Blue skies, clear thinking: Russian democracy in the Cloud

The recent election to the Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition was a first. Run across the whole country, entirely online, it demonstrated an unprecedented unity between the various factions. Organisers Fyodor Krashenninikov and Leonid Volkov, take a long hard look at its successes, failures and implications for the future of Russia.

1. Self-organisation in an autocracy

In assessing the significance of the recent elections to the Russian Opposition Coordinating Council (OCC), we should perhaps begin by wondering why the authorities moved heaven and earth to interfere in their running. Why should this be?

First and foremost because the election to the Opposition Coordinating Council was a unique example of self-organisation by the most active sector of Russian civic society, behind the government's back.  And not a benevolent or democratic government, but the Putin regime, which sinks daily deeper into the abyss of absolute and irrevocable authoritarianism.

The problems Russia is experiencing with democratic development have nothing to do with 'slave mentality' ...  Russia's problem is that throughout practically all her history anyone holding power has forcefully and quite cruelly stamped out any attempts at self-organisation.’

Civic self-organisation is the precursor, the main driving force and guarantee of the existence of democracy in any society and its development. The severe problems Russia is experiencing with democratic development have absolutely nothing to do with 'slave mentality' or anything like that, as many still think in the West. Russia's problem is that throughout practically all her history anyone holding supreme power has forcefully and quite cruelly stamped out any attempts by Russian society at self-organisation.

The main victims of this policy have been civic society and local government. In today's Russia both have been so trampled on by central government that they have been reduced to serving as one of the screens for the authoritarian regime.

A situation has developed in which Russian society has absolutely no offline forums for discussion: the national TV channels are completely under government control, as are all the general circulation newspapers.  Any opportunity for civic action has been shut down and in these conditions the internet serves as a safety valve. 

Russia is possibly the only country in the world where internet-diaries and social networks etc. are so strongly political. Russians obviously want to discuss the situation in their country, they want change and they want to come together in order to have a say in how their country is governed.

2. Cloud democracy and crisis in the protest movement

To a large extent our theory of 'Cloud democracy' came into being from this recognition that in Russia there are no offline opportunities for establishing a civic society. There are, moreover, no possibilities for discussing questions of vital importance, for creating normal political parties or, indeed, for any form of self-organisation.

It seemed to us that we had found a way out of this situation: we created a new platform for civic self-organisation, which we called Democracy2 (link in Russian).  Anyone taking part in the forum has to be be verified, which addresses the key issue of an internet discussion – a discussant must accept responsibility for what he/she writes/says and identify him/herself as a real, rather than a virtual, person. While the Democracy2 project has not yet engaged the widest cross-section of the Russian population, it has found a great deal of support among the opposition-minded section of society, as has the way we formulated our concepts and designed the voting process.

Yekaterinburg-based activist-blogger-politicians Leonid Volkov and Fyodor Krashenninikov have emerged as leading lights in the Russian opposition movement. Technically impressive, their idea to bring representative democracy to Russia was recognised by many to be a procedural triumph.  

After the series of spontaneous protests during the winter and spring of 2011/12, the Russian opposition was faced with some particularly pressing issues, particularly a need for:

  1. an objective review of the protest movement leaders: it was clear that the traditional opposition leaders did not enjoy the confidence of the wider protest community and the political elite regarded the leaders who had swept in on the wave of protest as unfit for purpose. The opposition was effectively in an impasse, with no formal arrangements for getting out of it;
  2. the opposition to identify itself and define the demands and the values which would underpin the movement going forward;
  3. the development of a format enabling the various parts of the opposition to interact practically and directly.  After the winter-spring stage of demonstrations, the protest movement was on the verge of a crisis: it was clear that demonstrations cannot solve existing problems, but there was no formal way in which an over-arching strategy could be developed for further action. The protest movement was at risk of getting bogged down in endless meetings of unelected committees, and round tables.

It was discussion of these issues that gave rise to the idea of holding elections for the OCC.  

3. An organisational review of the OCC election

The OCC election took place and was quite successful, especially given that the authorities made such vigorous attempts to stop it. All means fair and foul were deployed, from planting people among the candidates to attempts to block the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) site and bring criminal charges against the organisers of the election.

The main outcome was the success of the election. In spite of the usual accusations that nothing could ever be achieved, there was now real proof that the Russian opposition had established complex organisational structures capable of implementing large-scale projects over a long period of time.

It is important to note here that for the first time in modern Russian political history we were dealing with a process organised nationwide and led by an organisation that was both transparent and efficient. The very fact that tens of thousands people from all over Russia were registered and verified on the CEC site in itself represents progress to a new level of self-organisation, which fact has been noted and analysed many times already.

For the first time in modern Russian political history we were dealing with a process organised nationwide and led by an organisation that was both transparent and efficient.’

What is much less well-known are the intricacies of the CEC functioning: it was a fairly complex structure involving the working participation of more than 300 people. The whole structure was set up and brought on stream in an extremely short time, but that did not prevent it from operating within an organised legal framework and addressing complex organisational and political problems, even where there was a shortage, or indeed total absence, of any precedents or statutory rules. 

This resulted in a stable structure, where in all the critical situations centripetal forces proved stronger than centrifugal.  For a body of this kind, the openness, transparency and efficiency of the CEC were exemplary. Its members were of very different ideological persuasions, which in Russia has hitherto always ended in rows and mutual accusations.  But not this time, which is a huge breakthrough.

So we can confidently say that if the opposition was able in a very short space of time, almost from scratch, to set up an organisation of 300 people which worked effectively for 3 months, then clearly in other conditions the Russian opposition would be able to set up a multi-level nationwide body, which would be much more efficient than Putin's increasingly unwieldy power vertical.

Another important factor in the organisation was that it was perhaps the first time in the history of elections that a huge body of unprocessed basic data was published immediately after the end of voting.  These data were generally available for analysis: from studying the patterns of electoral behaviour to monitoring that the election had been correctly run, and counting the votes. This meant that all attempts to declare the election fraudulent and questionable remained at the level of unproven assertions. Anyone wanting to examine the situation had access to numerous proofs of the election's transparency and honesty.

4. Russian opposition finances

The financial aspect of the OCC election is no less interesting.

In Russia finances are the most vulnerable part of any opposition project. There are always plenty of ideas and projects, but without sufficient finance even the most promising project is doomed to oblivion. Our own experience of Democracy2 is relevant here, because the project was unable to achieve its planned potential solely for lack of funds.

The most efficient way of putting down opposition activity in Russia is by isolating its organisers from potential sponsors. Getting a large sum of money from any one source is an impossible task and, moreover, no opposition project should be based on the assumption that one or several big sponsors will make regular donations. As soon as the authorities find out that the opposition has acquired a more or less conspicuous source of funding, they immediately take all measures to shut it off.  In Russia this is, unfortunately, fairly easy to do: in every single case sponsors of opposition projects have been obliged either to cease funding, or significantly to reduce it.

This is how we should regard the Putin regime's battle with foreign non-commercial organisations. The situation today is that projects inside Russia are not only unable to receive legal or direct funding from abroad, but it is actually dangerous to try and do so. 

The OCC election demonstrated that this all too solid wall can be breached and money collected for a nationwide opposition project.

'The situation today is that projects inside Russia are not only unable to receive legal or direct funding from abroad, but it is actually dangerous to try and do so'

What emerged was that the people involved in the process were themselves both able and willing to finance similar projects and that to stop them doing so was quite complicated. The technology of collecting money for opposition projects is developing robustly, but it was the OCC election that was the real breakthrough and made progress towards new horizons possible.

Another interesting aspect is how effective and transparent the disbursement of costs are.

