfectly clear. However, the elimination of the choice to vote “against everyone” forces the voter to search for an alternative that’s acceptable to him from the vegetarian political menu proposed by the Kremlin. Therefore, there are periodically public demands for the Russian political kitchen to come up with new ingredients. And the Kremlin chefs, reliable as ever, continue to keep their not particularly demanding clientele on a Lenten fast.

Not long ago, the New Times magazine published an article about the pre-electoral situation in Venezuela. The entire pathos of the article consisted of the idea that the country’s opposition committed a grave error several years ago by boycotting the elections, but now they’ve come to their senses and intend to participate – a type of reproach of Russian oppositionists. But all of this ignores the fact that the opposition in Venezuela is not banned, is officially registered, and can participate in elections, and in Russia, it can’t. As a matter of fact, the apparent success of the opposition in those elections relied on the unification of the most varied political forces, which set aside their differences on social and economic issues for the sake of creating a united anti-Chavez front.

In our Russian reality, playing on the feelings of people who are striving to unite to confront the regime is leading to the creation of a dangerous mythology that enables not the weakening, but, on the contrary, the strengthening of the government.

These concepts become mixed up when, in discussing the current coalition of these four well-known democratic politicians, many liberal-minded people breathe a sigh of relief – this time it’s without Limonov or the leftists. They forget that the idea of various political forces taking cooperative action against the regime, which the United Civil Front proposed be the fundamental activity of the Other Russia, has already become mainstream and no longer surprises anyone. Today, cooperation between coalitions in protests is the main key to the successes of large opposition rallies. In Kaliningrad, the largest such event of the past several years was held under banners of all the colors of the ideological spectrum. It is also worth noting that the leadership of the Communist party – the main party of the systemic opposition – tries with all its might to prevent the efforts of various ideological groups in organizing protests from coming together.

The question of to what extend this kind of cooperation can extend to larger political projects – such as presidential elections – remains, like before, unanswered. It is obvious that breaking apart the regime, or at least forcing it to consider people’s opinions, is only possible by uniting the widest possible ideological spectrum. Alexei Kondaurov and Andrei Piontkovsky recently wrote an excellent article on this point. But unfortunately, many people don’t realize that, for the time being, many basic issues could be resolved if completely different political forces came together. There are examples of successfully realized projects like this in the histories of countries that have stood in opposition to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. It suffices to remember Chile at the end of the ’80s, when there was unification all across the political spectrum in order to achieve victory in the referendum and bring free elections back to the country. Democratic Russia in 1990-91 was just as wide a coalition, albeit lacking such strikingly outspoken political groups.

In conditions where independent organizations are factually banned from participating in elections, a purely ideological union – even one including some competitors, but ones that are from one part of the spectrum of groups – is a thing in itself.

It was already clear in 2007 that official participation in political life in Russia was only possible with the Kremlin’s consent, and only with the fulfillment of corresponding conditions – taking the oath of fealty. The failure to register [former State Duma Deputy Vladimir] Ryzhkov and [former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail] Kasyanov’s party clearly defined the direction that political life in Russia develops. It’s important to note that this was not a matter of extremist organizations, but of people who themselves came from within the current government. Despite how critical these people are, only in the inflamed imaginations of Kremlin propagandists could they be referred to as radicals or extremists. Therefore, the numerous failures of [National Bolshevik leader Eduard] Limonov’s party are not even worth discussing. The recent attempt to register the Russian United Workers Front, effortlessly rejected by the Justice Ministry, also shows that the Kremlin has not allowed any changes to occur. But projects like this that create unions, which have recently been created among liberals, leftists, and the national-patriots, are undoubtedly a positive force.

From a historical perspective, these sorts of unions could become the nucleus of a future political system. And in this sense, the emergence of Solidarity in 2008 was a gigantic step forward, because, for the first time, a liberal-minded organization that had no connections to the Kremlin was allowed to be formed. The role of such organizations, both right and left, could most of all come down to developing policy positions for the future, working with citizens of the country, educating, constantly applying pressure on the government, and holding street rallies – that is to say, the role is of a tactical nature, not a strategic one. For today’s opposition, which is deprived of the opportunity to assert influence through the mass media and thus fully participate in political life, the possibilities for strategic planning are extremely limited.

