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Dark blue thread: resisting a sewn-up election

Voting_russia.jpg

As Putin once more readies himself for the presidency, Elena Godlevskaya surveys the level of opposition in Oryol region. People are starting to wake up, she says, but they aren't entirely sure what to do yet.

Elena Godlevskaya
4 November 2011

Putin is once more trying on his presidential uniform; the opposition is gearing up to do battle at the impending election for places in the Duma; the fringe opposition, which is not even allowed to take part in the election, is considering its options for the period thereafter; meanwhile ordinary Russians are having to think up all kinds of alternative ways to deal with elections that offer no choice.

Mathmetician Leonid Volkov and philosopher Fyodor Krashennikov from Yekaterinburg have set up ‘cloud democracy’, the first political internet network in the world. Its authors envisage it becoming an alternative to existing Russian democracy, emasculated by the tandem during its years in power, with the aim of uniting Russian civic campaigners in virtual space. They published a leaflet on the subject and a businessman (anonymous) was so impressed that he financed the whole project – in the hope that this might end up as the democracy which everyone dreamed of in the perestroika years.

Meanwhile a designer from the Moscow region, smilekiller [link in Russian], has come up with a reaction to the Putin-Medvedev situation: he has designed a card game called RosMafia. So officials and the party of power can carry on playing the fool, but active, thinking citizens will try to get rid of the Russian mafia – if only in a game.

Even in a quiet backwater like the Oryol Region, people are starting to wake up.  But they don’t really know what to do.

A political oxymoron

In the run up to the elections for the Duma [national parliament] and the local legislative assembly, the Oryol regional election committee has finally made a gesture towards democracy by closing down the polling station at the regional psycho-neurological hospital. At every election this station has given almost 100% support to deputies from the party of power, though there was one case when patient Tsar Nicholas II dug his heels in and refused to take part in a presidential election. 

However, the rivals of United Russia – Yabloko, Liberal Democratic Party, Communist Party, Just Russia, Right Cause and Russian Patriots – didn’t appreciate the favour. For the first time they united and refused to sign the traditional agreement with the party in power, titled ‘To free and fair elections!’ The time of illusions and games is past and everyone understands that there will be no fair elections, only bribery, threats and all kind of manipulation to ensure that the party of power gains the level of support ordained by Moscow.

Previously, when the local government ‘levelled up’ the turn-out rate as it saw fit, everyone thought that the Oryol Region was unlucky with its government, but today it is for the first time clearly understood that the order comes from the Kremlin. It’s no longer a case of a ‘bad governor’. It is a pervasive lack of freedom.

'The time of illusions and games is past and everyone understands that there will be no fair elections. This worries even people who have never protested against the regime. They realise that everything on offer is simply a pro-government project by another name, but there’s no longer the option of voting ‘against all’, so what can they do with their vote?'

This worries even people who have never protested against the regime, though for the members of the various parties things are easier – at least they understand who they have to vote for. But what about people who are not members of a party? They realise that everything on offer is simply a pro-government project by another name, but there’s no longer the option of voting ‘against all,’ so what can they do with their vote?

There’s no answer to this question either at home or work, so they turn to those who are more likely to be better informed and to be able to give a sensible answer: journalists and civil rights campaigners. But we’re in the same boat.

The other day I had a call from an Oryol pensioner, Olga Chekh, a local campaigner who has been trying for several years to get the local government to adopt a special law for the so-called ‘children of the war.’ These people were born during WWII, lived under occupation or were evacuated and endured cold, hunger and all the stresses and strains of war; today they eke out a miserable existence because their pensions are negligible and there’s no social safety net. 

Olga is quite desperate: ‘There’s no one to vote for! I went to a local council meeting. One of the deputies raised the question of the extremely difficult living conditions of the war children, but got no support from anyone. I begged the communists to at least say something in our support. I want the newspapers to publish the names of everyone who voted against their fathers and mothers, but what paper will do that? A fine pass we’ve come to!  What should we do at the elections, Elena Nikolaevna?’

What could I say? Lie to yourself and vote for a party whose leaders you don’t believe in, just to spite United Russia? Tear up your voting paper and find yourself being prosecuted for it? Cross all the names out, knowing that your vote will be allocated to the winning party, i.e. United Russia? Whatever we tell ourselves, elections with no choice are like adding to a minus. That’s the political oxymoron.

'The Last Autumn'

I met the man who invented the RosMafia game at a civic forum in the Moscow Region called The Last Autumn [link in Russian] at the end of September and beginning of October. This was for the fringe opposition and well-known human rights campaigners, journalists, bloggers and political leaders, who were trying to find an answer to the question tormenting Olga Chekh and tens of thousands of Oryol residents. Participants included Alexander Navalny, fighter against corruption and potholes; Evgenia Chirikova, defender of Khimki Forest; Nemtsov andKasparov, various journalists, bloggers, politicians, patriots and national bolsheviks. And, of course, Volkov and Krashennikov of 'cloud democracy' fame.

The inventor said his name was Timofei. He told a room full of people (who had come to see Navalny) his simple tale: ‘I’m here because I consider that on 24 September Russia was sold down the river and I feel as if I've been violated. All my hopes for some kind of a change were an illusion. I'm absolutely not a member of the opposition, but I simply can't accept this. So I developed this card game and called it RosMafia. My wife said we could risk 15,000 roubles on producing it – after all, she said, that's hardly money (which was a bit of a surprise!). I made 50 sets. The Mafia is represented by Putin, who's in post for life, Medvedev the Werewolf, some of Putin's friends and other public figures.  If any of them consider I've insulted them, I shall be happy to defend my position in court. I remember what 1937 was like and can't say that I'm not afraid, but I have a son and I don't want his future to be linked with this regime. And I don't intend to leave Russia.'

poslednyaya-osen.jpg

With political parties no longer viable outlets for genuine opposition, protest movements outside the political system are growing in importance. One recernt example is the 'The Last Autumn' conference (pictured, credit hekovboy.livejournal.com / Alex Kazakov)  that grew out of the eco-activist Anti-Seliger movement. 

There were also a great many ordinary citizens at The Last Autumn, worried about the future of the country in which they happen to live. Quite a few parents of big families had come because they are anxious about what lies ahead for their children. People running small businesses, teachers, engineers and middle managers… All of them interpreted the deal between Putin and Medevedev as a harbinger of totalitarianism. They felt that they had to do something and this was the only thing on offer. The parties only disappoint and the political leaders of this so-called fringe opposition have so far only showed how completely powerless they are. These people don't know what to do at the Duma elections in December, when it's already clear that the party of power will win hands down, or whether anything can be done at the presidential election to prevent Putinism lasting 12, if not 24, years. Should they perhaps just emigrate?

They may not have got any answers to this questions, but they did learn about some desperate resistance measures. People do what they can: smilekiller invented a card game, Navalny fights outrageous expenditure on government contracts and Chirikova defends the forest. Others organise street protests; the leader of the rock group DDT wrote a song called The Last Autumn and is touring the country with it as part of a new concert programme.

The blogger Anton Nosik [link in Russian] is sure that the future lies with businesspeople, rather than politicians and banner-carriers, because he feels that the voters will be able to put their trust in considered and effective actions. But it's not that simple. Whoever comes to power could well find that not one problem can be addressed, because underneath them is a 16-storey vertical of thieves and robbers and a horizontal of doctors who will only treat you for money, teachers who teach for money and the people who are cutting down Khimki Forest.

The world has to be completely transformed, rather than worrying about whether Putin or Medvedev will be the next president. Easier said than done.

No need of democrats

This year is the 20th anniversary of the putsch that tried to turn back time and get rid of Mikhail Gorbachev. It should be a day of celebration for the current regime, but it's not. Many of the defenders of democracy in 1991 have today been refused their memorial medals. Our regime has no need of democrats.

'It's not their celebration', I'm told by historian Oleg Fyodorov from Oryol, a former colonel in the Ministry of the Interior forces. He defended the White House in 1991, but is intending to vote for the communists in December. He doesn't want to, but sees no other choice.

'If Putin or Medvedev were to lose their power, then they would face the same future as Tymoshenko in Ukraine, i.e. prison. So they'll fight tooth and nail to hang on in there for life. Their rule has generated social apathy and that in its turn, stagnation, which can only end in a social explosion. They realise thisIf we can't wrest power from them, then they’ll do their very best to prevent a social explosion... by simulating one themselves. I don't know what it'll be this time: a shocking terrorist attack or declaring war on Muslims in the Caucasus, but that'll be the only way of distracting attention away from people's social and political problems and justifying another 6 or 12 years of their rule. To stop that we have to limit the power of United Russia any way we can, even if it involves asking the communists to help. But I do understand that I shouldn't be voting for them…'

A cunning plan

voting with dark blue thread

Reports suggest some managers are ordering their employees
to vote for United Russia, and are demanding photographicevidence that they did so. A sleight-of-hand trick using thread
has been suggested as a suitable means of resistance.
(Photo: Shoël Stadlen)

While people are trying to make up their minds whether they should try to preserve their integrity by not taking part in the game called 'the elections', or try to save Russia from imminent Putinism by voting for parties in which they have no faith, the Oryol branch of Just Russia has come up with a cunning plan for not selling one's soul.

On 19 October they published a leaflet called 'We stand for freedom'. Senior officials of various ranks compel their staff to vote as the boss thinks best. Students too. Staff and students toe the line, but to ensure they have complied, they are made to photograph the voting paper (using a phone they are given especially for the purpose) and show the boss that the tick is in the right box. If they don't, they are told they could be sacked, not paid their bonus or, in the case of students, kicked out of the institute. But…

…here's what you can do:

  • take a piece of thread, dark blue if possible, and make it into a tick or a cross of the correct size;
  • put it over the 'right' box;
  • take a photograph;
  • remove the thread;
  • take a pen and tick the box you want to;
  • fold up the voting paper and put it in the box;
  • show the photograph to the necessary person; and
  • carry on studying or working with the satisfaction of having done your civic duty! 

Dark blue thread – the bedrock of Russian democracy. What a lesson!

This is all very different from what was said at The Last Autumn. But those people were campaigners and I'm talking about ordinary citizens of the Oryol region who are entitled to vote in elections. Who have been dumbed down by TV, scared by the management and deceived on more than one occasion by their own government. They don't like elections with no choice and they don't want to help Putin and Medvedev if they can avoid it, but they don't know what to do.

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