On December 7, Open Russia launched a series of monthly discussions to be held in various Russian regions. The first such discussion took place in St. Petersburg and focused on elections in Russia. During a teleconference, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and local activists discussed possible methods for the political opposition to counter the regime and shared their outlook on the upcoming 2015–2016 elections.

 

Teleconference with Mikhail Khodorkovsky was interfered with by the authorities: the fire alarm went off; the power was down; law enforcement officers constantly attempted to interrupt the discussion.

 

The beginning of the Open Russia conference in St. Petersburg was troubled by a range of obstructions. In the morning, the “Moscow Gates” Holiday Inn where the conference took place was raided by the police. The law enforcement officers claimed that they had been informed that drugs were allegedly being kept in the conference hall and thus arrived to conduct a search. A few minutes before the conference started, the fire alarm went off: this time someone had allegedly called and warned the police of a bomb in the building. Despite the police officers’ continuous attempts to disrupt the event, which also included cutting off the power and the Internet (crises luckily averted by the organizers having foreseen such harassment and brought spare generators), the conference nonetheless happened. As Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Open Russia coordinator and moderator of the conference, noted, “our opponents are not particularly creative, and this makes the strongest argument for the urgency of bringing together all the democratic forces.”

Conference discussion revolved around the question, “Are Russian elections worth participating in given that the authorities egregiously manipulate the results to make sure that only those loyal to the regime win, or is it more meaningful to boycott the elections?” It is no coincidence that St. Petersburg was picked to host the pilot meeting of Open Russia’s series of events. As Kara-Murza explained in his opening remarks, the target audience of Open Russia is the European-aligned part of society. He reminded that elections in St. Petersburg have historically been associated with European and democratic path in Russian politics: the Kadets [members of the Constitutional Democratic Party] were elected to the First State Duma [in 1906]; and [after the Soviet Union collapsed] the Yabloko Party was successful here, as well as Anatoly Sobchak, Galina Starovoitova and other leaders of Russian democratic forces such as. Once Vladimir Putin took power, elections in St. Petersburg became coupled with massive violations of both the electoral process and human rights. Examples abound. Suffice it to mention the backroom electoral committees that exist throughout the city and the 100% votes that the ruling United Russia Party won in five municipal districts during the September 2014 elections. After his introductory words, Kara-Murza gave the floor to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Open Russia, to give a speech before the audience through a video camera.

Khodorkovsky said that after the mass protests of 2012–2013, the authorities changed their strategy of manipulating electoral results, adopting a variety of control mechanisms, such as imposing limits on the registration of opposition candidates, banning independent observers from attending the polls, and interfering with early voting. All of these violations have caused both opposition politicians and ordinary people to seriously question the worth of participating in elections. Why vote, run an election campaign, or stump for a candidate if the ultimate result will be skewed by the government anyway?

“There is no definite and good-for-all-times answer to this question,” said Khodorkovsky. “Fraudulent elections are impossible to win.” However, he added, as long as the strategic goal is not victory per se but the shift of the current regime overall, “participation in elections seems more advantageous than nonparticipation, because nonparticipation leads to greater isolation.”

With an authoritarian regime in place, participation in elections allows the opposition to accomplish a number of tasks. Khodorkovsky believes that the value of participation is found not in victory, but in the process itself, which brings people together to work toward shared goals and develop political experience. From that perspective, an election is a “recruiting campaign in which every vote counts,” a chance to find contact points and create a broad democratic front. In Russia’s case, elections are an opportunity to propagate the European choice and to show that there is an alternative to Putin’s regime. They offer an intellectual alternative, a professional alternative (through primaries and consolidation of the opposition into a broad democratic front), and an organizational alternative (through preparing for and conducting the electoral campaigns).

Honest elections are supposed to create a space in which a dialogue between the voters and a politician can occur. During such a dialogue, the key questions of governance are raised and answered. These questions include those addressing the state’s role in the economy, national autonomy, the elimination of corruption, and what needs to be done to ensure that politicians serve the people and not the bureaucracy. When trying to answer such major questions, one should keep in mind that the state should follow the rule of law, possess an independent judiciary, distribute the president’s currently excessive powers, and move a significant amount of responsibility from the federal and regional jurisdictions to municipal authorities—that is, closer to the voters.

The value of participation is found not in victory, but in the process itself, which brings people together to work toward shared goals. An election is a “recruiting campaign in which every vote counts,” a chance to find contact points and create a broad democratic front.

“And finally, elections make a school ... where you learn how to compromise within the democratic movement. It is clear that the regime will fall sooner or later—it is inevitable,” said Khodorkovsky in his December 7 speech. He also emphasized the importance of the people not cherishing the illusion that elections will bring about the immediate demise of the regime. In that respect, the goals of Open Russia are to make sure that the power crisis in Russia doesn’t last too long and that the collapse of the regime ultimately results in a democratic Russia.

The conference was held in an interactive format: the participants (primarily civil and political activists and experts) came up to the microphone, shared their own experience in elections, pointed out examples of successful electoral campaigns, and posed questions to Khodorkovsky. They discussed the fall of the ruble, the annexation of Crimea, perspectives on Russia’s democratic coalition, and many other issues. A few interesting questions were raised, such as what tactics ought to be applied in a political battle with the regime and what the opposition’s agenda is today.

Maxim Reznik, a member of the Petersburg legislative committee and the Civil Platform Party, said that the Kremlin had used the annexation of Crimea as a convenient tool to counter any criticism. As long as the majority of Russians support the act of forcible reunion with Crimea, it is nearly impossible to convince people [of the opposite]. According to Khodorkovsky, at this point, the Crimea issue is unsolvable, but in the future, once we have honest and legitimate elections, we will be able to draw conclusions based on election results. In that way, we will be able to see what was truly behind the public support for the Crimean seizure. Khodorkovsky also added that today it is important to speak up about the lies told by the regime and the extent to which officials’ words are at odds with their deeds, and to show people that there is an alternative. These tasks constitute the goals for the opposition front today. “Putin now clearly sees that with the economy falling apart and Crimea, he won’t make it through 2018,” said Khodorkovsky.

As Boris Vishnevsky, an author and a member of St. Petersburg’s legislative committee, noted, enlightenment of the people and the interpretation for them of the ongoing political processes are important parts of the opposition’s work. “We are witnessing a situation of mass madness...We see that the majority of our fellow citizens genuinely do not understand the current situation, or they are being given a picture of reality in a distorted, propaganda-affected light. Our goal is to turn to them and explain what is actually going on,” he said. Vishnevsky also pointed out that the authorities deliberately foment a sense of hopelessness and absence of alternatives among opposition activists and voters. However, he said, St. Petersburg is proud to set an example of how the struggle of civil society can bring about real results. He illustrated this statement with the example of the Okhta Center—a failed plan to build a business center for Gazprom. Thanks to activists’ efforts, the project was shelved in 2012.

Andrey Pivovarov, an RPR-PARNAS member and the coordinator of Open Russia’s St. Petersburg branch, said that when it comes to the 2016 elections, it is important to focus on fighting the falsification of results and engaging as many people as possible in the election observer process. “Candidates proposed by the government today for elections are incapable of carrying out their minimal responsibilities,” he said. “As soon as we ensure wide access to the voters and prove that we can fight the falsification, there will hardly remain anything to challenge us politically.”

“A few more statements from Putin such as ‘The plunging ruble is good,’ and the elections will become much easier for us,” joked Khodorkovsky. He then seriously added: “I don’t know how the current regime will fall. I would not like it to happen in an undemocratic fashion; however, the likelihood of that is quite high. Our goal is to make sure that after the regime is over—no matter how it happens—the country doesn’t plunge into chaos, as it did in the ’90s. We should make sure that people understand that there is a team of people who have political experience, people who are eager and ready to replace the current government....Participation in elections is an important way for this team to consolidate—and more importantly, it is a great way to show people that such a team does exist.”

Khodorkovsky also emphasized the importance of collaboration between all of the current opposition and European-minded forces. If a party or a movement supports the ideas of the rule of law, regular rotation of the government via elections, and the separation and balance of powers, they can be called allies.

By and large, the discussants agreed on the necessity of participating in elections regardless of the rules of game imposed by the regime. As Khodorkovsky said, what is crucial now is to convince the voters of this necessity and to show that the more people vote for the opposition, “the further the authorities will be willing to compromise, [and] the more intimidated the bureaucrats will feel.”

“10% is already a lot; 30% is scary; if 50% of voters show up, the current regime will cease to exist,” concluded Khodorkovsky.

The next Open Russia event is scheduled to take place in Chelyabinsk on December 17, 2014. More details available here (in Russian).

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