All the euphoria surrounding the ongoing process of creating this coalition has the quality of being distracted from reality.

The task of forming a political party seems at least strange, since its fate is probably clear to everyone. An opposition organization cannot obtain any kind of registration under current conditions. When they are denied registration and everything becomes clear to everyone, the discussions that will be repeated like mantras will be reminiscent of the folktale of the white bull, endlessly walking in circles. Or an unreasonably drawn-out speech before a skeptical audience (whether abroad or at home) that needs to hear yet another explanation of the antidemocratic essence of the current regime.

Maybe some members of the coalition are hoping for a drastic change in the situation and the emergence of the “Medvedev majority,” where this structure has a place. But nobody talks to us about this openly. What they say is that, once again, we have to take the path of collecting signatures and submitting documents to the Justice Ministry. Thus, regardless of the pointlessness of this procedure, they are trying to convince us to once again play by the existing rules. If this idea is doomed, then it is entirely unclear what we are proving and to whom. And if somebody thinks that registration is possible, then I’d like to hear where such optimism came from.

A question: what is considered to be a change in the situation? That the Kremlin suddenly considers it necessary to put a liberal force in its pocket, or is, after all, going forward with legislative liberalization? A change in the situation does not signify mercy on the part of the Kremlin, but its consent to change the rules. And that is a fundamental difference. The situation is going to change when the country operates under normal laws, and not when they let somebody [register – ed.] and not somebody else. There is also a purely practical question.

A petition, if it’s not just something to show off – which people who want to register usually resort to – is a distraction of the organizers’ energy.

After [Solidarity co-founder Boris] Nemtsov signed the agreement, Solidarity began to participate in coalition projects, and the main, if not only project of the coalition is to create a party structure. In accordance with the regulations put in place by the Justice Ministry, the founding congress of the new party should happen in December. This means that Solidarity will drag out practically in full force from the congress on December 11 to the congress on December 14. At the same time, the decision hasn’t been made within Solidarity to transform the movement into a party. Respected members of the organization such as [Vladimir] Bukovsky and Piontkovsky are categorically against it. Many of those who did not speak out against such a transformation have always insisted that the formation of plans for a party should not involve the necessary collection of signatures. Solidarity’s planned congress should resolve these issues, and it’s obvious that if the decision is made to launch plans for a party, it won’t be required for those who don’t plan on joining the party structure. Solidarity’s format as a social movement will be preserved. That position remains unchanged.

But today’s story with the coalition, which began long before the congress, puts our organization in a strange position. This kind of divided organization strikes me as extremely dangerous. The idea of creating a party through a coalition seemed to me from the very beginning as hopeless and a threat to the existence of Solidarity as the main opposition force in the liberal wing. It’s interesting that another idea – the advancement of a single candidate for president from among the liberal forces – had no problem being absorbed into party rhetoric.

Although, it is precisely this idea that has a practical basis. It is obvious that it is the president who holds power in the country, and not the parliament – which, as we know, is not a place for discussion. It is also obvious that a candidate from the non-systemic opposition will not obtain registration. But this kind of idea is more understandable, and opens an opportunity to negotiate with different opposition ideological associations, in order to take in a larger number of people. I’ll return again to the article by Kondaurov and Piontkovsky: They propose holding a general democratic congress and have a good terminological description of how “general democratic” today does not indicate ideological consistency, but the attitude towards procedures of choosing government. Therefore, people other than those with liberal ideological views would be able to take part in such a congress.

Recognizing that the future of Solidarity as an independent organization is at stake, I in no way want to oppose those in the makeup of the coalition who plan to create a party. But, that said, I have no desire to become a part of this project in the form that it is being presented to us. Right now it is extremely important to continue cooperating with all opposition forces in a political field that is independent from the Kremlin. This is the position that the United Civil Front will continue to adhere to.

Translation by theotherrussia.org.