Sunday, November 23, 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

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.

09:14 November 21, 2014
09:11 November 21, 2014


09:09 November 21, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:

Ukrainians are marking a new national holiday on November 21 -- the anniversary of the start of Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of the country’s former pro-Kremlin regime.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed decree on November 13 that declared the holiday for annual “Day of Dignity and Freedom” celebrations.
The protests began with a few hundred people who met spontaneously on a vast square in central Kyiv of November 21, 2013 – disappointed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a landmark deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
After that first night, as the protests quickly swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators, brutal police efforts to disperse the crowds with batons and teargas backfired.
As the crowds got bigger, the protesters began to call for Yanukovych’s ouster – which came in February 2014 after more than 100 people were killed in clashes with police that failed to end the demonstrations.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was expected to announce an increase in nonlethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on November 21 as he meets in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The talks come on the first anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that toppled Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin regime.
As Biden arrived in Kyiv on the evening of November 20, U.S. officials told reporters that he will announce the delivery of Humvee transport vehicles that are now in the Pentagon’s inventory of excess supplies.
They said Biden also would announce the delivery of previously promised radar units that can detect the location of enemy mortars.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify a dollar value for the assistance. 
Russia on November 20 warned the United States not to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich cautioned against "a major change in policy of the (U.S.) administration in regard to the conflict" in Ukraine. 
He was commenting on remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama's choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, who told a congressional hearing on November 19 that lethal assistance "remains on the table. It's something that we're looking at."
The U.S. State Department's Director of Press Relations Jeffrey Rathke on November 20 told reporters that "our position on lethal aid hasn't changed. Nothing is off the table and we continue to believe there's no military solution."
He added, "But, in light of Russia's actions as the nominee mentioned [on November 19] in his testimony, as he indicated, this is something that we should be looking at."
The aid expected to be announced by Biden on November 20 falls short of what the Ukrainian president requested during a visit to Washington in September when he appealed for lethal aid - a request echoed by some U.S. lawmakers in response to what NATO allies say is Russia's movement of tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine.
In September, Washington promised Ukraine $53 million in aid for military gear that includes the mortar detection units, body armor, binoculars, small boats, and other nonlethal equipment for Ukrainian security forces and border guards in the east.
The United States and its European allies have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.
(With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS)

Russian Olympian hockey player Slava Voynov – who plays with the Los Angeles Kings NHL hockey team – has been charged with felony domestic violence against his wife.
Voynov faces one felony count of spouse abuse with a maximum penalty of nine years in prison. If convicted, he also could be deported.
Prosecutors say Voynov “caused his wife to suffer injuries to her eyebrow, check, and neck” during an argument at their home in October.
Voynov has been suspended from the NHL since his arrest early on October 20 at a California hospital where he took his wife for treatment.
Voynov’s attorney, Craig Renetzky, says his client didn’t hit his wife.
Renetzky blames the charges on a misunderstanding between police and Voynov’s wife, who speaks very little English.
Voynov – who played on Russia’s team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- faces arraignment on December 1.
(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NATO says Russia's growing military presence in the skies above the Baltic region is unjustified and poses a risk to civil aviation.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Tallinn on November 20 that the aircraft regularly fail to file flight plans or communicate with air controllers and also fly with their transponders off.
Speaking at the Amari air base, he said alliance fighters have intercepted planes more than 100 times in the Baltic region alone so far this year, a threefold increase over 2013. 
He did not say how many of the intercepted aircraft were Russian.
Stoltenberg also said that, overall, NATO aircraft have conducted 400 intercepts to protect the airspace of its European alliance members in 2014 -- an increase of 50 percent over last year.
(Based on reporting by AP and AFP)


16:55 November 19, 2014


Konstantin Eggert has a commentary in "Kommersant" on Russia's anti-Americanism. He opens like this:

"Sometimes I have this feeling that there are only two countries in the world - Russia and the United States. Of course, there is Ukraine, but it either to join us or the Americas. Russian politicians and state television are constantly in search of the 'American hand' in all spheres of our life. In Soviet times, the United States was formally considered to be our number one military and ideological enemy. But even then it didn't occupy such a large space in the minds of the political leadership and citizens. And the paradox is that, on one hand, officials and the media regularly talk about the decline of America as a great power, and on the other declare it to be the source of all evil in the world. This contradiction does not seem to disturb anybody."

