It’s a few days old, but I wanted to draw readers’ attention to an article I wrote for the Exiled on Alexei Navalny as a potential unifier of Russia’s middle class and nationalists. Here’s a snippet:
On December 5, the day after Russia’s Duma elections, the anti-corruption crusader and popular blogger, Alexei Navalny, told a raucous crowd, “I want to say to you: Thank you. Thank you for playing you part as a citizen. Thank you for telling these assholes, ‘We’re here!’ For telling the bearded [Electoral Commission head Vladimir] Churov and his superiors: ‘We exist!’ We have our voices. We exist! We exist! They hear that voice and they are afraid! They can chuckle on their zombie-boxes. They can call us “microbloggers” or ‘network hamsters!’ I am a network hamster, and I will slit the throats of these cattle!” Shortly after giving this speech, Navalny was arrested, and by the next morning, sentenced to 15 days in a spetspriyomnik (special detention center) outside of Moscow. Navalny was released on December 20, and has been considered among many the de facto leader of the Russian opposition.
Why Navalny? One reason is that declarations like “I will slit the throats of these cattle,” though metaphorical, are no mere puffery. Unlike many in the Russian opposition, Navalny puts his words into action, and in a climate where more than a few government critics have met their demise, this action puts his life on the line. Yet, he remains fearless. “It’s better to die standing up that live on your knees,” he told the New Yorker’s Julia Ioffe last spring. With that kind of gumption, it’s safe to say that Navalny has become a nagging pain in the ass of Russia’s corrupt elite. He’s done so not by staging rallies, leading a political organization, or seeking political office. Navalny is an activist of the 21st century: his weapons are a blog, Twitter, and a crowdsourcing website. His army is motley of “network hamsters” ready to root out big moneyed corruption by combing through dry contracts posted on his site Rospil. The results are impressive. Since Rospil’s creation in December 2010, Navalny and his army are responsible for the cancelling of $1.2 billion worth of state contracts. Given all this, it’s amazing that someone has yet to slit his throat.
But Navalny is more than an anti-corruption crusader and renowned blogger. The thirty-five year old Muscovite lawyer is also emblematic of two forces that were once supporters of Putin, but are now increasingly turning against him: the urban, educated middle class, or ROG (russkie obrazovannye gorozhane) as pundit Stanislav Belkovskii has dubbed them, and Russians with nationalist sympathies. On the surface these two groups appear antithetical to each other. The former are often described as “hipster-gadget-lovers” (khipstery-gazhetomany) more interested in Moscow’s cafes, clubs, and sushi bars, and, until two weeks ago, showed no interest in politics besides ranting on their Live Journal blogs and Twitter accounts. The nationalists are portrayed as racist working class street thugs whose sense of Russian victimhood speaks through fists and boots to the heads of migrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. Nevertheless, both groups share common ground: they’re by and large suspicious of the West and the Russian liberals who extol its values, patriotic, despise corruption, view immigrants as destroying the integrity of the Russian nation and increasingly loathe Putin and his cronies. With a foot in each world, Navalny is emerging as the logical person who could unite them around a new mass political movement based on what Alexei Pimenov recently called “an anti-corruption pathos plus the national idea.”
You can read the full article here.
As a day of protests against Sunday’s Duma election begins in Russia’s Far East, the big question is why are people protesting now? After all, it’s not like this is the first Russian election with shenanigans, fraud, etc, etc. It is, however, the first one when Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia, are dropping in approval ratings. Still, VVP still garners, according to the last tally, a 67 percent approval rating. And if you buy that the elections were close to the will of the people, United Russia still polled 49.3%. But that is if you buy the results, which many, including myself, don’t.
Still, “why now?” is the question of the day. Svobodnaya Pressa asked Leontii Byzov, a senior sociologist from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences this very question. I thought his answer was worth thinking about.
Svobodnaya Pressa: Not too long ago many experts said that our society is passive, young people are apathetic, and it’s hard to get people out into the street. Why in the last few days are we seeing one protest after another on the streets of Moscow and other cities?
Byzov: There are several overlapping factors. First, the rise of a new generation of young people who don’t remember the “trauma of the 1990s”. They are not afraid of change, it is more attractive to them than the “gilded cage” of Putinist stability. Young members of the middle class want social mobility and dream about meteoric careers.
Another factor is the swelling internal opposition within the Russian elite. In the 2000s, Putin served as a certain guarantor of balance between elite groups with completely opposite interests. Such as, for example, the siloviki and liberals in the government. Under President Medvedev this process became unbalanced. One was for Putin, the other for Medvedev. Those who stood with Medvedev felt the taste of power and property. They urged the President to remove Putin from the Premiership and run for a second term. For them, this was a chance that would have called for a struggle against the financial flows Putin’s people control. For control of Gazprom and other state corporations. Therefore, it was hard to presume that these groups would submit to defeat and quietly leave and put aside their plans for the next several years and, perhaps, forever.
I don’t exclude the possibility that now a very large stake has been placed on Putin not being elected. Or, if it happens, to ensure that Putin becomes President in an extremely weak position with minimal support of Russian society and in poor light in the eyes of the West. This will bind his hands.
The parliamentary elections are a pretext for the maximum inflammation of social dissatisfaction and to delegitimize the upcoming Presidential elections in Russia. Hereby at the same time the results of the parliamentary elections interest a few. From this, United Russia more or less gained a mandate, it made no one hotter or colder. These issues are completely irrelevant to our political system.
The falsification of the election results that are now criticized truly have a place but they occurred in 2007 and then even possibly on a greater scale than now. But then it wasn’t an issue for anyone. Today society is incensed and will continue to be deliberately heated up. An outside group interested in the reduction of power and property has global influence, first and foremost Western networks are in this process. In the West, they also very much don’t want Putin to return to the Kremlin and consolidate power around himself. A serious struggle awaits and the main players are not the people in the street, but those who prepare the government elite revolution in the country. And they are looking after their own objectives.
Are the street protests and public outcry symbolic or part of a larger struggle within the Russian elite? Perhaps. There are deep splits within the Russia elite, fissures that were deepened after Putin’s return was announced. But will Don Putin be able return balance this time? I’m not very confident.
Some of you may know that I’ve started writing op-eds on Russia for Al-Jazeera English. Here’s an snippet of my latest on the Russian elections:
In mid-November, the Russian site Slon.ru noted that political brands have a life cycle of five stages – “rise”, “peak”, “stabilisation”, “fall”, and “political death”. As brands, Russia’s political tandem, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and the ruling party United Russia, are no less immune to this cycle. Their popularity peaked in 2008-2009, was stable throughout 2010, and began to fall rapidly in the second half of 2011. In this sense Russia’s ruling elite are little different than, say, a pop song or a breakfast cereal. The more you consume them, the more disgusting they become, until their mere mention evokes the dry heaves.
As returns from Sunday’s polls show, more and more of the Russian electorate are getting nauseous with the political establishment, and Putin in particular. Technically, Sunday’s elections were about determining the Russian Duma (parliament) for the next five years. But, in reality, they were a popularity vote for Putin: the man, the politician, and the system he created. And if there is any doubt that “Putinism” is on a downward swing, just take a look at Sunday’s polls compared to the last election in 2007. In 2007, United Russia received 64.3 per cent of the vote, giving it a supermajority of 315 seats. On Sunday, United Russia got 49.5 per cent and is slated to get 238 seats. That’s a drop of 14 per cent and a loss of 77 seats. One should also note that United Russia got walloped in regional parliaments. In three regions, Krasnoyarsk, Primorye, and Sverdlovsk, the Party of Power didn’t even break 38 per cent. Considering that this is the first election since 2003 that United Russia’s power shrank, this election is a turning point.
The whole article is here.
The Russian non-party opposition is trying to figure out what to do about the Duma elections in December. Boycott? Lampoon? Participate? Vote for anyone except United Russia? In a recent post, anti-corruption crusader and blogger, Alexei Navalny, concludes that the best short term strategy is to vote for anyone except the “Party of Liars and Thieves.” Here’s his reasoning:
1. It’s realistic. A hundred thousand activists from other parties support it.
2. It will unite: Everyone against United Russia.
3. The majority of anti-government oppositionists already support it. I suggest looking at Denis Bilunov’s post where he gives the results of a poll of people who signed the petition “Putin must go.”
