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An Opposition Demand Russia's President Can Like

Human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina gives Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a portrait of slain human rights activist Natalia Estemirova during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow in November 2009.
Human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina gives Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a portrait of slain human rights activist Natalia Estemirova during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow in November 2009.
"We urge you to ask those people who have been selected for consideration by the head of state for the post of mayor of Moscow to present their programs at a broad meeting with representatives of political parties active in the capital and of the main public and sociopolitical organizations."

So reads an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev issued earlier this month by leading human rights activists and political figures Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Svetlana Gannushkina, Alla Gerber, Sergei Mitrokhin, Georgy Satarov, Leonid Gozman, and the always busy Sergei Udaltsov.

"Current legislation, unfortunately, excludes the direct election of the heads of the executive branches of federation subjects," the activists note meekly, although they don't want to get hung up on something that doesn't exist but are just trying to touch up what is in front of them.

And what is in front of them is a clear violation of the Constitution of Russia, which states that the source of political power in the Russian Federation is the people.

"It is impermissible that one political party, without any discussion with civil society, takes responsibility for such a choice. Such a process, in our view, makes a mockery of the very idea of popular government," the troubled activists write to their over-reaching lord.

Impermissible? But how about the Communist Party of the Soviet Union? Or the Nazi party in Germany? Or the Workers Party of North Korea? Or the communist parties in Cuba or China? It is permissible -- and how!

And Russia is not in last place on this list, since our progressive society stands before His Two-Headed Highness and modestly demands that arbitrary government and constitutional violations be dressed up a bit rather than rooted out. No, the idea of popular government is not so much mocked by the procedure for selecting governors as it is by the fact that people agree to it -- by the silence of the majority and the assent of critics who understand the limits of criticism.

I imagine that President Medvedev is smiling -- even the once-legendary head of the Moscow Helsinki Group has given up calling for direct elections and is now just urging a broad discussion of the president’s appointments. He might even agree to meet with progressive society and arrange a discussion of the candidates and their programs. It won't be a broad discussion, of course, and it won't be televised live or even reported. It'll be held in, say, the President Hotel behind closed doors. Maybe they'll invite the signatories of the letter, although they'll likely make them sign an agreement not to discuss the meeting.

All this could happen. And everyone would be pleased. The president would set his democratic credentials right, and the activists would be happy to make a contribution to real politics, competently explaining to their critics that politics is the art of the possible.

In Soviet days, there was a joke about the unending patience of the Soviet citizen.

The director of a factory calls a meeting and announces: "Starting tomorrow, we will work without weekends or vacations. Any questions?"

The hall is silent.

He calls another meeting the next day and says: "Starting tomorrow, we will work without salaries. Any questions?"

The hall is silent.

On the third day, he says: "Starting tomorrow, at the end of every shift, every 10th worker will be hanged. Any questions?"

An old, gray worker in the back of the hall raises his hand and asks: "Will you provide the rope or should we bring our own?"

Now we can extend this old joke. But this time, it is Alekseyeva and Udaltsov and the others sitting in the hall.

"Bring your own," the director answers.

"What?" our troubled activists exclaim. "It is impermissible that you decide all by yourself whose rope should be used! This question needs to be broadly discussed. A process that commandeers a rope from a person’s house, in our opinion, mocks the very idea of social justice. As well as the principle of private property! The hanging ropes should be provided by the state!"

It is just a joke, of course. And it would be pretty sad if there weren't opposition forces in the country that are demanding the restoration of the direct election of mayors and governors, rather than just some sort of public consultations on that matter.

Aleksandr Podrabinek is a columnist for "Novaya gazeta." The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared on the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal," are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL