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Why Sochi Was Lost

Sochi mayoral candidate Boris Nemtsov (left) confronts a group of pro-Kremlin youth activists in Sochi before the vote.
Sochi mayoral candidate Boris Nemtsov (left) confronts a group of pro-Kremlin youth activists in Sochi before the vote.
What was the most daunting obstacle facing Boris Nemtsov in the recent mayoral election in Sochi? It wasn't the "black PR" or the falsification of the vote. It wasn't the information blockade or the massive abuse of administrative resources. All of these things these days have to be taken for granted. Candidates in elections simply have to expect such unfair conditions and learn to work in this difficult environment.

The biggest problem, though, was the despair of the people, their lack of faith in the idea that their lives could be changed for the better. Notice that I am not saying that people are satisfied with the way things currently are. I am talking about the lack of hope that things could be different.

No one believes that our "power vertical" can resolve the problems that stem from massive crime and corruption -- the low standard of living, the traffic jams, the lamentable state of the utilities infrastructure.

"They'll elect [United Russia candidate Anatoly] Pakhomov no matter what you do anyway. They simply will do whatever it takes to keep Nemtsov from becoming mayor." This is what many potential voters who sympathized with Nemtsov told us during the campaign. And many of them, unfortunately, never intended to show up and vote. And this is one of the main reasons why Nemtsov didn't win.

Waking The Voters

In Sochi we quickly realized that waking these people up, piercing their pessimism, forcing them to believe that change is possible was our main task. And a lot of them did believe us. Even according to the official figures, nearly 17,000 people voted for Nemtsov (the Nemtsov campaign estimates his real vote total was about twice this figure). This is not some abstract percentage. These are thousands of real people, many of whom Nemtsov spoke with personally. During the campaign, Nemtsov traveled up and down the 140-kilometer length of the seaside town and met with more than 5,000 local residents.

Considering the total information blockade during the campaign, the shameless slander the Kremlin dished out against Nemtsov, and the massive falsification of the results, these votes by real residents of Sochi are especially dear to us. These are thousands of people who were not afraid to act in direct opposition to the ruling regime and vote for a chance to change things for the better.

It's worth recalling here that during the 2007 State Duma elections, the liberal Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) taken together only polled 3 percent in Sochi (incidentally, I think the effect of the unification of liberal forces under the Solidarity banner is evident here).

But it is regrettable that we were not able to awaken the rest of the doubters. Part of the reason lies in our own mistakes, which we will be discussing in the coming days. But it is mostly a result of the massive campaign of propaganda and fear being waged by the authorities. But the fact that, nonetheless, the number of people prepared to cast their votes with the democrats is increasing must be a cause for optimism.

Not Accepting Defeat

Under these circumstances, the most harmful thing for the restoration of democracy in Russia is not the brutal methods and propaganda being used by the Kremlin. In fact, such things can easily harm the Kremlin's cause. Many voters in Sochi supported Nemtsov simply because they saw the massive injustice and slander that he had to confront.

No, there is another thing that is significantly more harmful. It is the voices of people who claim to be in our camp, of representatives of the so-called liberal community who are undermining the tiny manifestations of faith in Russian democracy that are appearing. People who are sowing seeds of doubt in the public. These people assert that "everything is decided," that "nothing can be done anyhow," that "all we can do is reconcile ourselves," and that Russia's democrats and liberals are in principle "incapable of doing anything."

Kremlin candidate Anatoly Pakhomov should not have won in the first round in a fair vote, the opposition says.
Such voices are doing as much harm to efforts to restore democracy as all the propaganda efforts of the Kremlin. Many of our potential supporters pay careful attention to such statements coming from respected people whose views seem close to ours. Moreover, these assertions often seem pretty convincing: society has simply become too accustomed to the syndrome of cynicism, to the old clichés about the "inability" of Russia's democratic forces to accomplish anything.

