State Duma Member Dmitri Gudkov is a rare opposition voice in the Russian legislature. February 23 marked the official expiration of the ultimatum presented to Gudkov and to his father, Gennady: the leader of A Just Russia party, Sergei Mironov, demanded that they choose between their affiliation with the Coordinating Council of the Opposition and their membership in the party structures. Since the Gudkovs have refused to leave the opposition council, they will both be expelled from A Just Russia’s governing bodies. Dmitri Gudkov spoke with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova about the party's prospects and the political situation in Russia.

 

 

Olga Khvostunova (OK): What do you think of this ultimatum?

Dmitri Gudkov (DG): First of all, I think that it’s wrong and inappropriate to speak to one’s colleagues in the language of an ultimatum. Second, I will quit neither the party, nor the Coordinating Council, because I believe that my work with the latter does not undermine my party work. On the contrary, it helps the party to gain political capital.

OK: How exactly does it help?

DG: In the Duma election on December 4, 2011, many people voted against “crooks and thieves.”1 It so happened that A Just Russia was the only more or less decent party that had real chances to gain a high enough percentage to enter the State Duma. The protest votes helped it gain 13.2 percent. Though the party did not represent the interests of the middle class, many votes of the latter in fact went to A Just Russia. Once people realized that many of their votes were stolen and the elections were rigged, they went out into the streets, and A Just Russia promised to support them. We kept our promise: the party congress officially authorized us to participate in the December 10 [2011] protest. After that, Gennady Gudkov was assigned to represent the party’s interests in the Organizing Committee for Fair Elections. When Sergei Mironov became a presidential candidate, he supported the protesters’ demands: he promised to dissolve the State Duma, become a transitional president, implement reforms, and resign a year and a half later so that a new fair election could be held.

OK: In other words, the leaders of A Just Russia saw no discrepancies between the goals of the party and those of the protest movement?

DG: Initially not, but later their position changed for some reason. It is clear that A Just Russia is being pressured by the Kremlin, which is trying to divide everyone into “systemic” and “nonsystemic” [opposition groups], into parliamentary and non-parliamentary [movements]. It’s the “divide and conquer” principle in action. But my position has not changed. The Coordinating Council has consistently supported all the demands of the Bolotnaya Square protesters, and, as is written in its program, the key goal of the Council is to implement all the resolutions of the first protests. This provision is identical to Sergei Mironov’s program as a presidential candidate.

If I am expelled, it will mean that the party has completely surrendered to the Kremlin.

OK: What is your prediction—will you be expelled from the party?

DG: You know, I hope that eventually common sense will prevail and emotional reaction, caused by our participation in the [January 13] March Against Scoundrels, will abate. The bureau of the presidium of the party can formally suspend my membership, but the party congress that is scheduled for September will have the final say in this matter. Since the party congress is the supreme authority of the party, it can waive decisions of the bureau. There are plenty of active people in the party who support our—Gennady Gudkov’s and mine—activities. If I am expelled, it will mean that the party has completely surrendered to the Kremlin. This situation will hardly be acceptable for many—if not most—party members, because it will harm the party’s results in the next elections, which can lead to serious revolutionary changes inside the party.

OK: Over the past six months, some members of A Just Russia were deprived of their parliamentary privileges in one way or another. Last September, your father, Gennady Gudkov, was expelled from the Duma. In February, Oleg Mikheev was deprived of his parliamentary immunity. What caused these attacks?

DG: It’s quite simple. After Gennady Gudkov was deprived of his seat in the Duma—without a court decision, based only on a copy of a document that had never existed in the first place—it signaled the beginning of a political lynching campaign in Russia. Today, the authorities try to stop any signs of autonomy or independence in the Duma by employing all possible methods, including the whole apparatus of the Investigation Committee and the General Prosecutor’s Office. In essence, it’s a case of power abuse. It means that any politician can be stripped of their parliamentary seat or immunity simply by a majority vote in the Duma. In other words, if the ruling party doesn’t like a certain opposition member, he or she can be expelled simply by a vote in the chamber. And the Investigative Committee can come up with any reason why this needs to be done. In a sense, we are witnessing the return of the Vyshinsky principle: if there is a person, charges will be found. As for Mikheev, he came from big business. The company that he had headed before he started his political career engaged in a property dispute with a firm overseen by Senator Dmitri Ananyev. I think that the Investigative Committee and the General Prosecutor’s Office were used as tools to influence the judicial process.

OK: This attack on the opposition members is occurring in parallel with the passage of repressive laws—on penalties for participation in rallies, on libel, on treason, on the adoption of Russian children by US citizens, etc. What do you make of these actions?

DG: All of these are the authorities’ attempts to stop the protests with repressive measures. These laws are supposed to impede street activities. But in reality, all these bans and restrictions show the agony of the regime. And the Dima Yakovlev Act [banning US adoptions of Russian orphans] is a total disgrace. Although the authorities are trying to fight back by engaging in repressive activities, there are many people who have stopped being afraid. Despite all the risks, arrests, and penalties, people continue to go out into the streets, because they can’t live like this anymore.