Overall the CEC spent about 20 roubles for each of the 120,000 registered voters and about 45 roubles for every person that voted, an outstandingly good result hitherto unknown in any Russian election.

In a very short time we had developed voting software, which was considerably superior to the software in use at the Russian Central Electoral Commission.  And all this was made possible by money collected openly and with transparent accounting!  For Russia, where such matters are considered murky and tricky, this is not only a breakthrough – it's a complete miracle!

We feel that many people might be interested to compare the budgets for the innumerable international programmes, which have been run in Russia for many years and are aimed at developing the civic society, with the budget for the OCC.  Comparing the sums, rather than the delivered result.

5. Political outcomes

Politically speaking, the election has shown that it is moderate liberals who are the main strength of the Russian opposition. But at the same time it became apparent that the other 2 main political forces taking part in organising the election – the left wing and the nationalists – also have their supporters and ignoring them, as happened in the 90s, is not an option.

Analysis of the election results showed that if the election had been run using party lists, the left wing and the nationalists would have received about 20% each of the vote, and various other liberal and civic groupings, as well as groups with differing ideologies, would in total have received about 60%.  This way the composition of the OCC would have been roughly equivalent to the split in the current voting system. 

Elections to the Cooridinating Council of the Russian election were accompanied by vibrant late-night debates between the candidates on Rain TV, Russia's trendy and increasingly popular independent TV channel. For most viewers, the comparison with the moribund state of Russian democracy outside the studio was immediately obvious. 

This is a fortunate coincidence and a lucky assumption since if the real relative strengths had differed substantially, then the proportions reached under our voting system would have been regarded as unjust.  In all probability this would have had a significant negative effect on readings of the election results and the work of the OCC.

To try and sum up the political results of the election:

1. Russia, as represented by the most educated and up to date of her citizens, is ready for Cloud democracy.  All the stages of the election, from putting forward the candidates to voting, happened online and gave rise to no particular questions from anyone who sincerely wished to make sense of it and to take part;

2. CEC expenses covering the organisation of the election nationwide were incomparably less than those involved in the organisation of the same procedure offline;

3. there has been some clarification of the ideological situation among the forces of the opposition in Russia.  The myth, for instance, that any free election would turn out to be a triumph for the radical left and the nationalists has been blown out of the water.

To look more closely at this last point:  during the election all the political forces involved made considerable efforts to prove that they, and only they, represented the majority of the protesters. The problem is that anyone engaged in promotion runs the risk of falling victim to his own propaganda.  The left wing, for instance, was a victim of its own propaganda: its members spent a lot of time asserting that the protest movement had recently moved to the left.  As a result they mainly worked on the general candidate lists, and were fairly resoundingly trounced. Now the left are saying that they don't have the proper representation in the OCC, which is probably true, but this is the result of their unsuccessful political strategy. The nationalists also maintained that the current protest movement has clearly distinguishable nationalist overtones, but in contrast the key figures of the nationalist movement directed their efforts at a different list, which was drawn up on the basis of political allegiances (nationalist, liberal etc). They were elected on to the OCC.

The voting demonstrated very clearly that a large number of opposition activists to a greater or lesser extent support democracy and consider the European route the only proper way for Russia.

In summary, the socialists from the left wing elected on the OCC were moderate, pro-European democrats; the nationalist movement members on the OCC are national democrats who also recognise that the only way forward for Russia is towards democratisation and partnership with the West.  We feel that we can state categorically that Russia is not facing a threat of a' red-brown' [ultra-left and ultra-right] comeback.

'The voting demonstrated that a large number of opposition activists to a greater or lesser extent support democracy and consider the European route the only proper way for Russia. Russia is not facing a threat of a' red-brown'  comeback'

On the whole the OCC election demonstrated that the majority of voters support liberal ideas, which is a satisfactory response to the Cassandras who predict an inevitable 'red', 'brown' or 'red-brown' scenario if Putin loses power. It's very important that this response has been heard and was confirmed by electoral statistics. We regard this as one of the most important political outcomes of the OCC election.