4. It will naturally continue after the elections.
5. It is completely legal and therefore really make a change to the political structure.
6. It will cause the government real problems.
7. It’s based in honesty, clearly evident in the idea “Vote against United Russia–the Party of Liars and Thieves” and therefore needs no explanation.
Sounds like a plan.
Here are some posters from the art group RosAgit to help spread the idea:
Over the past few years, I’ve argued that Nashi has been in a state of confusion in a post-Colored Revolution world. The Putin youth cult was created in 2005 precisely to defend Russia from enemies within and without hellbent on bringing “democracy” to Russia. But since 2008, when the “Orange Threat” was declared vanquished, Nashi has bobbed along on the Russian political scene without any resounding battle call to unite its forces. Sure their annual summer-fest at Seliger has grown in number and scope and their day-to-day campaigns, pickets, and pranks have continued in more and more colorful ways. The Russian liberal “opposition” continues to play its role as the target for legal, media, and sometimes physical harassment. But all of these activities still lack a certain oomph, let alone urgency, when Russia appears as more or less politically and economically stable.
What does a rudderless counterrevolutionary youth organization do when there is no threat to rally the troops to battle? Why, you invent one.
Russia is once again in peril. That’s right, in peril. Or so thinks Vasili Yakemenko, Nashi founder and head of the Russian Department of Youth Affairs. Two weeks ago, a document, presumably written by Yakemenko, titled, “For Background Information Only” appeared on a Nashi discussion board on Vkontakte calling for members to troll the Internet to prevent Russia’s destruction at the hands of Boris Nemtsov, Eduard Limonov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Alexei Navalny, and Lev Ponomarev. The text is nothing less than a conspiracy laden call to arms. Here’s a translation of its more juicy parts:
In the next two years an attempt will be undertaken to remove the legally elected President of Russia. The attempt will be to realize a Lybian-Iraqi scenario in our country which will bring total chaos, civil war, and the appointment of a President by the US State Department. In preparation for this event the Nemtsovs, Navalnys, Linomovs, Ponomarevs and others have bought themselves grantees, fascists, and rouges, and have begun a smear campaign against United Russia.
What follows is an plea to support United Russia even though it’s not “ideal” and has many “bribe-takers,” “ineffective officials” and “plain criminals” in its ranks. To break from it now, Yakemenko asserts, would lead to Russia tearing itself apart.
We must understand that if we don’t like United Russia, we must enter it and change it from the inside. If someone doesn’t like United Russia to the extent that he can’t join it, let him go to another party. If he doesn’t like an existing party, let him register one himself, but honestly, and not out of false and dead souls like Nemtsov and PARNAS.
But the POINT IS, that just because we don’t like what is happening in our country, it is NO REASON TO DESTROY IT! Just because we don’t like United Russia, it is no reason to destroy it!
No, Nemtsov, Kasyanov and Navalny need the destruction of the party and the country!
The destruction of the country always begins with the destruction of the Party. The collapse of the USSR in 1991, which carried millions of our parents into poverty in the 1990s, lost territory, and wars also began with the destruction of the KPSS.
Yakemenko then goes on to explain what he expects from his minions over the next two years:
1. Figure out what is going on. Special schools will work for you. You will study geopolitics, politics, conceptual design, rhetoric, psychology, and social networking. Learn to dispute and state your opinion. It is necessary to talk, read books, and watch movies to convince people.
2. That you become the most famous people on the Internet. Become pundits, journalists, bloggers and plain authorities to your contemporaries.
3. That you begin to work with information and the means to spread it, and that means to begin to influence the perception of Russia and what is going on around it.
4. That you will be the first who begin to direct people through social networking.
5. That we create a powerful All-Russian Internet network together that will be able to independently formulate federal white papers, and promote and spin its own news agenda.
6. That you will become the best creators of Internet content.
. . .
You will send me proposals to overcome these problems:
Trolling search engines for Vladimir Putin. The illusion of the dominance of the oppositional opinion on the Internet. The spread of child pornography. The absence of people with our outlook at the top of LiveJournal. The spread of extremist material. Internet provocation.
