September 15th is the last day for candidates to register for election to the Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition. According to its proponents, the new structure, by having elected members, will legitimize opposition leaders in the eyes of the grassroots, and consolidate the protest movement, which has become a major force following the mass rallies in 2011 and 2012. Yet not all opposition figures are backing this idea: skeptics fear that internal competition will weaken the protest movement and lead to a split in its ranks.
The campaign “For Fair Elections!”, which drew tens of thousands of people to Bolotnaya Square, Sakharov Avenue, and Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, was coordinated by an organizing committee that included representatives from different ideological wings of the Russian opposition movement, from pro-Western liberals to left-wing radicals. At the “March of Millions” rally in June, protesters suggested the establishment of a new structure: the Coordinating Council of the opposition, which would not be formed on a coalition basis, but, instead, would be elected directly by the grassroots.
“There is an enormous gap between the ‘leaders on the podium’ and the millions of citizens who are dissatisfied with the thieving occupying regime…. This mistrust can be overcome only… if the people themselves elect those whom they want to lead the movement,” wrote blogger and lawyer Alexei Navalny, one of the authors of the idea. “It’s unpleasant for me to hear ‘Who elected you as leader, Navalny?’ It’s unpleasant, but it’s true. No one elected me,” he continued. The vote organizers hope to eliminate this perceived lack of legitimacy.
The election will be overseen by prominent opposition activist Leonid Volkov, a member of the Yekaterinburg City Duma and a cofounder of the People’s Alliance, often referred to as “the party of Navalny.” Having declined to run for the Coordinating Council to avoid a conflict of interests, Volkov became chairman of the Central Election Committee (CEC). Moscow journalists are already calling him the “anti-Churov” (Vladimir Churov heads Russia’s official election commission). “‘For Fair Elections’ was the main slogan last winter. But what kinds of elections are fair? How do we see them? If we can … conduct a truly model election, it will be very… illustrative [of our answers to these questions],” wrote Volkov, explaining his role in the process.
The CEC’s independence is designed to be safeguarded by the presence of representatives from all major opposition groups (liberals, leftists, and nationalists), as well as from poll monitoring organizations such as Golos. Elections to the Coordinating Council, whose term will be one year, will be held on October 20th and 21st. Any adult Russian citizen who shares “the principal aims and values of the Russian protest movement, as expressed in the resolutions of the mass rallies between December 2011 and June 2012” can become a candidate after paying the registration fee of 10,000 rubles ($315.) These fees will fund the election budget.
The Coordinating Council will consist of 45 members, 30 of them elected on a “general” list, and 5 each from the three ideological groups: liberals, leftists, and nationalists. The CEC expects to see some 100 candidates once the registration process is complete. The organizers hope that as many as 100,000 persons will cast votes– although the election will be deemed valid if 50,000 people participate. The vote will be held on the internet and at specially established polling places. Voters must register by October 18th. Volkov and his colleagues promise that online voting will be preceded by a careful verification (including with credit cards and electronic signatures) to safeguard the principle of “one person, one vote” and exclude the possibility of multiple voting. Nevertheless, internet expert and CEC member Anton Nossik has expressed doubt that the system can be fully protected against fraud.
Those vying for seats on the Coordinating Council include several stars of the Russian opposition such as Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Andrei Piontkovsky, Alexei Navalny, and Dmitri Gudkov. “The idea of an election is correct and reasonable, it will remove the question of ‘Who are you, and for whom do you speak?’” emphasizes Nemtsov who is running on the general list. “Competition is a necessary element of democratic procedures, and if we demand democracy from the government, we must show an example ourselves,” notes Piontkovsky. According to Kasparov, “It is important to “counter the so-called ‘elections’ run by Churov with a truly free election, albeit on a limited scale. If we can register tens of thousands of voters, …it will be a crucial step forward.”
In addition to legitimizing the protest leaders, the organizers have called for consolidating the opposition, which, in their view, can be achieved through the ideological diversity that is built into the Council’s composition. It is precisely the claim of consolidation that is most heavily disputed by the opponents of intra-opposition elections. “The idea of choosing the protest leaders using electoral procedures is a political mistake, since any competitive procedure contradicts the principles of consolidation and the widest-possible representation of citizens’ interests in the protest movement,” reads the statement of the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS), a leading pro-democracy force.
The statement continues, “An artificially imposed competition will split the protest movement, divide citizens, cause serious harm to the protest movement, and undermine citizens’ trust in its leaders.” The co-chairmen of RPR-PARNAS, Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, have refused to participate in the Coordinating Council (Nemtsov, who is also a co-chairman of the party, disagreed with his party’s majority view and is running in a personal capacity).
In Kasyanov’s opinion, a true legitimization of the protest movement could be achieved by an organizing committee which would include representatives of different political groups; in other words, by returning to the model of last December. “Instead of discussing what is important, it is being proposed to discuss who is important. And as we know from Russia’s history, when this question begins to be asked, everything collapses,” reminds Ryzhkov, concluding, “It seems to me, this is a mechanism to destroy the protest movement.” The Republicans’ position has been supported by their traditional competitor on the liberal flank, the Yabloko party. Its chairman, Sergei Mitrokhin, declared that the party will only participate “in real elections, not in abstract virtual ones. We will not abide by ‘monolithic decisions’ of unknown groups who claim to be speaking on behalf of the entire opposition.”
Not only liberals are opposed to the Coordinating Council. The Forum of Left-Wing Forces has urged a boycott of the body, condemning “populist election rules, whereby the choice is not made between the lists of organizations with clearly defined programs, but between specific individuals,” as well as “the requirement for candidates to pay a registration fee equal to the median monthly wage of a well-paid worker.” Eduard Limonov, the leader of the unregistered Another Russia party, stated that “no one has ever, in any country, elected the leaders of the opposition.”
The signs of a split feared by opponents of internal competition are already appearing. The organizer of the vote, Leonid Volkov, has called Yabloko, modern Russia’s oldest pro-democracy organization, a “Kremlin party.” Alexei Navalny has asserted that those who are against the Coordinating Council are driven by “fears of getting a low result, or no result at all. This is cowardice and nothing else.” “I am surprised that some of the ideologues of this election say that those who do not participate are cowards or traitors,” retorted Vladimir Ryzhkov, adding, “This is very similar to the behavior of the current government.”
“One of the reasons I am against the idea of elections to the Coordinating Council is that this is, in effect, a legalization of the Nazis. They have been given the same quota as the leftists and the liberals,” continues the Republican co-chairman, adding “Radical nationalism denies the equality of citizens before the law. I do not understand how you can fight for the Constitution alongside those who deny its values.”
Critics of the Coordinating Council recall the Russian opposition’s past unsuccessful attempts at internal competition, be it the presidential primaries held by Another Russia coalition, which did not result in the nomination of a unified candidate, or the National Assembly which has not played any significant role. Proponents point to the fact that this time the opposition electorate will be much larger and more representative. In their view, the upcoming vote will be a rehearsal for free national elections in a post-Putin Russia.
In any case, choosing among personalities is not the principal question for Russia’s protest movement. The tens of thousands of people who came to Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue – leftists and rightists, liberals and socialists – did not follow any opposition leaders (whether supporters or opponents of the Coordinating Council), but came to protest Putin’s usurpation of power and to defend their civic dignity. Protest sentiments continue to rise. According to the August opinion polls conducted by the Levada Center, a majority of Russian citizens hold Putin personally responsible for the country’s problems, thus negating a traditional model of “good Czar, bad boyars.” Seventy-one percent of Russians do not want to see either Vladimir Putin or Dmitri Medvedev in the Kremlin after 2018.