Saturday, November 29, 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.

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

15:34 November 26, 2014


So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?

12:41 November 26, 2014


12:33 November 26, 2014


Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.


12:21 November 26, 2014
12:20 November 26, 2014


12:18 November 26, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

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About This Blog

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