Just a few days ago, Leonid Radzikhovsky published just such an article. I don't want to get into a polemic with Radzikhovsky. His opinion about what happened in Sochi is his own business. However I feel obligated to respond since some outsiders seem to be having trouble figuring out what really happened there and why Nemtsov was unable to win.

Massive Manipulation

He couldn't win -- first of all -- because of the massive falsification of the results, falsification that was beyond the scope of what has ever been seen in a local election before. Forty thousand ballots -- more than 30 percent of the total -- were cast in "early voting," a process that workers at state and municipal enterprises were roped into.

Although many of those who voted early said they had cast their ballots for Nemtsov or for businessman Aleksandr Lebedev, the official results assert that 95 to 100 percent of the early votes went to Pakhomov.

These results diverge so much from what we saw on election day that there is no point in commenting.

In addition, a further 15,000 ballots were cast by people who voted from home under the watchful eye of representatives of the election commission. That is, a total of 45 percent of the votes were cast under conditions that shielded them from election monitors.

Considering the colossal difference between the results of those ballots that were cast in voting booths on election day and those that were cast early or at home (a difference not in Nemtsov's favor, obviously), it is simple to conclude that a significant portion of the latter ballots were switched. If not for this fraud, Nemtsov would have received not less than 25-30 percent of the vote and Pakhomov, most likely, would not have won the election in one round of voting.

And if there had been a second round, Nemtsov would have had an excellent chance of winning. And not only because a lot of those who voted for the Communist candidate would have supported him. But also because many of those who doubted would have had evidence that things can change.

Our research indicated that if Nemtsov had competed in a second round, turnout would have been significantly greater than what we saw in the first round because many of those who do not believe there can be fair elections in Russia would have come out to vote.

Real Patriotism

But Radzikhovsky, as if he were born yesterday, furrows his brow with surprise and says: "77 percent to 13! I didn't expect such a decisive defeat!" Such words carry the subliminal message that the result is real. And that is a bald-faced lie.

But it was even more repulsive reading the "explanation" Radzikhovsky offers to explain the "reason" for Nemtsov's defeat. It turns out it happened because of the "systematic mistakes of the liberals," manifesting themselves in a supposed rejection of patriotism and national pride. He seems to be saying that people won't vote for "unpatriotic liberals" and that the official results of the election are objective.

It is hard to imagine a bigger load of nonsense. Maybe way back at the beginnings of perestroika there were a few liberals who rejected the idea of patriotism, and maybe a few relics of this sort are still out there today.

But the reality is that Russia's democrats are the most patriotic people in the country today, despite the efforts of other political forces to privatize the rhetoric of patriotism. We are the only force that is not afraid to openly discuss the most pressing problems of our country and how to resolve them without fear for what doing so might mean for our families, our careers, our wallets. While they are stealing, we are fighting for the truth, for the best path forward for our country.

The themes of patriotism and national pride were a central element of Nemtsov's campaign. In speaking with Nemtsov, the people of Sochi saw for themselves the extent to which he worries about Russia, about Sochi, and how much he cares about the lawlessness, abuse, and corruption that is being perpetrated in our country and in that city. Nemtsov's conversations with voters in Sochi were built on an absolutely sincere patriotic rhetoric and voters responded to it.

And the same goes for the subject of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. As patriots, we cannot be silent about the reckless, thieving nature of the preparations for the games. We cannot just sit by and wait until the International Olympic Committee takes the failed games away from Vladimir Putin.

Speaking out about such things for the sake of your country when a hostile crowd is shouting "You aren't a patriot!" and "You've sold out to America!" takes real courage. And patriotism. And national pride. The efforts of people like Radzikhovsky to deny this are nothing but lies. Lies that are useful, most of all, to deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov, who orchestrates domestic politics for the Kremlin.

Vladimir Milov is a former Russian deputy energy minister and a leader of the opposition Solidarity movement. The views expressed in this commentary, which first appeared on the website "
Yezhednevny zhurnal" are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL