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Note to Russian opposition: get over the election and work together for the future

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Artemy Troitsky believes that Putin’s opponents contributed to their own defeat by taking a winter holiday, while the Kremlin used the time between elections to guarantee a Putin victory by fair means or foul. But opposition groups should get over their disappointment, recognise their potential strength and start working more effectively together. 

Artemy Troitsky
17 March 2012

An unwise holiday

Russia’s progressives have once again screwed up a golden opportunity. Not on the scale of the early 90s, but still… At the end of December, with the Kremlin on its knees, they collectively and gleefully announced that they were taking a forty day holiday. And while our carefree neo-Decembrists were recharging their batteries, their opponents were working their socks off: Putin, Sechin, Rothenberg and Co. were hurriedly finding new hidey holes for their billions, and their sidekicks were putting the wind up regional councils, district councils, trade union committees and election committees. The fruits of these heroic labours were revealed in February – early March; they were crude and ugly, but pretty effective. If push comes to shove, they can still get it together.

‘At the moment it is the opposition that is on its knees. Frankly, I don’t get it. Did you really think that the Kremlin wouldn’t have guaranteed that Putin would get the number of votes he needed?’

The opposition’s only weapon against this gigantic state conspiracy, with its unlimited resources, was the semi-amateur League of Voters, which conscientiously trained observers for the actual voting procedure, but still managed to cock up the election completely. Because the election started much earlier. Millions of absentee ballot papers were distributed, thousands of fake voter lists drawn up, regional and local election  committees mobilised  – and all this massive criminal activity evoked no reaction whatsoever from the representatives of our civil society, despite warning signs and leaks. Obviously, no last minute feats of heroism by observers (and I say this without irony – I take my hat off to them) could make any significant difference to the outcome. They perhaps made a difference of one percent to the fifteen or so that Putin gained by vote-rigging.

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Subzero winter temperatures did not stop the
momentum behind anti-Putin rallies. With weather
conditions improving, can the opposition look forward
to even larger participation? Photo: Ilya Varlamov

At the moment, judging by their mood, it is the opposition that is on its knees. Frankly, I don’t get it. Did you really think that all detective story fans would go with [writer and protest leader Boris] Akunin, and the target audience of Big Brother with [socialite, TV presenter and protest convert] Kseniya Sobchak? That the Kremlin wouldn’t have guaranteed that Putin would get the number of votes he needed (in the run-off, if necessary)? That having won an election process it didn’t enjoy, it would happily start flirting with the opposition and offering them concessions?

The disturbing events of 5th March, when a protest rally was brutally broken up by the police, only pointed out the obvious: a serious dialogue with the opposition is not on our rulers’ agenda.

One could try to split the elite, one could make overtures of friendship to its intellectual-technocratic wing  (Kudrin, Dvorkovich, Prokhorov…), but the core of Putin’s support (the Ozero co-operative and the strongmen) have no interest in genuine reform, for the simple reason that any such reform will directly target them. How can you talk to Putin about fighting corruption, if he is at the heart of it, a fact of which he is well aware? As the saying goes: the idea of Russians being against corruption is as likely as bees being against honey! In other words, we need to rid ourselves of all our illusions, though this doesn’t mean the party’s over!

All is not lost for the opposition

This last winter a unique community came together in our country: this is the main (and so far the only) achievement of responsibly minded people in Russia, as well as Putin’s worst nightmare.

‘This spontaneously generated citizens’ assembly is taking the confrontation between Russia’s people and its rulers to an entirely new – non-political and even non-economic – level. Let’s perhaps call it ‘moral-ethical.’

This strange creation is rather like Noah’s Ark, only in 4-D: in the type of people involved in it (politicians, activists, party animals, those ‘just interested,); in its ideological orientation (left wingers, liberals, nationalists); in its socio-economic composition (students, public sector workers, ‘the middle class’, business people…); in its generational mix (from cool kids to veterans). Unfortunately we haven’t yet managed to add a fifth, ethnic, dimension:  the anti-Putin movement consists almost exclusively of Russian people - not necessarily ethnically, but certainly in terms of language and culture. 

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The brutality of police forces in breaking up the 5 March
post-election rally would seem to indicate the Kremlin
is not ready to make big concessions. What this means 
is the opposition need start working together effectively.
And fast. Photo: Ilya Varlamov

This spontaneously generated citizens’ assembly is taking the confrontation between Russia’s people and its rulers to an entirely new – non-political and even non-economic – level. Let’s perhaps call it ‘moral-ethical’. It is easier to define the battlefield, as ‘Honest people against thieves’. That is a universal statement! We all know about the criminal elite. But what about the bit-players – the lines of ‘carousel’ voters, the crowds at the Putin rallies – they are not criminals, of course, but they are in fact in the criminal government’s pocket - some get cash in hand for turning up, some a free trip to Moscow plus expenses, some a bonus at work. And then there is the most nauseating bunch of Putin touts – our pop-cultural elite, who pick up the crumbs falling from the boss’s table in the form of freebies, government commissions, subsidies and other privileges.

How to keep the Ark afloat

So, we mustn’t allow this Honest Ark to be sunk under any circumstances – not by fear, not by bitterness, not by despair. The people it has on board are all very different; we must be careful not to bang heads together or scare some people away in the interests of others. On 5th March, for example, an ‘Ekho Moskvy’ reporter was accidentally beaten up by some nationalists, and a lot of people went home safe and sound, but saddened (and not just by the large-scale military presence).

‘We should calmly and patiently extend the areas of truth in our ramshackle lives. Then we will be granted a sense of direction, a buzz and the strength that comes with them.’

Mass rallies are a powerful form of protest, but they are an exceptional one and there are others just as effective. We shouldn’t make a fetish out of ‘thousand-strong crowds’ – they’ll just bus in a few more thousand coerced public sector workers. Our winter’s tale has another dimension: this is a revolt of quality versus quantity. We need to work more independently and in ‘interest groups’ where each person feels at home. This work needs to be imaginative and regular. We should calmly and patiently extend the areas of truth in our ramshackle lives. Then we will be granted a sense of direction, a buzz and the strength that comes with them. And mass actions, as festivals of the people’s will, must also be well thought out and faultlessly   prepared – only then will they have a chance of ending up in the Kremlin. And, please, no more holidays – and especially not at the beginning of May.

Mother Nature is on our side. Autumn is still a long way away.

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