Thursday, August 25, 2016

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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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