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Free Elections Are Coming To Russia! No, Really!

Anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny will be running for a seat on the opposition's Coordinating Council.

Anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny will be running for a seat on the opposition's Coordinating Council.

Russia will have free and fair elections in October.

There will be real choice with multiple, viable candidates. There will be vigorous televised debates. The vote will be open and transparent, with clear rules of the game.

No, I'm not delusional. And no, I am not talking about the local elections scheduled for 73 Russian regions on October 14. Those, I expect, will be as fraudulent as ever.

What I'm talking about are the online primary elections the Russian opposition movement is holding a week later, on October 21-22, to choose a 45-member Coordinating Council.

The council will decide things like which candidates the opposition will back in future elections and when, where, and why to hold protests. In a nod to the diversity of the opposition movement, it will have five seats each reserved for liberals, nationalists, and leftists -- while 30 will go to at-large candidates.

An opposition Electoral Commission is already in place to register candidates and monitor the vote. The online television station Dozhd TV is hosting live debates among any candidates who want to participate.

Some predictable names -- Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, and Dmitry Gudkov -- are running for seats on the council. So are some relatively fresher opposition figures like anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak, writers Dmitry Bykov and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, journalist Filipp Dzyadko, comedians Mikhail Shatz and Tatyana Lazareva, and the popular blogger Rustem Agadamov.

So why do we care about elections to a council that will be essentially powerless?

I think the opposition primaries are important, and merit attention, for a number of reasons.

Opposition figures themselves say they will be a dress rehearsal for free and fair elections in a post-Putin Russia. Along those lines, they are also setting an example by creating an alternative civil society where decisions are arrived at democratically.

The primaries are also important because the opposition clearly needs to move on from its street-protests stage.

The early demonstrations after December's disputed State Duma elections were widely interpreted as a show of strength by the rejuvenated opposition -- proof that true dissent was real and blossoming in Russian society and that the Kremlin's foes could consistently put people on the streets in large numbers.

But after the latest rally earlier this month -- which had a bit of a pro forma feel to it -- many in the media, including outlets sympathetic to the opposition, began to question the utility of street protests as a vehicle for change.

Successfully holding primaries to elect its leaders will be a powerful sign that the opposition is serious and maturing.

In a video recently posted on his blog, Navalny said the elections will be important in establishing the legitimacy of the opposition.

"The problem of the opposition's legitimacy needs to be decided through elections, [especially] if we are going to accuse the authorities of lacking legitimacy," he said.

But the new Coordinating Council will also present an important test for the opposition. Can figures as diverse as Navalny, Nemtsov, and Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, as well as their supporters, agree to abide by common rules of the game, even when they don't like the results? Will liberals support a nationalist or leftist candidate the Coordinating Council decides to back in some future election, or vice versa?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then next month's primaries will send an important message and represent something of a milestone for Russia's famously fractured opposition.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Tune in to the next edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast" on September 28, when my co-host Kirill Kobrin and I will discuss the issues raised in this blog post.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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