And closes like this:

We still have not been able to use the opportunity that we were given with the collapse of the communist regime - to arrange our lives based on liberty and civic virtue. And today, we, as a people, want to go back to the starting point, to beat everyone. And the Soviet Union, with its absence of sausage and freedom, again suddenly seems sweet and dear. But it won't happen. I will put it banally: you can't go into the same river twice.

Read the whole thing here (in Russian, with audio)

15:53 November 19, 2014


MIchael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter magazine, appearing on Hromadske TV to talk about Russia's information war.

Michael and Peter Pomarantsev recently co-authored an excellent report "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money." Both also appeared recently on The Power Vertical Podcast to discuss the report.

15:42 November 19, 2014


Oleg Kosyrev has a snarky and clever blog post on the subject up on the Ekho Moskvy website. 

1) The United States is the ideal opponent. "It is big and strong and your self-esteem increases when you fight somebody really influential."

2) The United States is not fighting with Russia. "They aren't really interested. They have enough of their own problems and dreams. It's nice to fight somebody who is not fighting you."

3) It is a substitute for the authorities' inability to benefit Russians. "How convenient. Who is to blame for rising food and gas prices? The U.S.A.. Who is to blame for the fact that Russian has political prisoners? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for people demonstrating on the streets? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for the fact that independent international courts denounce the Russian court system? The U.S.A. You can even blame the U.S. for the fact that the light doesn't work in the entrance to your apartment building."

Read it all (in Russian) here.

15:23 November 19, 2014


14:47 November 19, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukraine says it will not tolerate pressure from any other country over whether or not it seeks to join NATO.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyynis spoke made the remark to reporters in Kyiv on November 19, after the BBC quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying in an interview that Moscow wants "a 100 percent guarantee that no-one would think about Ukraine joining NATO."

Hitting back with a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Perebyynis said Kyiv would like guarantees that Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs, send in troops, or annex Ukrainian territories. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, told journalists on November 19 that any decision on seeking to join NATO could be made only by the Ukrainian people, not by Russia, Europe, ar the United States.

The Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, made a similar statement on November 19.

(Based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)


President Vladimir Putin says that Russia is ready for cooperation with the United States as long as Washington treats Moscow as an equal, respect its interests, and refrains from interfering in its affairs.

Putin spoke November 19 at a Kremlin ceremony during which he received the credentials of foreign envoys including John Tefft, the new U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.

Putin said, "We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in various fields, based on the principles of respect for each other's interests, equal rights and non-interference in internal matters." 

The remark echoed a formula Putin set out in a foreign policy decree at the start of his third term in 2012.

Tefft, 64, is a career diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. 

His posting starts at a time when ties are badly strained over the Ukraine crisis. 

Tefft replaces Michael McFaul, who was ambassador from January 2012 until February 2014. 

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)



Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has signaled that a landmark nuclear arms treaty with the United States is not in jeopardy despite severe tension over Ukraine.

Speaking to Russian lawmakers on November 19, Lavrov said the 2010 New START treaty "meets our basic strategic interests and, on condition of its observance by the United States, we are interested in its full implementation."

The treaty, one of the main products of President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" of ties with Russia, requires Russia and the United States to have their long-range nuclear arsenals under specific ceilings by 2018.

But Lavrov said the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which President Vladimir Putin suspended in 2007, is "dead" for Moscow. 

NATO has refused to ratify a revised version of the CFE treaty without a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova and Georgia.

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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