Accessibility links

Breaking News

(Un)Civil Societies Report: January 8, 2004

8 January 2004, Volume 5, Number 1
RUSSIAN ELECTION BOYCOTT: TREADING A FINE LINE. Soon after their heavy losses in Russia's parliamentary elections in December 2003, liberals united in the Democratic Public Assembly gathered in Moscow and decided to boycott the March presidential elections or vote against all candidates. The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), led by Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Lukin, a top Yabloko official, Lev Ponomarev of For Human Rights, and others called for the boycott, although other leaders in the same parties said a formal decision had not yet been made. Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinksii said his own party's decision was due to the fact that "free, equal, and politically competitive elections are impossible." Other commentators wondered if anyone would notice. "Izvestiya" said Yabloko likely lacked the resources to gather the 2 million signatures necessary for the presidential campaign within one month's time and to finance a national campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003). To explain his decision, Yavlinskii said, "in the absence of independent courts, mass media, and sources of financing, real political competition, which is the essence of elections, cannot exist." Veteran human rights campaigner Elena Bonner also endorsed the boycott.

While Yavlinskii's complaints about the lack of independent courts, sources of financing, and media access are the kind of complicated, general issues that can make it difficult for boycotters to find a target, other political leaders who feel marginalized by the political process have more specific demands. Communist Party Gennadii Zyuganov told reporters on 17 December 2003 that his party might boycott the elections next year if there is no recount in a dozen oblasts and autonomous republics of Russia, such as Bashkortostan and Daghestan (see "Left, Right Parties Threaten to Boycott March Presidential Race,", 18 December 2003). Zyuganov alleged that the Central Election Commission (TsIK) falsified 60,000 voting records.

Responding to the announcement of a possible boycott, President Vladimir Putin was quoted by as saying that those who advocated the protest were "cowards" and that the idea was "stupid and harmful" and proposed by "losers." Commentators of all persuasions have been debating in the Russian media ever since about the usefulness of such a campaign. Boris Dolgin of, writing on 23 December 2003 about varying views of the "legality, morality, and expedience" of a boycott, dismissed the notion that such protests were illegal, as the Central Election Commission itself has already published a brochure explaining that unless such calls are accompanied by force, use of official position, or bribery they are not a crime. A boycott, especially if it called into question the 50 percent participation in the ballot required by law, could deprive Putin of legitimacy, Dolgin reasoned.

Vitalii Lebin, commenting in on 23 December 2004, disagreed, saying that unlike the Georgian opposition, the Russian democrats do not have popular trust, because many people have come to associate the word "democracy" with economic deprivation. The basis for power in Russia is popular will, he says, and the people opted for Putin and the war against the oligarchs because they felt cheated by economic reforms. Therefore, democrats should not be working "against the foundations of legitimate power," in his view, and at any rate will fail for lack of massive support. Dolgin replied to this argument that popular will is merely a thin veneer applied to legitimize the "vertical" of power from the Kremlin. Still, he notes, if the opposition really had some clout, it would mount a credible alternative figure and participate fully in elections, and evidently lacking such a leader, they have turned to the idea of a boycott.

The word "boycott" entered the English lexicon in 1880. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, a land agent in Ireland for an absentee English landlord, refused to give his overburdened tenants a rent reduction. They retaliated by ceasing to work for him and even serving him in local shops, and he was forced to bring in outside volunteers under the protection of soldiers to harvest his crops belatedly. The story spread throughout the world and the word is used in many languages.

Opposition groups in countries of transition often resort to boycotts because they believe they are dealing with both an uneven playing field and intransigent opponents, either in the form of governments in power or other groups in society. In Afghanistan recently, for example, more than a third of the delegates to the Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, jeopardized the entire process by threatening to boycott the vote. Among the issues were language rights for Tajik and Uzbek minorities. In the end, the Pashtun majority reluctantly conceded official status for the minority languages. In this specific case, with the world watching, the pressure tactic worked, most likely because the goal was a very specific one.

Russia's situation is very different, and Russian opposition is different to opposition found in Azerbaijan or Belarus. Oppositionists there have tried and failed using boycott tactics, precisely because unlike the oppositions in Minsk or Baku, Russian opposition leaders have actually remained in parliament until now. They have been able to cast dissenting votes, or attempt to raise controversial issues like the war in Chechnya. In the case of the liberals, even if their numbers are small, they have had a platform through the Russian media -- or at least until the media itself began to be curbed by the government. Their lack of access is more a subtle matter of lack of "administrative resources" -- the use of government money and connections to run campaigns -- as well as the lack of access to main television channels, and "black PR" against them. The future of the Russian boycott will hinge on the decree to which divergent liberals as well as Communists can find common ground.

Given the overwhelming support for President Putin and the surge in votes for Rodina (Motherland), the new nationalist party, the liberals of Russia will also find themselves in a situation where their presence may not be missed, and the Communists may be placated for now in backroom deals. They may not be able to mount sufficient pressure on the public or the president to force an opening in the political process. Although the oppositions of Minsk and Baku (and others in the Caucasus and Central Asia with similar problems) had the prerequisite specific demands for a successful boycott -- to include opposition parties in the electoral commissions -- and although they had levers for pressure -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Council of Europe officials intervening on their behalf -- the boycotts came and went without much impact. In the case of Russia, the demands will be more complicated, the outside levers even more uncertain, and therefore the message even more muffled.

HOW ELECTION BOYCOTTS HAVE FAILED IN THE PAST. In other post-Soviet nations in the last 10 years, efforts by democratic oppositions to boycott elections failed, and the tactic was abandoned after the hard experience. In 1998 in Azerbaijan, five main opposition candidates, characterized as the "radical opposition" by the government-controlled press, boycotted the presidential elections. They were Abulfaz Elchibey, chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, who has since passed away; Isa Gambar, who also recently ran unsuccessfully in last October's presidential elections; Rasul Guliyev, former head of Azerneftyag, the oil and gas association, who now lives in the United States and who also ran in October's elections; Ilyas Ismaylov, former justice minister and another presidential candidate this year; and Lale Shovkat Hajiyeva, chairwoman of the Azerbaijan Liberal Party. They were united in their boycott of the 1998 elections, but were unable to find common ground among themselves or other opposition candidates in order to mount a sufficient challenge to President Ilyam Aliyev and their boycott did not garner mass popular support.

Writing on the elections in 1998, Michael Ochs, a staffer at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, explained that the opposition boycotted the vote because they were "unwilling to legitimize an election they were convinced would be unfair." Specifically, they objected to the lack of opposition leaders in the composition of the Central Election Commission, a demand they emphasized because of fears that the commission tilted toward the incumbent and, without internal opposition monitoring the vote count, would be manipulated. In the first mass protests in years, the opposition parties rallied in Freedom Square in the center of Baku, although the authorities had rejected their request for a permit, and protesters clashed with police, resulting in arrests and injuries.

Subsequent rallies were peaceful. Yet Western democracy-building organizations quietly criticized the opposition in 1998 for staging a boycott, believing they had missed opportunities to make a "trial run" that would help them mount a larger challenge someday. They had never believed that they would beat Aliyev, but they thought they would force him into a second round, and therefore acquire more leverage to seek change through other means even after his re-election. Ultimately, the boycott probably served to shape the declaration of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at that time that the election had "fallen short of international standards." After all, the issues that the opposition were boycotting the elections over -- presence on the electoral commissions of their parties' representatives -- were the very issues that the OSCE itself had recommended should be changed in the electoral law and about which they had negotiated with the Aliyev government to no avail.

In fact, in 1998, Aliyev did prevail, and the election was pronounced flawed, but the president de facto recognized by the international community. The opposition struggled in the next five years to stay alive. Twelve opposition groups also boycotted municipal elections in 1999. In 2001, there were parliamentary elections, but so riddled with fraud that the international community obtained a concession from Aliyev in the form of a run-off. Even under these circumstances, there was lack of access for opposition groups, and they continued their boycott, although the Council of Europe tried to convince dissenters that they should participate in the ballot. Chris Smith, a U.S. congressman, at a 27 July 2000 hearing in the U.S. Congress, said openly what many European officials were trying to get across quietly to the opposition: "The last thing Azerbaijan needs is another election boycott by opposition parties. The consequences would include a parliament of dubious legitimacy, deepened distrust and societal polarization, and a movement away from electoral politics to street politics, which could threaten the country's stability."

The opposition firmly objected to their American counterparts that the rights of the parliament in their situation were so restricted that it would be dubious even if they were in it. Yet, in the end, some years later, opposition groups abandoned the notion of boycotting, finally throwing all their efforts into the 2003 race. There, despite rejecting the tactic of a boycott, they also lost by a large margin, even allowing for voting fraud. The experience of boycotting several rounds of local and national elections, and achieving little in terms of gaining the backing of the West to put pressure on their own government, had taken its toll. Most importantly, when they failed to get the response they wished from the government, they ceased using the boycott.

In Belarus in the 1999 parliamentary elections, opposition groups in the Congress of Democratic Forces -- including the leaders of the former 13th Supreme Soviet (the disbanded parliament), the Belarusian Popular Front led by Vintsuk Viachorka, and the United Civic Party chaired by Anatolii Lebedko -- staged a boycott, but had trouble gaining cooperation from fellow opposition leader Nikolai Statkevich of the Social Democratic Party. Statkevich agreed to take part, despite the restrictions, but lost in his district. The OSCE mission urged the opposition to take part in the ballot because they believed they would not be credible to their constituents otherwise. The boycott effort possibly served to split the opposition further into "anti-government" and "loyalist," a division felt to this day. In the case of Belarus, too, the boycott did not work at all to force change in the electoral law -- the issue of participation was the same as in Azerbaijan -- nor did it work to convince Westerners that they should put more pressure on their government.

The imbalance of power between the parliament and the president was at issue, as well as access to government-run media -- these demands were unsuccessfully raised by a stream of OSCE and Council of Europe delegations. Paradoxically, the very reasons that make oppositions want to boycott unfair elections are the reasons why they will have little impact -- they do not have access to major media, mass movements, or real leverage with those in power. Nevertheless, they believe it is the moral thing to do in an untenable situation. And democratic political parties in Belarus believe their boycott did have an impact on Western observers who ultimately decided not to send a full-fledged monitoring mission for the elections precisely because the pre-election conditions were so poor. In this context, as in others, the oppositions' boycotts seem to have more influence on Western democracy-builders than on their own governments, but ultimately, not enough effect to convince Western governments that they should totally isolate authoritarian governments.

Like their Azerbaijani counterparts, the Belarusian opposition groups that have survived jail, disappearance, and forced exile -- conditions actually far harsher than in Azerbaijan -- are today, four years later, dropping any notion of a boycott for their parliamentary elections this year. Even leaders who have been through jail terms and faced the threat of indictments, such as Lebedko, are still trying to take part in the political process and plan to participate fully. OSCE and other European delegations are still trying to raise the same issues of participation of the opposition in the electoral commissions. At this point, most Belarusian opposition leaders believe that if they do not take part in the campaign, they will lose their audiences. They are mindful of the criticism they suffered in 1999, although still convinced that a boycott at that time was legitimate. Meanwhile, their Ukrainian counterparts, further along the road of opposition development and frustration, recently went beyond even a boycott to the point of sabotaging voting machines in the Ukrainian Parliament to prevent what they viewed as an undemocratic move by the president to change the constitution to enable parliament to elect the president.

Boycotts can work when those doing the boycotting have something they can credibly withhold from those in power -- their purchasing power for products, for example, and when they can be narrowly targeted, and gain popular support. In the case of post-Soviet elections, in situations where they already do not have a presence in the electoral commission, the opposition's presence is not missed through a boycott of elections, and the best they can hope to achieve is a denial of the mantle of legitimacy to authoritarian governments that seek to hold elections to burnish their reputations as democrats.

'HARM-REDUCTION' PROGRAMS IN RUSSIA THREATENED. A letter from a Russian narcotics official challenging community "harm-reduction" efforts to provide clean needles for drug users and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS has alarmed the drug-treatment community and caused many nongovernmental groups to fear their programs may be dismantled. As with other reform efforts in Russia, the topic of how to deal with the growing crisis of drug abuse and the spread of AIDS has pitted experts against each other, citing contradictory advice they hear from both governments and nongovernmental groups in the West, where the topic has also generated controversy.