And also proposals for the creation of any social-political Internet content, able to attach attention of a large number of people. This, above all, TEXTS and video clips, pictures, demotivators, interviews on the street, comics, graffiti, sketches, calendars, songs, dances, street actions, flash mobs, and any other means.
The text then urges 16 to 25 year-old LiveJournal, Twitter and YouTube users to register for a special group, “Sponge Bob and his Friends, and attend a meeting to discuss how the youth will save United Russia, and by extension, Russia itself.
Who is this Sponge Bob? It’s none other than Yakemenko himself, as his Vkontakte page suggests.
The “half-secret” meeting foretold in the manifesto was held last Friday at the Mir movie theater in Moscow, reports Nezavisimaya gazeta.
The gathering of the meeting with the head of Rosmolodezh came to life in circumstances of a quasi-conspiracy. Or a role playing game. A week prior, young visitors to cafeterias in the capital were given white envelopes with their lunch checks with “If you’re happy with everything in life, pass this envelope to a neighbor” written on them.
One of the receivers of the letter, deciding to participate in Rosmolodezh’s game further, but didn’t want to give his name, told NG, “On that day, September 5, friends and I were sitting at a cafe on Staryi Arbat. We were given a white envelope with the check with an invitation to a parade of Mоscow students at an event Yakemenko [is organizing]. The letter was addressed to young people who are socially active and wish to create a better life for themselves and Russia. Those wanting to participate in the meeting had to send an SMS message with “Ready” (Gotov) to a short four digit number.
On Thursday night, unbeknown to the “Ready-ers,” young people got an SMS from a number addressed as “Organizer.” On Friday they were expected to meet at 6 pm at the Mir movie complex on Tsvetnoi Bulevar.
When NG‘s source arrived at the appointed place, he didn’t notice any posters or announcements informing about the forthcoming meeting. Metal detectors were put in front of one of the movie entrances where participants were to register. Young people dressed in red jackets (Nashi’s uniform–Sean) with “Come with us” written on them, asked to leave their information on the invitation of the Youth department. “There was a girl standing next to me, a freshman from a private university in Moscow, who came to the event with her mother,” a participant told NG. But they wouldn’t let her mother in. The guys in the red jackets explained that this meeting was only for young who sent an SMS request beforehand.
At the meeting Yakemenko spoke for an hour and a half to 150 attendees about preventing a Middle Eastern scenario and stressed the importance of young people to become the “conscience of the nation” on the Internet to prevent it. “The Internet and social networking played a big role in these revolutions,” he told the audience. “Through them, the opposition passed information about protests and spread calls to overthrow the regime.” Also of note, Yakemenko didn’t mention President Medvedev or even United Russia once. He only repeatedly referenced Putin “as the leader of our government.”
What to make of Yakemenko’s manifesto, his semi-conspiratorial gathering, and the call to arms on the Internet? Some of it is merely an attempt to broaden what Nashi is already doing. For example, Nashi has been waging a campaign against Alexei Navalny for a while now. The most recent was attempt at slander was to charge that he was reviving money from Anatoly Chubais. Navalny thoroughly dismissed that notion by pointing out that Chubais’ company Rosnano was a sponsor of Seliger, adding a photo of Putin meeting with the oligarch to boot. Nevertheless the anti-Navalny screed shot straight up LiveJournal’s top posts list. As Anton Nosik told Novaya gazeta, Nashi uses bots to hock the popularity of their posts.
But part of this Internet campaign to become the “conscience of the nation” is right out of this summer’s Seliger camp. Two of the seminars given at Seliger, “Information Flow” and “Politics,” promoted the above activities. “Information Flow” sought to teach campers how to “write corresponding texts, create stories, record podcasts and make films for a “new generation,” reported Lenta.ru in May. “Moreover, instructors will talk about methods of conducting PR-campaigns on the Internet and rules of conducting blogs.” “Politics” looked to train United Russia foot soldiers for December’s Duma elections, and presumably for the Presidential election in March. The goal of “Politics” was to facilitate “the formation of the country’s new political elite, capable of independently solving key social and political problems, advocate freedom and self-sufficiency, to realize their political and civil rights, and to train nationally orientated youth.”
