On September 16, Institute of Modern Russia and the Harriman Institute (CU) hosted a discussion panel entitled “Russian Elections 2011-12: Is There a Chance For Political Opposition”. The answer to that question was, unfortunately, no — unless there are some substantial changes in the political system.

 

From left to right: Boris Nemtsov, Evgeniya Chirikova, Andranik Migranyan, Timothy Frye

 

The discussion panel was quite diverse. The Russian opposition was represented by Boris Nemtsov, leader of the “Solidarity” political movement, and Evgeniya Chirikova, environmental activist and leader of the “Ecological Defense of Moscow Region” movement, as well as the unregistered “Movement for the Protection of Khimki Forest.” The official point of view of the Russian authorities was articulated by Andranik Migranyan, director of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation and a well-known Kremlin policy advocate. This polarized political setting turned into a heated discussion that bordered on scandal.

Chirikova was the first to speak. In her brief remarks, she gave an outline of her activities. Since 2007, she has been trying to raise public awareness about the construction of a federal Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through the Khimki district of Moscow. The path of the highway lies within a so-called “green zone” of the Khimki forest, which means that it is strictly forbidden by law to initiate any sort of construction activities in this area. Still, the highway is being built, thus destroying a unique ecological area and violating the law. As Chirikova noted, this is a corrupt project developed in the interests of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and of Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s personal friend and judo trainer, now a successful businessman.

To stop this devastating project, Chirikova initiated a local protest movement that soon garnered much civic support. Still, the protest was ignored by the authorities. Moreover, journalist Mikhail Beketov, who wrote an investigative article on the level of corruption involved in the project, was attacked and severely beaten. As a result, he became a disabled person. Many link the attack to the article he published.==Following the grim story of Khimki forest, Nemtsov took the floor. His remarks were no less sobering. Nemtsov had no shortage of facts to share regarding the government’s actions against the political opposition in Russia.

“The problem is that there are no independent registered parties,” Nemtsov said. “The seven existing parties are ‘muppets.’ All the electoral lists are examined by the Kremlin. And the Kremlin’s control spreads across the parties’ information and economic policies.”

Nemtsov also made a few remarks on the recent political scandal in the Right Cause party that had expelled Mikhail Prokhorov, a famous Russian billionaire and its leader for only three months.

“He [Prokhorov] made three mistakes,” Nemtsov said. “First, he said he wanted to be prime minister, although that was a joke. Second, he later said he might run for president in 2012 if his party received the second-best results in the parliamentary elections. And finally, third, he refused to include Putin’s and Medvedev’s candidates in his party lists when they asked him to.”

Concluding his presentation, Nemtsov added that there would not be free elections in Russia and there would not be any point in participating. He offered a slogan for this campaign: “Vote for Russia, Vote Against Everyone.”

Finally, Andranik Migranyan took the opportunity to try to contradict his political opponents. Describing himself as an independent political analyst, Migranyan failed to make a single constructive point. His comments turned into a series of personal attacks targeting his adversaries and their remarks. A mixture of common trivia, blatant lies and Kremlin-style propaganda, the speech simply did not deliver.

Some of his remarks were the following:

“I know that professional experts, who know better than the young Ms. Chirikova, looked through all the alternative projects to the Khimki highway and found them more dangerous and costly.”

“Years ago I invented ‘civil disobedience.’ It’s against the law. Ms. Chirikova, you are violating the law and trying to destroy the traffic system.”

“The problem with the political opposition in Russia is that they don’t understand that not every political movement is successful. Sometimes, you need to give up and go back to your kitchen.”

“The policies of the `90s created a situation in which people just don’t want to vote for marginals.

Unfortunately, Migranyan’s provocative remarks had the effect of raising the tempers of both of his opponents, who were impatient to fire back. The audience pitched in with sharp questions. By the end of the panel, Timothy Frye, director of the Harriman Institute and moderator, was doing his best to restrain the heated panelists.

Also, by the end of the discussion, it became once again clear that the political opposition in Russia will have little chance in the upcoming elections, because it has not been officially admitted to campaign. The only thing left to do is to continue its peaceful protest, to raise awareness and to involve more citizens in the movement.

 

Olga Khvostunova

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