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Could Russia’s presidential elections wake up Kalmykia?

In the Russian republic of Kalmykia, where the opposition is small and fractious, Alexey Navalny could become a unifying figure ahead of next year's presidential election. RU

Valery Badmayev. Photo (с): Badma Biurchiev. All rights reserved.Valery Badmayev, the editor-in-chief of the Sovremennaya Kalmykia newspaper, is a well-known figure in this sparsely-populated republic in southern Russia. Many locals associate his name with his 17 years of opposition to Kalmykia’s former leader Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Badmayev stresses that he wasn’t fighting Ilyumzhinov per se, but the entire political system that has taken hold in Russia. He still believes in political struggle, actively taking part in and organising protests. During next year’s presidential election in Russia, Badmayev will campaign for Alexey Navalny. Many of his advisers were perplexed at this announcement.

As part of oDR’s series of interviews with Russian civic activists, Badmayev explained why Navalny’s reputation doesn’t bother him — and why it doesn’t matter who runs Kalmykia today.

Valery, you recently announced your plans to open a campaign office for Alexey Navalny supporters in Kalmykia. What function will it serve? Navalny’s chances at being officially registered as a presidential candidate are fairly minimal.

Valery Badmayev: My idea to found a campaign office arose about half a year ago — or rather, our idea, as I have another couple of people working with me. When we found out that Navalny was coming to [the nearby city] of Astrakhan [where he held meetings with local opposition leaders on 22 October - ed.], I decided to go and meet him personally to discuss how the campaign offices work in practice — to find out how it works in other regions. I was able to meet him, but unfortunately, we didn’t talk in detail. Instead, I discussed how the campaign offices work with the guys from Astrakhan. The advice was predictable: rent some premises, find some funds to buy printed materials, hand out newspapers and flyers, talk to people, try and get them on board with your work. Basically, just what I imagined.

It’s no secret that most people who use social media here — and that’s mostly people under 40 — are indifferent to politics

The main problem for us at the moment is finding premises. We need a place where we can meet and store our materials. I’m sure that the Kremlin will formally allow Navalny to propose his candidacy; they’ll just shut down the campaign at a different stage. But we’ll have an opportunity to start collecting signatures in support of our candidate. That means that we’ll be able to speak with people, tell them about the political and economic situation in the country, and expand our circle of supporters.

It’s no secret that most people who use social media here — and that’s mostly people under 40 — are indifferent to politics. Just two people responded to my Facebook appeal to found a local campaign office for Navalny. In that regard, readers of print media are more active; that is to say the older generation — people aged 40 and above. They’re people we can work with.

What’s your impression of Navalny?

VB: Energetic, genuine, a real politician. He knows how to engage with the public. There are few such people in Russia. I admit that Vladimir Zhirinovsky [leader of the Liberal Democratic Party] is one of them, regardless of how repugnant I find him. There’s also Grigory Yavlinsky [former leader of Yabloko]. Yavlinsky can speak well, but can’t rile people up. But Navalny can. He’s very sensitive to the energy of a crowd, and doesn’t react impulsively to provocations against him — instead, he works them to his favour.

What he says about corruption and how he sees the condition of Russia both chime with my personal understanding of the situation. In Astrakhan, one of those present at the meeting shouted “Where’s your programme?!” But what Navalny says is a programme. The average Russian still assumes that a programme has to be published somewhere in full, like the Communist Party’s Five-Year Plans. But that’s an anachronism. These days, theses are enough. As is a fundamental understanding of how a politician will react to this or that situation when he comes to power. Exposing, investigating, and prosecuting the corrupt — that’s also part of a programme. After all, the Russian state doesn’t do it. Occasionally it will expose somebody, like [former minister of defence] Anatoly Serdyukov. But what punishment did he receive? None whatsoever!

The fact that Navalny stands up against corruption is well known. But we know a lot less about his constructive proposals for change.

VB: The constructive agenda has also been discussed. Well, for example, he suggests investing funds not in arms, but in education, medicine, science, and culture. To build decent roads… And, of course, a real fight against corruption is in itself a constructive proposal.

Is Navalny the lesser of two evils for you? Would you go out and vote for him in another political reality?

