20 years under Putin: a timeline

After the Russian opposition’s discouraging performance in the Kostroma regional election in September, activists have been asking themselves the question: What is the way forward? Their focus has been primarily on how to increase their vote totals, but according to Reid Nelson*, the opposition first needs to formulate a long-term development strategy and ancillary goals for elections, which will help it to establish a well-functioning organization—and, eventually, to gain power.


One of the opposition leaders Alexei Navalny (left) and writer Dmitry Bykov attend an opposition rally in Moscow's Maryino District on September 20, 2015. Photo: Artyom Geodakyan / TASS


Predictably, the Russian opposition’s self-assessment of its performance in September’s regional balloting spilled into public view. The good news is that, even with all the finger-pointing, the democratic coalition seems to be holding for now, and plans for the coalition to remain united for next year’s State Duma elections have been reaffirmed.

This is progress—minutely incremental progress, but progress nevertheless.

What is noteworthy is that, despite all the squabbling over electoral strategy and tactics—and even over the efficacy of participating in the elections at all—the postmortem commentary betrays a shared underlying vision, albeit an extremely blinkered one, regarding the role of elections in building opposition movements. Listening to opposition leaders Ilya Yashin and Alexei Navalny on Echo Moskvy, and reading the blogs of organizers Leonid Volkov, Maksim Katz, and others, the generally accepted party-building strategy for the opposition becomes clear: Win a seat or two in this election, a few more in the next, and a few more in the next. Eventually, win enough seats to become part of a ruling coalition, and then take power.

In other words, the path to creating a viable opposition, which all seem to agree is the goal, runs through the eye of the needle of elections. They believe that the sole function of these elections is to win votes, and hopefully mandates, for opposition candidates.

But no one seems to be discussing whether they have the right long-term strategy. The entire discussion centers on what should have been done to surpass the threshold needed to receive representation in a regional legislature. This is, in fact, not really a long-term strategy at all, but a series of short-term strategies masquerading as a long-term strategy, and it is problematic for opposition party development in at least two ways.

First, it makes it very easy to nip party growth in the bud. As election after election has demonstrated, there are myriad ways, both legal and illegal, for those who control the levers of the electoral process to keep the opposition’s vote tallies well below the required threshold. If a party’s long-term development strategy is focused wholly on getting enough votes to win mandates and building the party from there, stunting further expansion is a relatively simple matter for the authorities. This reality is what drives some to suggest that it was unwise to field candidates at all in the Kostroma regional election.

Let’s lay that notion to rest. Should an opposition party in its development stages participate in elections when a poor performance risks exposing the party as weak, or, worse, a non-entity, and thereby discourage further support? The answer is an unequivocal yes, it should participate—but it needs to do so with a full understanding of the multi-faceted role that elections play for a developing opposition, and participation must fully exploit all the opportunities that elections offer.

The second problem is that concentrating a party’s efforts solely on winning mandates with the hope of building the party on the foundation of a few elected officials disregards the panoply of these electoral opportunities. Now, it is true that elections are important to political parties first and foremost as a means of gaining power through the accumulation of votes. But they can also serve a party in many other ways.

Instead of putting time and effort into organizing street demonstrations in Moscow, which do little to delegitimize the ruling regime and do nothing to legitimize the opposition, why not invest in some long-term strategic planning?

They provide a means to build and strengthen the organization in numbers and competencies. They offer a baseline “temperature reading” of the level of support for the party. They provide feedback on the party’s policy positions and message. They allow the organization to test itself—its personnel, processes and chain-of-command—and assess its strengths and weaknesses. They offer the opportunity to educate and raise awareness about particular issues the party deems relevant and important. And they offer a channel for dialogue with citizens, affording a better understanding of their concerns and needs.

Taken altogether, these other uses of elections provide a party with a broad foundation on which to grow and establish itself both in and between elections. They help to generate increased membership and a broader supporter base; a more skilled and experienced operation; better internal communication and organization; more experienced leaders; greater solidarity; and higher positive name recognition, not to mention credibility and legitimacy, with the public.

Approaching elections in this manner requires the party to formulate a set of well-defined, measurable ancillary goals that are separate from any specific targets for votes or a percentage of the vote. Meeting some or all of these additional goals is critical to achieving objectives of a broader long-term strategy and to maintaining morale in a political organization, particularly at the grassroots level.

Volunteers who donate their time to campaigns—the “true believers”—put their hearts and souls into their work. When all the votes are counted and the outcome is a disappointing 2-4 percent of the vote, these true believers need to be left with some sense of accomplishment. They need to feel that they helped the party to succeed in ways other than attracting votes.

But developing the right ancillary goals for an election first requires the formulation of a long-term development strategy that goes beyond simply winning mandates and mere participation in elections. Conversely, a well-conceived and broadly focused long-term party development strategy will always incorporate ancillary goals in elections as one means of achieving its strategic objectives.

It is clear that the opposition did not possess specific goals for the recent election in Kostroma other than surpassing the threshold for mandates. If it had, the achievement of those goals would now be the subject of at least part of the public discussion that has been taking place about the election. It is clear that their long-term development strategy is nothing more than what has been stated here: votes, more votes, and later maybe even more votes.

Instead of putting time and effort into organizing street demonstrations in Moscow, which do little to delegitimize the ruling regime and do nothing to legitimize the opposition, why not invest in some long-term strategic planning? This would include as a top priority developing a clear vision of what the party’s role should be between elections in the regions and what it can do to better establish itself there.

To win elections, voters must believe that you are offering something that will make their lives better and that you are a legitimate instrument toward achieving that improvement. It is extremely difficult for unestablished parties and candidates to manufacture that legitimacy in the course of an election campaign. By designing participatory civic programs for activists to carry out now in their communities, which have as their goal the improvement of those communities, a positive relationship can begin to be established with constituents, a relationship that will serve the party well in upcoming elections.

Consider this: there were over 4,400 voters who chose to support Parnas in the Kostroma regional election. When will those voters next have contact with the party and what will the substance of that contact be?

If the answer is that the party will next have contact with them two months before an upcoming election to ask for their vote, that would constitute doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different result—Einstein’s well-worn definition of insanity.


* Reid Nelson is a democracy development specialist, political campaign consultant, and lawyer who served as the Russia country director for the National Democratic Institute for four years.