Aleksandr Mikhailov, deputy chair of State Narcotics Control, sent a letter dated 19 November 2003 to the chiefs of his agency's territorial offices, expressing concern about various organizations "actively imposing on public opinion the idea of implementing so-called 'harm-reduction' programs," involving distribution of disposable needles for drug addicts to combat AIDS infection through the practice of sharing needles, reported on 16 December 2003. "The leadership of State Narcotics Control views this idea as nothing other than the open propaganda of drugs," wrote Mikhailov. He added that passing out fresh syringes or cleansing packets would be construed legally as providing the means for the use of drugs under 1998 Supreme Court Resolution No. 9 on narcotics, banning "any deliberate actions aimed at causing another person to wish to use drugs (persuasion, offering, provision of advice, and so on)." Under other drug laws, only narcotics prescribed by a doctor may be legally used, and appliances such as syringes can be confiscated.

Experts and NGOs say between 40-70 harm-reduction programs have been operating throughout Russia, and they believe they are making some inroads in the spread of the AIDS virus and other diseases by promoting clean needles. But in his letter, Mikhailov says that such programs have caused a surge in drug distribution. He believes that programs in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria have had the same effect and in Vancouver, according to an unspecified study, he wrote that AIDS infection rates "rose significantly" and 40 percent of AIDS-infected drug users said they used free needles. He also cites a 1997 UN study that said needle exchanges contradicted "the general line of the UN" and "are a step toward the legalization of drugs." Mikhailov advocates an "active civic position" that should be simple and easily understood: "no reconciliation in the struggle against drugs in Russia." For those spreading the "harm-reduction" philosophy, Mikhailov advocates administrative sanctions, and if there are grounds, even criminal liability.

The letter, discussed intensively on various NGO websites and seminars with medical professionals, has caused those who believe in the "harm-reduction" approach to scramble to find their own Canadian, Dutch, or Russian experts, both from governments and the United Nations to counter Mikhailov's claims. Like other signs of reversals of reform at the top, it is difficult to gauge how much his letter will be heeded by local officials with practical and less ideological concerns. Officials agree that they must do something to stem the tide of drug abuse, AIDS, and other infectious diseases afflicting especially Russia's impoverished provinces. Programs involving disposable needles pose problems in a society not geared for disposable things -- many items "for one-time use" are reused as a matter of course. Nevertheless, individual programs declare success, and also note that they have steered some of the clients of their needle exchanges into treatment and rehabilitation ending their abuse. It is hard to know whether the rate of illegal drug use -- climbing rapidly on its own anyway -- is really related to the existence of the rather small number of needle exchanges in Russia.

Boris Tselinskii, head of interagency cooperation for drug prevention at the State Narcotics Control, in a comment posted to on 19 December 2003, said narcotics agents view the harm-reduction programs with skepticism because they do not solve the problem at root -- they do not prevent drug use. After studying 11 such programs in St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl, and the Sverdlovskaya Oblast, Tselinskii concluded that "these programs are not expedient for Russia." Noting that advocates of the programs often cite Western thinking on the subject, he clarifies that while private initiatives may favor the approach, the U.S. government opposes it. U.S. federal funds are not authorized for use on clean-needle programs but various nonprofit and local government programs provide disposable needles or the means to sterilize syringes. In 2000, the U.S. surgeon-general released a study saying that clean needles reduced the incidences of HIV-AIDS, but only as part of a comprehensive program involving the availability of counseling and treatment. Such wider dimensions of addressing drug use are costly and the Russian government does not have the funds. Tselinskii says he offered to conduct a joint study with groups in Sverdlovskaya Oblast to see if the programs were really working, but the programs' organizers declined -- hardly surprising in a climate where their work is now being characterized as a potential crime by Tselinskii's own agency. The Yaroslav program "ended deplorably" says Mikhailov, when a drug dealer was reportedly arrested for selling narcotics to people who came to exchange their needles.