OK: Do you think that your party colleagues may stop supporting you out of fear of becoming targets as well?

DG: You know, in any case, I will continue to call for my colleagues to use common sense and to stop communicating with us in the manner of an ultimatum. February 23, when the ultimatum expired, was the six-year anniversary of Gennady Gudkov’s and my joining the party. We’ve been through a lot since then: Mironov’s dismissal [from the post of the Federation Council Speaker]; Oleg Shein’s hunger strike; the filibuster2. We’ve had many wins and losses. I think the party should not squander its people, considering that—and I’d like to stress this point—many of the Duma deputies, politicians, and party members who participated in the protests with us and continue to do so have gained serious mass popular support. It would be suicide for the party to reject that support for the sake of a deal with the Kremlin.

Despite all the risks, arrests, and penalties, people continue to go out into the streets, because they can’t live like this anymore.

OK: To be fair, one has to remember that A Just Russia, like many other parties, was created artificially, “from above,” with the Kremlin’s permission. Many critics call it a “Kremlin puppet.” How justified is this criticism?

DG: You have to understand that in the current Russian political system, all parties were created either by the Kremlin’s initiative or with its support, to a certain degree. Their level of opposition may vary, but it is still very limited. One must also distinguish between big political games that take place at the federal level in Moscow and the situation in Russian regions. The party’s leaders can be seen on TV negotiating and agreeing with the Kremlin, and then at plenary meetings in the Duma or at protests where they call for a fight against “crooks and thieves” and promote their economic and social programs. People in the regions, ordinary party members, don’t understand these games—they take everything seriously. They have all these problems with housing and public services, with corruption right in front of them, and they really want to solve these problems. But when those questionable deals that party leaders make with the Kremlin become public, many of these ordinary party members get very disappointed.

 

Dmitri Gudkov was one of eight members of the State Duma who voted against the ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens. The bill was supported on the third reading by 420 lawmakers.

 

OK: How does it feel to be a part of the opposition, while at the same time being a member of A Just Russia party?

DG: You know, different kinds of people are mixed within A Just Russia. One example is Sergei Mironov and his relationship with Putin. They’ve known each other for a long time; maybe they were even friends once. Another example is a group of people that came to A Just Russia from the People’s Party: Gennady Gudkov and me, Valery Zubov, and Anatoly Aksakov. As a result, we have a political mix of loyalists and members of the opposition in A Just Russia. Before the ultimatum, we always had free discussion in the party. We could vote according to our own views, as opposed to voting according to the position of the caucus. Even recently, if you looked at the way we vote in the Duma, you would see that our votes are often split fifty-fifty: half of the party members vote in favor of something, and the other half either vote against or don’t vote at all.

OK: Do you think that this political mix caused the crisis within the party?

DG: I think that it is wrong for the party to adopt different strategies and approaches simultaneously, especially when it tries to sit on two chairs. Today, the party faces a choice. It is not the Gudkovs who have to choose between the Coordinating Council and the party; it is the party that has to choose whether it will defend the interests of the urban class and try to become a real social democratic party or whether it will make deals with the Kremlin and join the People’s Front initiated by Putin. I’m certain that if the party takes a loyalist position toward the president and his administration, nothing will be left of it by the next election cycle.

For the moment, the authorities do control the political process, but they will retain this control for no longer than a year or a year and a half.

OK: In your opinion, what does the party need to do now?

DG: Today, Russian society is divided into “TV citizens” (people who watch the national TV channels) and “web citizens” (people who use the Internet), and so far, the parliamentary parties have been competing for the votes of the former. But taking into account political developments—the declining popularity of Putin and United Russia—the number of “TV citizens” will decrease, and the next elections will be held in a different competitive environment. Therefore, A Just Russia needs to compete for the votes of the “web citizens.” These are urban citizens, the middle class, people who are informed and educated. This is our audience and our constituency.

OK: How soon will these changes in society transform into political changes?

DG: Today, 45 million people in Russia use the Internet on a daily basis. Considering the 10 to 12 percent yearly growth rate that happens mostly as a result of Internet penetration into the regions, in two years, the web audience will even up with the television audience. Information space is changing very fast. Today, many parties are allowed to register. Real political competition is beginning. Even though the authorities are still trying to limit it, they will probably fail. For the moment, they do control the political process, but they will retain this control for no longer than a year or a year and a half. There is a public demand for new leaders, new parties—for changes, in a nutshell. The more “web citizens” appear in the country, the faster this demand will bring results.

 


1 “The party of crooks and thieves” is the popular nickname of the ruling United Russia party.

2 On June 5, 2012, during the consideration of the bill raising penalties for participating in rallies, Dmitri Gudkov and Ilya Ponomarev introduced hundreds of amendments, extending the Duma session for eleven hours.

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