There are plenty of evaluations coming out about Russia and the G8. What did Putin gain? What did he lose? Does it matter? Let’s put the successes and failures of the state aside and think about the opposition. There were two “counter-conferences” held in St. Petersburg last week: the Other Russia Conference and the Russian Social Forum. The former was a motley assemblage of liberal reformers, presidential hopefuls, nationalists and other colorful figures. The latter composed of mostly radical leftist, anti-globalist youths looking for a world without capital. Both hoped to pose alternative visions to the Kremlin. Both, however, currently stand completely outside the electoral process. Other Russia received loads of Western media attention, but was virtually ignored by the Kremlin. The Russian Social Forum got some decent media play, but mostly arrests and being caged in the Kriov Stadium.
How is one to evaluate these “counter-conferences” as they are and not how we want them to be? Below are a few articles with excerpts. Unfortunately time doesn’t permit me to provide much commentary. My dissertation is calling . . .
Anna Arutunyan of the Nation writes,
Outside of the stadium, the only sanctioned demonstration was a fifteen-minute rally in the center of town, attended by some 400 activists from the Communist Party and radical leftist groups, complete with arrests and beatings by riot police. On Saturday the forum came to a trickling halt as about 100 activists attempted to storm the gates and hold a procession to the Aurora Cruiser memorial, something that was explicitly forbidden by the city authorities. Youths wearing bandannas on their faces (although no tear gas was in sight) huddled with their banners before an iron fence and a handful of cameramen, chanting, “We don’t want to live in cages!” and “Down with capitalism!” A few more people, including foreign journalists, were detained and manhandled at another unsanctioned rally the following day. The forum closed Monday on a characteristic note: City authorities had invited organizers to play a game of soccer–them against the protesters. The authorities won.
Scratch the surface of the state of the weakening Russian opposition, and it becomes clear that an increasingly heavy-handed government isn’t the only culprit. Boris Kagarlitsky, who directs the Institute of Globalization Studies and is close to the organizers, called the counter-summit an “utter failure” that couldn’t rally a considerable crowd because it had been radicalized by marginal groups competing for media attention. “A lot of it was because of the split in the organization committee,” he told me. “Do we want to draw attention to our issues, or do we want to just make noise?” For an organization committee that’s an umbrella for some thirty different movements and, in the words of KED organizer Yevgeny Kozlov, headed by “no single leader,” making noise seemed to be the only option left.
In the end, the counter-summit proved to be a less air-conditioned version of the Other Russia Forum, which was attended by well-established liberal opposition figures like the suave former premier Mikhail Kasyanov, and the slightly hysterical Garry Kasparov of the United Civil Front. Lauded by some observers in Russia as a successful attempt at a reconciliation of various opposition forces, it too failed to “unify” around an alternative. Indeed, what “united” both the Other Russia Forum and the counter-summit in St. Petersburg was that both venues helped the Kremlin put the rowdy multitude of “civil societies” on display to the world.
Both events failed to engage ordinary Russians, who support the current president in general and the G-8 summit in particular. According to a recent poll by the ROMIR Monitoring Center, 73 percent of Russians felt the summit would build up the country’s international prestige. However vital the topics brought up in their forums, the opposition forces seemed to be speaking not to average Russians but to Western media.
Boris Kagarlitsky had this to say at EurasianHome.org:
To be serious, it’s clear that the far right and the far left are just tools in the hands of the Russian right-wing liberals, who are using them up cynically knowing they have zero chances to seize power. The far right and the far left forces don’t have a well-structured program of their own (a couple utopias and catchy slogans don’t count). The ideologist of the “united opposition” Stanislav Belkovsky made himself clear at the Drugaya Rossiya forum: the purpose of their activity is to preserve the current state of things. The society should stay as it is right now. Besides, they are displeased with Vladimir Putin for his irresponsible and careless actions, which are inevitably leading to crisis. His unprofessional strife for stabilization only disturbs the existing order.
The leaders of the far right and the far left thus become a sort of “Landsknechten”, the freelance soldiers of the “united opposition”. Their mission is to fight the security services in front of the foreign TV cameras, become victims of the bloody regime (the more arrests and anarchy they create – the better). In other words, they are catalysts of the fake crisis, which should be fired up before the society has produced a true opposition.
In this respect, the left forces, represented at the Russian Social forum were just the genuine opposition format – democratic, protecting the social rights of the majority, future-oriented. But the forum was surprisingly weak. What its organizers really managed to succeed in was networking with the press, the PR device, so much admired by the liberals. The liberal press took every chance to mention the arrest issues and tracking members of the forum, studiously avoiding the question about these members true activity. As for helpless and pointless attempts to break through the police blockade, performed July 15, they obviously could have but one purpose: to attract publicity to another brawl. The reps of the social movement, who made it to St Petersburg, were outraged. They were actually meant to – without their knowledge or permission – be added to the “united opposition”!
But still, the Russian Social Forum did have positive outcome. The entire country has been talking about the left for three days. Until recently a good deal of our population truly believed that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is the only opposition we got. Now people discovered the left opposition existed. And some were even lured by its ideas.
Secondly, the forum’s collapse will not just teach a good lesson, but will also be seen as a drive to restructure the left wing both politically and structurally. Almost everyone comes to understand, there are real chances for the left to turn into a functioning political force. But now the left forces themselves put obstacles on their way – they are infantile, disorganized, they are suckers for cheap success and self-promotion, which may be acceptable for Limonov-type people, but definitely not for those who intend to introduce changes to the social sphere, enjoying support of the masses.
In all, it seems that many attendees to the Russian Social Forum left, like many of their counterparts around the world, in frustration. Their frustration was at low attendance, police oppression and harassment and from that, a feeling of ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, the flash and heroics of facing the cops just doesn’t build a movement. The only remedy to this is to rethink the effectiveness of protest and instead engage in the difficult, and boring, task of agitating and educating to regular people’s interests.