On April 17, Mikhail Kasyanov’s Republican Party of Russia—People’s Freedom Party (RPR-Parnas) and Alexei Navalny’s Party of Progress announced the creation of an oppositional coalition, which has since been joined by other opposition forces, in preparation for Russia’s upcoming elections. However, according to writer Alexander Podrabinek, under the current political regime even unified opposition forces have very slight chances of winning. The April 28 decision by Russia’s Ministry of Justice to bar the Party of Progress from registering in the upcoming elections proves this point.
In the run-up to Russia’s fall 2015 regional elections and 2016 federal State Duma elections, the democratic opposition has brightened up noticeably. This shift can largely be attributed to the formation of electoral associations and the formulation of a single political strategy, at least for the electoral period. Such activity ahead of elections is not in the least surprising in ordinary democratic countries. Indeed, what is the best time to fight for political dominance if not during electoral campaigns and the elections themselves?
Russia’s peculiarity, however, consists in the fact that real elections have long since been replaced by relatively successful imitations. This is obvious to everyone, including the opposition. But if elections are mere imitations, what does this opposition activity mean?
The democratic opposition is acting as if elections were real and it was about to participate in them. The consolidation of Russian opposition forces was born out of this fantastic context and initiated by Mikhail Kasyanov’s RPR-Parnas and Alexei Navalny’s Party of Progress. These groups were soon joined by Democratic Choice (led by Vladimir Milov), Civic Initiative (led by Andrei Nechayev), the December 5th Party, and the Libertarian Party. The Solidarity movement and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia also supported the coalition.
What is the point of this electoral activity? A number of explanations have been offered to the public.
Kasyanov has claimed that the coalition is being formed for the purpose of participating in the forthcoming elections. “This is not a merger. That is not our objective,” he said. “This is a formation of an electoral coalition for participation in federal elections to the State Duma in 2016 and in regional elections of this year and the next one.”
Navalny has also expressed his readiness to get seriously involved in the electoral process: “In the next regional elections that will take place in September 2015 we will put forward unified lists of candidates in a number of regions, and we will do what we can to make the forthcoming elections truly democratic, that is, [ensure that] they include the most influential and popular local politicians/activists who are able to get voters’ support,” he said. “We will be seriously involved in this election campaign and will not let chips fall where they may. The regions [where we will run candidates] will soon be announced.”
While supporting the idea of a unification of the opposition forces for the upcoming elections, Khodorkovsky has raised doubts about the fairness of those elections: “Very unfortunately, the current situation, which will probably remain the same, shows that the fairness of the elections is the only issue that democratic candidates are facing [that prevents them from] getting enough votes so that the democratically oriented part of society could be represented in Parliament,” he said. “This is our first goal.”
There is no doubt that Khodorkovsky’s position is more insightful than that taken by Kasyanov and Navalny, since he takes into consideration not only electoral framework in place in Russia, but also the country’s actual state of affairs.
Normal voters have no reason to give way to such wishful thinking and believe in the hypothetical fairness of elections after learning time after time that they are totally falsified.
The position of Alexander Ryklin, a member of the Solidarity movement’s federal political council, on the opposition’s participation in the elections is even clearer and more honest: “The objective is not to elect a number of our supporters to this sad, pointless, and powerless State Duma, in which they will not be heard,” he said. “Besides, let us be honest, the chances of achieving this are very slim. The objective is fundamentally different: to use the electoral campaign to maximally mobilize the opposition electorate [to encourage] a new powerful wave of protest activity.”
In addition to his political activities, Ryklin is a journalist and editor-in-chief of the online publication Ezhednevny Zhurnal (Daily Journal), and he can afford to speak in public about things that party leaders must keep quiet about. Elections are not an objective, but a means of mobilizing supporters. Participation in elections is a tactical play by the opposition in which the outcome (which is already known beforehand) is not as important as the process used to consolidate the oppositionally minded part of society.
The leaders of the opposition parties prefer not to talk about this reality publicly since, like many things in politics, such a goal would appear rather cynical: instead, the opposition announces to voters a false objective and suggests that they participate in the elections, while at the same time pursuing fundamentally different interests. It is obvious that few politicians would dare to be so sincere.
The public’s reaction to the opposition’s message has been rather sluggish. The number of those who choose to boycott the elections, or, in other words, “vote with their feet,” increases from one electoral campaign to the next. The average voter who understands the situation but is not yet entirely intimidated by the regime sees no point in participating in obviously meaningless elections. Some can still let themselves be tempted into voting by the opposition leaders’ ideas, once again hoping that this time something will come of it, but it is hard to ask people to let themselves be deceived every time the opposition wants to demonstrate its unity.
Normal voters have no reason to give way to such wishful thinking and believe in the hypothetical fairness of elections after learning time after time that they are totally falsified. Only such strange people as Moscow municipal legislator Maxim Kats can claim, whether out of incredible naïveté or out of excessive cunning, that the opposition coalition has a chance of success in the forthcoming elections: “I think that if all [opposition forces] consolidate, formulate proper procedures, and work in the same direction, such a coalition will be able to claim 20 to 30 percent of the vote, and 50 to 80 deputies in the State Duma,” Kats has said. “This will change our country.”
This young man has obviously not yet realized that election results in Russia are not determined by those who vote, but by those who count the votes. On April 28, the Russian Ministry of Justice once again proved this point by barring Navalny’s Party of Progress from registering in the upcoming elections. The logic of Vladimir Putin’s elections is simple: it is not the existence of a party that is important, but its registration with the Ministry of Justice.
There is essentially nothing wrong with the political opposition’s intention to consolidate the democratically oriented parts of society. The regime is concerned about this development for a reason. However, it would be better, safer, and ultimately more effective to carry out such a consolidation without encouraging supporters to participate in a no-win game with swindlers.