Another general point uniting the majority of deputies who were elected on to the OCC (and a feature of most of the candidates' programmes) is support for the idea of transforming the Russian political system into a parliamentary republic, which itself is one of the most important points in the Russian opposition's political programme. 

We feel we must also draw attention to a rather incredible breakthrough, one that is still left unacknowledged by observers on the sidelines: at the fag-end of Putin’s rule, both nationalists and the left wing have agreed that democracy in Russia is absolutely essential.  It was actually this agreement that made the OCC election a possibility.

The last point to be made is that, in analysing the results of the voting, we perceived no substantial difference in the voting between the regions and Moscow, nor between the votes of the various electoral strata,  age groups included. It is, of course, quite possible that these evaluations will have changed by the next election, which, we hope, will involve a significantly wider electoral base. But we regard this as one more sign of internal consolidation among the opposition section of the civic society, radiating out from Moscow to the very peripheries of the country.

We understand that the election touched only the most politically active part of society.  The future actions of the OCC will to a large extent depend on how many voters we are able to attract to the next election.  If we increase the numbers, then we shall probably see extremely unexpected and very interesting electoral results, which will be impossible to forecast in advance.

6. What now?

Looking into the future, we have a bit more to say.  The process of self-organisation and the structuring of the Russian opposition must clearly continue and the second stage of the election to the OCC will be even more interesting and more representative.

The next stage will involve the formation of a more powerful, effective and representative body, which will be both organised and legitimate.  This will enable it to compete with the government structures, whose loss of authority is gathering speed. 

'We consider the OCC election the first step on the long road to the establishment of a democratic and free society in Russia'

We can see what has to be improved in the way the elections are run. First, we need a system of 'linked lists' which is the most popular in European parliamentary practice. In this system the voter elects not just one of the party lists, but the actual candidates he prefers from that list. Second, consideration should also be given to devising a system of regional single-seat constituencies, divided up in accordance with the activity of the region in question at the last election.

The fact that we shall have to change the electoral system in the future does not in any way mean that the current system is unsatisfactory. It was maximally simple, which was very important for ensuring the success of the first voting. Besides, we didn't have any basis for determining fair representation in the regions.  Now we do, and in the future we shall be able to improve our electoral system.  For that reason we support the proposals of those politicians who suggest we should hold the next OCC election quite soon.

We consider the OCC election the first step on the long road to the establishment of a democratic and free society in Russia, which will be open to cooperation with the democratic states of Europe and the US.  The Russia we envisage will be a federal state with a high level of civic involvement in the running of the country.

The ideas of Cloud democracy have been tested on a fairly large sample and can, therefore, be considered both successful and promising.   Of themselves the ideas of electronic voting and a constant link between the voters and the political elite are not new, but for Russia they were a first during the run-up to, and holding of, the OCC.

We consider that the further development of our Democracy2 project and the work of the OCC will very soon take civic society in Russia to new heights of self-organisation.  Sooner or later it will be strong enough to overcome the dictatorship imposed on us from above.

Thumbnail picture: flickr/greg westfall

About the authors

Leonid Volkov is protest movement activist and political blogger based in the city of Yekaterinburg. In 2009, Volkov ran for and won a seat on Yekaterinburg’s city council. Together with Fyodor Krasheninnikov he co-authored “Cloud Democracy” published in Russia in 2011.

Fyodor Krasheninnikov is political PR consultant, protest movement activist, writer  and political blogger based in the city of Yekaterinburg. He is the author of “After Russia” book published in 2008. Together with Leonid Volkov he co-authored “Cloud democracy” published in 2011.

Read On

Fyodor Krashenninikov and Leonid Volkov's e-book, Cloud Democracy is available in Russian online, here

Website for the Democracy-2 project