Opposition Strategies: In Search of the People

Protesters in St. Petersburg, 12/18/11. Source: Spb.yabloko.ruIn light of the recent slow-down in anti-government protests in Russia, the editors at Gazeta.ru spoke to various opposition leaders to see what the next steps for the movement might be.

Opposition Strategies: In Search of the People
By Ekaterina Vinokurova; edited by Semyon Kvasha
March 24, 2012

While the protests have ended for now, protest sentiment is still here. Gazeta.ru talked to the leaders of mass protest rallies and asked them what the opposition should do next. Without a leader and or structure, the opposition is ready to do everything simultaneously: to continue the protest rallies, to register parties, to campaign and to take part in elections of all levels.

The state Duma is editing the law on party registration, facilitating the process of doing everything simultaneously.

This law, as well as several others, were offered by President Medvedev as part of a political reform declared as a response to the mass protest rallies last December. Ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin announced that the fund he was creating was ready to cooperate with billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s party. Revolutionary poet Eduard Limonov is going to attend a monthly prohibited rally at Triumphalnaya square on March 31, part of “Strategy 31”, a campaign of protest for the constitutionally given right for citizens to gather peacefully, without arms (article 31 of Russian Constitution). Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov calls for all the opposition members to come to Moscow for the March of Millions on the day before Putin’s inauguration. Gazeta.ru tried to find out if these different acts have any common tactics or strategy, and what the protest movement’s perspective is.

Has the street ended?

The latest street actions gathered much fewer people than the rallies in Bolotnaya square and Sakharov avenue. The drop in rally attendance was as fast as its growth. This is natural, says Levada-centre deputy director Alexei Grazhdankin, whose company polled the protesters at rallies. He thinks the high season of protest ended with election campaining; but what’s more important, the rallies became a breeding ground for new activists. To continue the protests, the opposition needs its own demands and ideology, sociologists say.

Protest activists do not overdramatize the loss of attendance.

“The protest hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s just that the street activity is a wave process, we will see new rises and new drops in street protester numbers,” said Alexei Navalny, anticorruption project RosPil founder, to Gazeta.ru.

“Certain events can provoke a hundred thousand people go out in the street suddenly, but one shouldn’t expect a hundred thousand people in the street every weekend,” he said. Protest activity in the street is not the only means of political struggle, “Although you have to understand, that the gang of crooks and thieves is the most afraid of the people in the street,” he added.

“The unwillingness of the leaders of the Bolotnaya and Sakharov protests to come up with constructive suggestions disoriented the people, who were ready to stand up for their rights,” said Xenia Sobchak, TV anchorwoman and a socialite, to Gazeta.ru. She thinks that President’s administration played well off of the democrats’ main problem: their inability to come to agreement, to come up with a common platform, to gather behind one candidate because the leaders were to afraid to lose their supporters.

“People need an agenda, you cannot always go out into the street, stomp your legs and shout that the election is fraudulent, especially if the election is over. If people hear this new agenda, they’ll come back in the streets,” Xenia Sobchak told gazeta.ru.

She also said that the themes that could unite the people and bring them back to political activities could be the demands for independent court, the fight against corruption, and the demand for state officials to leave business.

Should the rallies be continued?

Different leaders of the opposition see its future in different ways. Sergei Udaltsov, a very experienced street protester, insists in expanding the street protests. It was his idea to call for the March of the Millions at the last rally on Novy Arbat street, where 15,000 to 25,000 gathered.
“We need to point out the question of really elections, to ultramobilize and deliver an ultimatum to the government: you either meet our demands or we won’t go home. It’s important that people from the regions come to Moscow and break the stereotype that there are only protesters from Moscow dressed in mink coats, and the other Russia that supports Putin,” he told Gazeta.ru.

“We can influence the government only by gathering large masses of people in the street,” agrees Ilya Yashin, member of political council of Solidarnost movement. The form of any successful event can be primitive, because no matter how creative a rally is, if small number of people come, it will be futile.

The march of the millions was conducted by the Egyptian opposition in Cairo, but whether it’s possible for Russian protesters to create their own Tahrir is a big question. “I can’t say there is hard work going on in the organizing committee creating new slogans and formats. We’ve taken a pause to understand how exactly we need to reformat the street protests and what new slogans will replace ‘For honest elections’,” Just Russia Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov told Gazeta.ru.

“The best opposition creative work is happening for Navalny now, he offers to put the protests on mass scale, but only legal gatherings. On the other hand, we must not get rid of the street protests, rallies and marches,” Gudkov said.

The head of the Foundation for Effective Politics, Gleb Pavlovsky, advises the opposition not to lower its energy but to get rid of its illusions. The March of the Millions, if attended by tens of thousands of people, will be disappointing.

They need to continue rallying but stop announcing their numbers and stop expecting each gathering to be larger than the one before.

“The main achievement of the last months is that the street activities have stopped being marginal, not only ‘professional’ protesters attend the rallies now, but the common people, too. The chasm between street and legal politics has disappeared: street protests have became a real influence on the government, those who attend rallies can later discuss their agenda in government offices,” Pavlovsky said.

The opposition is ready to expand its arsenal, but it needs to define what they are rallying about.

The success of the street action will depend on its demands it makes from the government, thinks one of the chairmen of the unregistered PARNAS party, Boris Nemtsov. “Yes, we need to fight for early parliamentary and presidential elections, but we need to support this fight with other demands: for political reform, freedom to political prisoners, abolishing the censorship in media, early elections in the Moscow city duma, new election of the Moscow mayor,” Boris Nemtsov told Gazeta.ru

The protest needs to adopt new forms, including the street protests: from street “festivals of freedom”, and street carnivals to flash-mobs and marches, Nemtsov said, “There can be other activities other than street rallies: conferences, festivals, participation in elections, printed report publishing,”- he added. Right now opposition has invented a new form of a street meeting – a conversation with an elected deputy, which doesn’t require permission from the city government, but this format is not overly popular, maybe because the police do not always recognize its legitimacy.
“Picket lines, letters of protest, state company account analyses, as Navalny does and many other things,” Dmitry Bykov, writer, poet and one of the Electors’ League founders, lists the possibilities for alternative opposition activities.