Another commentator on, Mikhail Narkevich, deputy chair of the consultative committee on problems of HIV/AIDS for the Russian Health Ministry, said the real focus for law enforcers should be on capturing drug dealers. "The whole world does everything, and we, as always, go our own national path," he said, bemoaning the "special path" often invoked by Russians to offset Western advice. "Why has no drug lord been caught in six months, but a sick girl is caught on the street and jailed for two years for possession? Where is their glasnost in their work?" he asked. Narkevich said he believes international experience has shown that harm reduction works to reduce HIV and does not increase drug use, and that needle exchanges give professionals an opportunity to steer addicts to counseling and treatment. Aleksei Bobrik, senior coordinator for an HIV prevention program at the Open Public Health Institute, fears that disseminating any information about drug use and the need for clean needles will constitute "propaganda" for abuse and be punishable by law. Mikhailov's letter has already prompted the State Narcotics Control in Ulan-Ude to demand the closure of harm-reduction programs.

Galina Obukh, writing for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Irkutsk, says some 48 programs run mainly by NGOs, including her agency, "have an extremely limited impact due to short timeframes and their scattered nature," reported on 3 December 2003. Although the Russian government has accepted the recommendations of the World Health Organization regarding harm-reduction principles, there is a perception that such programs promote drug abuse. Her program's clients disagree, as they point out that they already use drugs, so promotion is not the issue. They would like to obtain clean syringes to lessen the chance of infection with HIV.

With the official number of HIV cases registered at 235,000, and estimates ranging from 700,000-1.5 million, and diagnoses almost doubling annually since 1998 according to UNAIDS, there is an urgent need to try anything that might stem the infection, which unlike other parts of the world, mainly comes from drug injection. A British-funded study, "International Family Health" by William Butler, an expert on Russian law, says the heavy reliance of the Russian authorities on the administrative code to deal with drug offenders is of concern, but most worrisome is Article 230 of the Criminal Code, which defines the crime "inclining to consumption...of narcotic means and psychotropic substances," but does not adequately define the notion of "inclining." It could readily be construed to mean disseminating information about safer means of injection. Along with Article 46 of the 1998 federal law concerning the "propaganda" of drug use, Russian authorities have significant tools to stop harm-reduction programs. Activists also point out that Article 40 of the federal law on narcotics prohibits the use of drugs and drug paraphernalia without a doctor's prescription.

In October 2003, 16 members of the Moscow City Duma complained in a letter to the U.S. Congress about U.S.-funded programs conducted in Russia to prevent AIDS, claiming that Russian women were being encouraged "to choose prostitution as a career," "The Washington Times" reported on 31 October 2003. The claim stemmed from a perception that some groups working with victims of trafficking schemes were taking a neutral attitude toward prostitution, preferring to call it "sex work," and reaching out to prostitutes with AIDS information. "As Americans, you should apply the same standards to your foreign social policy as you do your own.... If a policy is not acceptable in America, please do not export it to us," the Duma members wrote. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist assured his Russian colleagues that the programs in question would be reviewed. Meanwhile, NGOs are consulting each other about how to avoid prosecution and continue their programs, and health professionals and law enforcers continue to debate vigorously the merits of the program, even as the HIV rates climb.

AFGHANISTAN. Two Afghan-Americans working on the reconstruction of Afghanistan told a RFE/RL audience that constitutional guarantees of human rights will only be achieved through long-term education and not the results of the Constitutional Loya Jirga currently meeting in Kabul.

GEORGIA. "Georgia's Bloodless Coup." A special section with breaking news and commentary.

RUSSIA. "HIV/AIDS and Drug Misuse in Russia: Harm-Reduction Programmes and the Russian Legal System" by William Butler. A comprehensive report on legal issues involved in attempting the "harm-reduction" approach in Russia.

Human rights groups and "harm-reduction" programs describe their work and provide background information, including legal resources, and information on parents' groups.

International Harm-Reduction Development Program. The program is funded by U.S. philanthropist George Soros.

"The Russian Federation Votes: 2003-04." A special section with breaking news, politicians' profiles, and background reports.