Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power Vertical

The 'Other Russia's' Choice

What would Sakharov think? Andrei Sakharov addresses the USSR Congress of People's Deputies in May 1989.
What would Sakharov think? Andrei Sakharov addresses the USSR Congress of People's Deputies in May 1989.
December 14, 1989 has been on my mind lately. That's the day Andrei Sakharov died more than two decades ago.

Russians, of course, lost an intellectual giant and a moral compass on that day. But additionally, the democratic opposition, and the segment of society that sympathized with it, lost its undisputed leader.

That mantle, for better or worse, fell to Boris Yeltsin -- who proved adept at bringing down the tottering Soviet system but who was, to put it charitably, far less skilled at building a functional political system in its wake. Sakharov's death, and the change in the opposition's leadership, was highly consequential for Russia's subsequent post-Soviet political development.

Who leads the opposition, especially in a time of rapid political change, really matters.

And this is one of the main reasons why I consider the October 21-22 online primary elections to the current Russian opposition's new Coordinating Council to be potentially very important.

"We are watching a very interesting, intriguing, and optimistic procedure of a real democratic election," Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service said on last week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast.

As I blogged last week in a post ahead of that podcast, an electoral commission is in place, candidates are being registered, and the online Dozhd TV station begins broadcasting debates among candidates for seats on the council this week.

In many ways, this whole process will be something of a coming-out party for what I have called "The Other Russia."

It will be the time when activists, hipsters, and members of the urban middle class will attempt to turn the slogans they have been chanting on the streets and the values they have been writing about on their blogs into real action -- by holding a truly democratic election among themselves.

Over the past nine months since protests began in earnest, commentators have noted that today's Russian opposition lacks a clear leader. There is certainly nobody with the moral cache of Sakharov out there. There isn't a clear Yeltsin waiting in the wings. There are, instead, several niche figures who appeal to specific constituencies.

But perhaps this isn't such a bad thing.

As virtually everybody commenting on Russian affairs has noted, the current opposition is a diverse lot spanning the spectrum from nationalists to liberals to leftists and everything in between. This, in turn, reflects the fact that Russian society as a whole has become increasingly diverse politically and increasingly differentiated socially.

A 45-member council with an ideologically diverse composition -- the Other Russia's shadow parliament, if you will -- is probably the most effective way to reflect that diversity.

Of course, media chatter about the elections has largely zeroed in on the infighting and intrigues surrounding the vote. The latest involved the latest salvo in an ongoing spat between socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak and opposition State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov. (The lawmaker accused Sobchak of turning the campaign into a version of the racy Dom-2 reality show she once hosted.)

Given this cynicism, one of the most important numbers I will be watching on October 21-22 is the turnout figure. How many people care enough to cast a ballot will give at least some indication of how large this Other Russia really is? Turnout is also important, because the new council's legitimacy will be linked to how representative the election is.

And then, of course, comes the hard part.

The council's responsibilities will include things like deciding when, where, and why to hold protests and which causes to champion. But they will also involve things like picking candidates for future Russian elections and negotiating with the Kremlin authorities. In theory at least, when the fledgling Power Horizontal talks to the Power Vertical, it will be through the council.

And this will all inevitably get tricky for a body comprising nationalists, liberals, and leftists.

In a comment on my post last week about this issue, the always insightful Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies noted that reserving seats for the three ideological blocs (five each) "kicks the problem down the road" rather than solving it "democratically through the election."

I would argue, however, that the issue will be resolved -- to a degree -- with the result of the elections for the 30 at-large seats, which make up two-thirds of the council.

I do agree with Sean, however, that the true test of the movement's maturity will come after the election, when the council meets and begins to hammer out its positions.

Sure, it will be messy. But something tells me Andrei Sakharov would have been proud.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Russian opposition,Coordinating Council,Primary elections

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
October 02, 2012 22:20
Not sure if you mean to say that Sakharov was "skilled at building a functional political system in its wake" but there is no evidence for that whatsoever.

Also, elections in opposition mean nothing. The fact that somebody has been elected doesn't mean he/she can or will unify the opposition, much less provide the type of inspirational leadership that is needed to galvanize genuine opposition activity. There's simply no indication that Russia has such a person.

And both points have a common cause: the people of Russia. you can't encourage a bold leader or build a political system when the people who are essential towards doing so simply don't care and won't put forth the necessary effort. Until Russians care enough about their country to take real action, no system will be built and no leader will emerge. And they won't start until they are challenged to do so directly and boldly. Maybe you'd care to do so?
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
October 05, 2012 02:52
Considering you have been wise to Russia's problems all along, I submit there is nobody who has better qualifications to rouse the Russian people from their torpor and get them back on the march to liberal progressive double happiness than your good self. You, yes, you, La Russophobe, should lead them.

I think you're a tiny bit misguided when you say elections in opposition mean nothing, because Boris Nemtsov would finally have an opportunity to be elected to something before he dies of old age, even if it is only to the Bolotnaya Politburo, and it would be such a thrill for him. But that's a small matter, and if you say that's the way it has to be, then I defer to your political wisdom.

You, La Russophobe, are the bold leader the Russian opposition needs at this critical juncture, just when it cries out for energizing. You are as full of ideas as a nut is full of meat - and the resemblance doesn't end there, actually - so get in there!! Electrify and inspire them, and march them double-time in triple ranks straight to electoral glory!!! I believe in you.

by: Anonymous
October 04, 2012 10:35
Less Sakharov hagiography in the future please. It tends to obscure more than it makes clear.

by: Idrian from: British Columbia
October 05, 2012 04:17
Well, it is interesting that the one political organisation that prominently uses the name (Limonov's party) is not participating in the Coordinating Council, nor with the Russian opposition movement that is in the news these days.

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17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014


17:26 October 24, 2014


17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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