VB: I don’t know. I haven’t lived in another political reality. Even in the 1990s, when we Kalmyk democrats supported Boris Yeltsin, there was nobody to choose from. These days few people remember that Yeltsin was the first party apparatchik who actually left the Communist Party. He declared as much at an All-Union Party Conference, in the presence of the Party’s entire Central Committee. After that, he lost his position, and started to fight against the Soviet system. And garnered some sympathy as a result. Yeltsin wasn’t the best option for Russia, but he was the only one we could vote for.

Even in the 1990s, when we Kalmyk democrats supported Boris Yeltsin, there was nobody to choose from

Unfortunately, the clique that gathered around Yeltsin gradually distanced itself from democratic values, and this led to Putin’s coming to power. Today it’s a joke to talk about democracy in Russia. There is no political competition. Opposition activists and politicians are called “agents”. The population watches all this — the falsification of elections, the corruption, the collapse of the economy — and concludes: ah well, so that’s democracy for you! People develop a fear of the opposition and a distaste for democratic principles.

Playing off these sentiments, the authorities have nearly entirely cleared the political arena of competition. Of those who seriously engage in public politics and do so systematically, Navalny is the only one left. He has a different way of thinking. He’s not building a centralised system, he’s betting on horizontal ties.

Navalny is frequently accused of nationalism, and his tough stance on migration policy is widely known. Everybody remembers his slogan “stop feeding the Caucasus!” Doesn’t it seem to you that he might have problems finding supporters in an autonomous republic like Kalmykia?

VB: If I’m not mistaken, Navalny was expelled from Yabloko for his nationalist views. But for me that’s not necessarily an indicator. In late 2002 and early 2003, I was labelled a “Kalmyk nationalist”. And those accusations were made in the same party, Yabloko, of which I was also a member. It turned out that in the eyes of some of my fellow party members, I was a nationalist. That was relayed to the people “upstairs”, and I was expelled from the party, without ever really understanding the situation. I spoke with Yavlinsky personally. But the party didn’t change its position, which was saddening.

Yabloko position themselves as the leading democrats in Russia, but nonetheless do not understand that in a federal state, nationalism is not the same as the struggle of autonomous republics for their interests. In Russia, a republic is not simply a federal subject. It’s a [quasi]-state, with its own constitution and national language. Over in America, Trump declared that he’ll build a wall along the border with Mexico — the authorities in California opposed him, saying they’d do nothing of the sort. That [kind of confrontation] is normal in a democratic state.

Valery Badmayev (center) is conducting a poll in Elista "Evaluate our power", 2017. Photo (c): Badma Biurchiev. All rights reserved.I haven’t observed Navalny really delving into the question of the federal structure of the Russian state. In Astrakhan he said that he’d try to visit Kalmykia, as well as the other national-autonomous republics, stressing that he has something to say. And that’s fine. Those are the words of a politician. He needs to get ready and meet people. Let 200-300 people turn up — they’ll ask him uncomfortable questions: why does he oppose migrants and people from the Caucasus, why is he for “KrymNash” [“Russia is ours” or Russia’s annexation of Crimea] and so on. But at least people will hear the answers from Navalny himself. In that case, I think he’d gain even more supporters.

That’s happened before. In 1990, Kalmyk democrats invited Nikolai Travkin, founder of the Democratic Party of Russia to [the republic’s capital] Elista. The entire hall of the House of Culture was so packed that people stood in the vestibules. Travkin spoke passionately — he also knew how to inspire people. And after his appearance, the authority of the democrats in the republic rose exponentially.

Is that kind of response possible today? You said yourself that people under 40 are generally indifferent to politics. But are there any “hidden reserves” — perhaps young people who haven’t embraced the opposition?

VB: There are those kind of people among the youth. Literally today I spoke with a young guy who seemed pretty sharp to me. And he used exactly the same verb as you — he said that Navalny needs to “embrace” the youth, and that there were young people who could support him.

We’ve tried to build a dialogue with the youth. But we’re simply not let into the universities, nor the student dormitories

But yes, Kalmykia’s opposition still hasn’t reached out the youth. Even the authorities, with all their resources, haven’t been able to find an approach. Young people don’t believe anybody — they just live their lives. How can you attract them to your side without money and the levers of power? We need to think creatively, as they say these days. And it would be a lot easier for us if opposition-minded society didn’t only accuse [opposition] leaders and berate them for their failings, but also helped them by getting involved and donating financially. As for when representatives of the authorities criticise us — well, to hell with them. But when you hear those kind of things from people who are neutral or even support your ideas, you do want to ask “well what have you done?” Behind their criticism lurks their impotence.

We’ve tried to build a dialogue with the youth. But we’re simply not let into the universities, nor the student dormitories. All that’s left for us is to hand out newspapers on the streets. And young people don’t read them.

Is such political passivity among young people unique to Kalmykia? In neighbouring Dagestan, for example, young people went out onto the streets for the anti-corruption protests in March, even though the majority of them don’t support Navalny as a presidential candidate. In other regions, we’ve also seen students and even schoolchildren at these demonstrations. Whereas we just had a one-person picket in Kalmykia, and the person conducting it was far from young.

VB:
There was also nothing of the kind in Chechnya, nor Ingushetia, nor Kabardino-Balkaria, nor Karachaevo-Cherkessia. If you take the national republics, then people only came out to protest in Dagestan. But then again, around three million people live there. Less than 300,000 live here in Kalmykia. In Dagestan, there are also a lot of different ethnic groups, who always need to try and organise their relation to one another. So when it comes to political activity, they’re always in good shape. Dagestan and Tatarstan, which from the very beginning were special regions in the federation, almost resemble “real” republics with their own political structures.

In terms of politics, the “Russian” regions of Russia do not differ whatsoever from the national republics. Everything is preordained

Kalmykia, in contrast, doesn’t differ from the majority of regions of Russia. Our problems are much clearer — there simply aren’t enough people. You can’t say that about neighbouring Volgograd region, with a population of over five million. It’s a problem — I know, as I’ve been in touch with colleagues from many different cities.

In terms of politics, the “Russian” regions of Russia do not differ whatsoever from the national republics. Everything is preordained. The [political] field is completely empty. Nobody knows what will happen next. Some say that things are heading towards revolution. But I don’t see any signs of that.

I hear the opinion more and more that the country is at a dead end and won’t emerge from the current political situation without upheaval. Do you still count on political methods, on the possibility of free and fair elections?

VB:
Even if the authorities do register Navalny, it’s clear that his chances to win these elections are scant. But he still needs to take part in them. The boat must be rocked namely by political methods. Revolution, first and foremost, means blood. And secondly, I repeat, we must not delude ourselves. The most change we can predict is a palace coup, a change at the very highest echelons of power. A situation is now unfolding that is similar to that which led to the collapse of communist rule. Competing views and agendas built up within the ruling elite. In 1991, these disagreements led to the rise of the State Emergency Committee, and the democrats took advantage of this situation.

And would such a coup be a chance for ordinary people?

VB:
First of all, it’ll be a chance for a new political elite. We can’t count on any systematic, active participation in politics from society at large for at least two more generations. We’ve already returned to the Soviet Union. Again, there are prison camps, denunciations, private enterprise is under severe strain… A country with such a long feudal past (and socialism was also feudalism) needs several generations to erase all that. But fighting for one’s future is always worthwhile.

The story of your expulsion from Yabloko surprised me, as I haven’t yet met anybody in our republic who would call you a nationalist. That said, Kalmyk nationalist ideas are quite popular among opposition-minded social media users here. They’re sarcastic about the “Russian world”, but at the same time they yearn for the imperial past of the Mongols [the Kalmyk people have ethnolinguistic and historical ties to the Mongols - ed.]. The very same people talk about the unique character of the Kalmyk people, waxing lyrical about their ancestors’ nomadic way of life and military history, while admiring the principles of western political systems, economic and scientific achievements. How can dreams of modernisation, an open world and nationalism coexist with a desire for these notorious traditional values?

VB:
I can’t say why these messy ideas form in people’s minds. But I’m convinced that a national autonomous republic with a democratic form of governance can exist only in a real, federal democracy, where there is real division between the three arms of the state, real political competition, and competent democratic institutions worthy of the name. If that happens, then many questions will resolve themselves.