From political parties to “the machine of well intentioned propaganda”

For the three months of the protest season, the Russian opposition didn’t come up with a leader and didn’t form an organization. The natural internet based protests remain the same, and not all the participants want to form a bureaucratic structure, although some protest leaders call for people to be the part of a civic struggle and take part in local elections. It’s time for the opposition organizations and movements to strengthen their presence in the regions and to develop horizontal connections between each other, without trying to form an hierarchy, says the leader of ‘the movement for the preservation of Khimki forest,’ Yevgenia Chirikova.

“Our weakness is that we are scattered,” she said. She thinks that the opposition needs to unite on a network basis.

The protesters need to be elected in local self-government institutions to influence the government directly. “We need to create a country that Putin cannot rule without control, and this is possible only with a strong local initiative, strong local self-government,” Chirikova said. This is a process we can see in Moscow, where in some districts the opposition could press United Russia. Chirikova is ready to go even further and to organize a small ‘green’ party.

The other offer is to organize the constantly active structure to coordinate protest actions. “a ‘Protest rally organizing committee’ could become a coordinating structure, but it needs to gain legitimacy. It was formed generally and without registration, now it’s time to for it to go legit. We can conduct the election through this organizing committee on the Internet, as we did when we elected speakers for the rallies, says Sergei Udaltsov. But the opposition doesn’t need to create a united opposition party, because of an ideology disagreement, any structure would be artificial. Boris Nemtsov agrees that the organizing committee is to be preserved so that not to divide the opposition supporters with regard to their ideologies. At the same time, the opposition needs to consolidate into several parties in different political fronts.

New party legislation can lead to the majority of organization that protested on Bolotnaya and Sakharov avenue to become parties, but even without Kremlin spoilers there would be too many structures like this. Democrats in addition to Yabloko will get PARNAS, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is actively creating his party, Vladimir Milo is registering his “Democratic Choice” as a political party. Nationalists told journalists they are going to create at leats two parties, one created by Vladimir Tor (from the Movement against illegal immigration) and the other by Konstantin Krylov (from the Russian public movement). A few days ago, Dmitry Dyomushkin, leader of ‘Russian Movement,’ declared that he wishes to create his own nationalist party.
It’s unclear if Sergei Udaltsov is going to register his Left Front, he recently was offered membership in Sergei Mironov’s Just Russia. Just Russia deputies Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov and Ilya Ponomarev, who took active part in the protests, are creating a super-party structure on the left flank.

“We can keep all the structures, but to take part in the election we need to create a democratic mega-party on the principle of collective management and financing. The left could do something like that, too.”

Meanwhile, in the current legislation, electoral blocks and super-party structures are prohibited and the Duma deputies refused to allow them in the new version of the law.

Alexei Navalny offers a non-party alternative. He says he is going to concentrate on his anti-corruption activities, he doesn’t want to create his party or become a member of any, and that’s why he refused to be a member of the observation council in any nationalist party.

He called on the readers of his blog to enlighten people in the large cities of Russia, to create the opposition’s “machine of well intentioned propaganda” as an alternative to the state media. “The machine” doesn’t need a structure, the activists just need to spend an hour a day explaining the situation with current government to their colleagues, family and friends. “If 100,000 men all over the country spent an hour a day or an hour a month to be part of “the machine”, it would work. For example, you write me from Bryansk: I want to be a part of GMP, what should I do? I reply with a list of options, from leaflets to solitary pickets. You answer you are ready to put up leaflets and so I send them to you. Activists receive the information and advice on how they can act, the rest is their own initiative. Make a list of people you can call once a month and tell the bitter truth about what’s happening, with examples, so that people won’t consider you nuts or a political freak,” Navalny explained in his blog.

Polish scenario

Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, who tool an active part in the Electors’ league work, thinks the protest activity in Russia has only just begun. He thinks the government, at the very beginning, wrongly interpreted the civic protest as an attempt at revolution. “First, the authorities were frightened by an ‘orange’ protest and tried to find opposition leaders and to start a parley. But later, they found out there were no leaders, and this was its main threat: natural protest doesn’t bring anyone into government, it just shows the people’s attitude towards goverment, and it’s impossible to parley with such protests. People probably won’t come out into the streets by the tens of thousands, though the attitude towards the government hasn’t changed,” Oreshkin told Gazeta.ru. “What happened this winter is a typical ‘innovation wave’: a new trend to reject the authorities that will spread all over the country. When the first mobile phone or the first computer appeared in the capital, everybody was talking about it, a year later they were in million-plus cities, after two years all over the country.

For the government and for the opposition, it already doesn’t matter if the street protests have ended or not – the trend is now set, it will take root and become more popular,” Oreshkin told Gazeta.ru.

The situation in Russia is reminiscent of the situation in Poland in the end of 1970’s, he noticed.

Oreshkin thinks that an ever growing number of citizens are disgusted by the authorities, people have stopped obeying the leadership, the government concedes a bit in response, though later it may institute martial law for a short period of time or eventually give up power peacefully, since martial law always destroys the system.

There will be no radical change in the next few years, continues Oreshkin. But in the long view, the government is in a dead end, disappointment will grow, and if the economic situation worsens, inflation speeds up, prices rise, the social unrest will turn into a political process. “The current system will have no chance to survive in the new conditions of total disappointment,”- Oreshkin concluded.