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Commentary: Russian Opposition Takes A Principled Stand

  • Robert Coalson

Garry Kasparov (L) and Eduard Limonov, the founders of the National Assembly (epa) In December 1999, the pro-Kremlin party that was to morph into the Unified Russia juggernaut competed in Duma elections with the slogan, "Unity Is Our Strength."

The slogan, which Vladimir Putin exploited in his 2000 presidential victory, signaled the power elite's rejection of pluralism, which was equated with weakness, division, dismemberment, and defeat. Russia's subsequent political development has merely been the ever-accelerating process of solidifying "unity" and quashing pluralism.


After eight years of Putinism, the consolidation of unity is nearly complete in Russia. Manifestations of pluralism are so small and rare as to seem either hopelessly quixotic or comically pathetic. The meeting in Moscow this weekend of the opposition National Assembly -- if the authorities allow it to happen at all -- has aspects of both.


The brainchild of the opposition Other Russia coalition headed by Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, the National Assembly is intended to become a sort of alternative parliament, with grassroots organizations from across the country sending delegates. The idea apparently sprang from an infamous quotation by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who said the lower chamber should not be a "talking shop." Other Russia argued the opposite -- that the national legislature is precisely the place where ideas are to be discussed and debated and where alternative points of view should be aired.


The opposition in Russia is so beleaguered and fractured that it is hard to imagine anything fruitful will come of the National Assembly. Nonetheless, it is a brave act on the part of the 600 or so participants to come out in open opposition to a government that brooks no opposition. It is a gesture that would be immoral to ignore.


For one thing, the assembly is based on solid fundamental principles that are immutable. The body's pre-convention "political declaration" forcefully declares the current government in Russia illegitimate because it is based on unfree and falsified elections and an unconstitutional concentration of power in the executive branch. "The ruling regime has deprived Russian citizens of their fundamental civil and political rights -- the right to personal inviolability, the right to freedom of conscience and the free expression of one's convictions, the right to move freely about the territory of the country, the right to assemble peacefully and form associations, the right to independent and unbiased legal protection, the right to participate in the governance of the country, the right to representative government." In addition, the document bases its charge that the government is illegitimate and should be disbanded on the argument that it has "destroyed free political competition, the democratic electoral process, representative bodies, the independent judicial system, and the independent mass media." "Democratic processes have been transformed into a fiction," the document declares.


Charter


Furthermore, the assembly is expected to adopt a charter that upholds principles the Russian government has long abandoned. The document notes that although the National Assembly includes delegates from a wide range of political positions, they all agree on the inviolability of fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech, of assembly, and of conscience. Further, the document contains a forceful renunciation of violence or the threat of violence for political ends. It also renounces the restriction of freedom of speech or assembly for political purposes.


Perhaps most importantly, the charter confirms the inviolability of free elections. "We pledge never to restrict the right of citizens to determine their fate through free voting at the national, regional, or local level," the document affirms. "We are united in the conviction that the highest officials of all branches and levels of government must be elected by a free expression of the will of the citizenry."


Supporters of the Putin government and bewildered observers of Russia often ask why it matters that the Russian people have had no voice in choosing their leaders since they would certainly choose Putin anyway. The National Assembly draft charter provides the appropriate retort -- the act of choice confers legitimacy and that act is more important than the choice itself. It is not possible to short circuit the democratic process and still have a democratically legitimate government.


The quixotic National Assembly also deserves our attention because it will certainly attract the Kremlin's. Already there are reports from around the country of assembly delegates being harassed and intimidated. According to Kasparov's website, delegates in Barnaul have received intimidating phone calls, while at least one delegate in Krasnoyarsk was hauled in for questioning by the police. In Rostov Oblast, National Bolshevik party member Sergei Volodin "disappeared" one day after being warned by uniformed police that he was not to leave the city.


It remains to be seen whether authorities in Moscow will allow the assembly to gather as scheduled on May 17 and 18. The authorities are notorious for forcing venues to cancel rental agreements with opposition groups, for allowing pro-Kremlin groups to hold demonstrations that block access to halls, for cutting off electricity and water supplies to the sites of opposition gatherings, for sending police to evacuate premises on the pretext of a supposed bomb threat, etc.


The National Assembly deserves attention because of the people who are involved. In addition to Kasparov and Limonov, the delegate list includes former presidential economy adviser Andrei Illarionov, former government economy adviser Mikhail Delyagin, former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, long-time human rights advocate Sergei Kovalyov, political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky, distinguished lawyer Yury Shmidt, and recently jailed St. Petersburg-based activist Maksim Reznik.


Although former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is not expected to attend, his Popular Democratic Union has backed the idea and is sending delegates. These are serious and principled people who have been marginalized by the Kremlin's ruthless political tactics. They are standing up for liberal-democratic principles against an awesome machine that has cynically debased and degraded those principles in the eyes of the Russian public.


Paying attention to them and showing our solidarity with the principles they are espousing is the least the global democratic community can do. A gesture can be hopeless and still be right. And, maybe, if it isn't ignored, it won't be hopeless after all.

RFE/RL Russia Report


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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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