Nowadays, unfortunately, political activism often boils down to discussions about how everything is bad in Kalmykia, and particularly bad for ethnic Kalmyks. I understand those who worry for the fate of our small ethnic group and the struggle to maintain its identity. Those fears arose didn’t just arise yesterday — and the policies of the federal and local authorities only inflame these feelings. But I believe that the current political system represses everybody, regardless of their regional or ethnic belonging.

Don’t you find that this small-town nationalism is simply a consequence of banal self-interest, and the illusion that in a republic with “the right leadership”, members of the titular ethnicity would have the upper hand in the job market, business deals and so forth?

VB: Unfortunately, we cannot escape from these mercantile interests in politics. That’s just how people are. But today it’s entirely unimportant who’ll lead the republic. In any case, they’ll be an obedient servant of the Kremlin and a cog in the current political system. People sometimes hopefully mention names of promising politicians to me, wondering whether so-and-so might be the successor to [current head of Kalmykia] Alexey Orlov. But I don’t pay attention to that kind of information.

What difference does it make, who they send to rule us “from above”? He won’t be accountable to the will of the people of Kalmykia.

In Kalmykia, you can divide the opposition into two subgroups. Some support Putin and are convinced that Alexey Orlov and his team are to blame for all the republic’s woes. Others — much fewer in number — entirely oppose the Kremlin’s politics. Yet there’s nobody who can systematically work with society without it being a struggle for power. There’s nobody who’d try to build links between active citizens. That is to say, there are no attempts to create the very civil society with which any ruling authorities would have to reckon with and find a dialogue.

VB: There are actually many more subgroups among the opposition. You have former government officials who have lost their jobs. There are those who weren’t able to realise their potential, and remain dissatisfied and unhappy — but they don’t want to stick out. I know that such groups from time to time get together and form plans of some kind. They’re also the opposition. But they’re afraid to speak out in public. I call them the “fighters on the invisible front”.

lead Valery Badmayev (with a megaphone) at a rally against the transfer of an Elista water canal to a private company, 2015. Photo (c): Badma Biurchiev. All rights reserved.And now, those who oppose Orlov are uniting together and getting busy behind the scenes. But I don’t want anything to do with them. Not because the current leader suits me — but because the system as a whole must be challenged. I’ve had that experience myself: during the rule of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov [president of Kalmykia, 1993-2005 and head of Kalmykia, 2005-2010], most of the opposition weren’t like-minded people, but simply fellow travellers with a shared goal — to get Ilyumzhinov out of power. For that very reason, several opposition leaders even held negotiations with Vladimir Putin. As soon as the catalyst disappeared, the coalition began to fall apart. Many prominent oppositionists simply decided to reconcile themselves with the new state of affairs and came to terms with the new leader.

As for daily civic activism — there was a time when we held rallies for every conceivable reason. It went like this: if a protest concerned somebody’s immediate problem — say, the need to renovate a house — then the residents affected would gather and express their discontent in public. If you raised other important questions, nobody would come. Of course, a civic mentality needs to be formed. But the question of resources again arises. What is the opposition in Kalmykia? It’s a small group of people who are under constant criticism. Even their sympathisers say: “It’s useless, you won’t change a thing.”

To a large degree, we have no opposition. Only one opposition group which really does anything is registered in Kalmykia, and that’s Yabloko. And how many are they? A handful. From time to time, they come out to demonstrate — and that’s all they do. What status do the rest of the opposition groups have? Legally speaking, we’re nobodies. At the end of 2015, we barely managed to get together for the Congress of the Kalmyk People. Of the 500 people we invited, all of whom supported us in their words, only 200 arrived. We elected an executive committee, but we didn’t succeed in registering our organisation — the local ministry of justice didn’t even accept our documents. Half the executive committee simply left. And everybody laughed at us, even though as civil society actors, we’d carried out part of our mission. At least we handed Orlov our demands.

Another reason why I’m for Navalny is because it’s an opportunity to receive some kind of status. At least we can talk with people as representatives of a presidential candidate. The elections are a good opportunity to wake up our supporters. And then it’ll be obvious what our perspectives really are. I don’t count out the possibility that they’ll just crack down on us and make sure we suffer. That scenario would frighten our potential supporters — nobody wants to risk their freedom. But that’s something we have to put up with if we want to change anything.

Translated by Maxim Edwards.

This article is part of a new series of interviews we're conducting with civic leaders in Russia. Read the latest text here



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