When you add the fear of a Lybian-Iraqi scenario to the mix, you get Sponge Bob goes to war.
Speaking of Sponge Bob, it’s more than a bit ironic that just as he and his friends prepare to defend Russia from enemies within and without, that Professors Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson, of the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychology, released a study showing that SpongeBob Squarepants “dampen preschoolers’ brain power.” Can you imagine what’s happening to youth in the clutches of Russia’s Sponge Bob?
Last Sunday’s municipal elections in 75 of Russia’s 83 regions were like a bad rerun. Everyone played their role well in the latest stage production of managed liberal democracy. United Russia trounced its rivals, most importantly in the coveted Moscow city government where UR took 32 of 35 seats. The country’s real opposition, the Communist Party, got a mere three. Similar results were reproduced across the country. Overall numbers show that the Party of Power averaged around 70% of the votes nationwide, while the Communists hovered around 13%. The rest–Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party were in the single digits. The liberal party meld of Yabloko and Right Cause got nothin’ worth mentioning.
Of course, every oppositional faction–which ranges from those who could participate like the Communists, LDPR, Just Russia, and Yabloko and those who couldn’t like Solidarity–hemmed and hawed about election fraud. No Russian election can occur without it just like no sitcom sounds right without canned laughter. And especially the city Duma elections in Moscow. Did anyone actually think that the United Russia was going to allow the Communists, LDPR, and Yabloko have any say so in Moscow’s $40 billion budget? Democracy–shmocracy. This election, like all of them, was about power and money.
But Russia isn’t alone in this. It seems that no election anywhere can occur without someone committing or pointing to fraud. In an age void of mass social movements where “democracy” holds global hegemony, crying electoral fraud has become the sole “revolutionary” act in a very anti-revolutionary world. Well, I guess that and blowing yourself up. A century ago, politics was a bitter struggle between the have-nots and the haves. Economic crisis brought some nations to their knees; while others simply imploded. Now, “oppositional” politics has been reduced to the presence or absence of ballots.
Committing and claiming electoral fraud, therefore, has become integral to the logic of liberal democracy itself. For those in power, fraud serves as a soft means of reproducing their power. For those in opposition, it provides a safe raison d’etre where “democracy” is a rallying cry that never questions the foundations of the social-economic system it rests upon: capitalism. So for opposition parties in Russia, the political contest is relegated to the superstructure: the accuracy of ballots, equal access to the polls, equal participation in campaigning, etc. The ballot is a political end in and of itself.
How else can one understand the “protest” by Duma deputies from the LDPR, Communists and Just Russia? On Wednesday members from all three factions staged a walkout to protest Sunday’s election results citing the mass falsification of votes in favor of the Party of Power. The deputies demanded a meeting with President Medvedev. When the President phoned LDPR hetman Zhironovsky and KPRF batka Zyuganov with a promise of a future meeting, the “revolutionaries” signaled that they would return to their stations, though Zyuganov says that his KPRFers won’t do anything until they actually meet with him. “The fight goes on,” he declared. Spoken like a true heir of Lenin.
The action is rightly being hailed as nothing more than a stunt staged by the factions or possibly even by the Kremlin itself. United Russia dominates the Duma so thoroughly that it could function just fine without them, making the opposition’s walkout utterly meaningless. The scandal will unlikely move any passions among the populace. One thing you can say about many Russians, they are hardly naive when it comes to the tenor of this political dance. According to a recent Levanda Center poll, 62 percent of Muscovites see elections as “simply imitations of a battle” between political elites. Or, as Anton Orekh writes on Ekho Moskvy, “The mutiny has been staged, just like the elections. First we were shown an imitation of elections and now an imitation of fury with the results of the elections.” It’s like a revision of the Soviet adage: “You pretend to govern and we pretend to support you.”
Perhaps the most interesting comment comes from Eurasianist philosopher extraordinaire Alexander Dugin:
“I think that a high level of depolitiization exists in the country. This means that both the people and those in power agree that serious political questions that would demand including the public are not on the table. Therefore interest in parties is sapped and party politics is transformed into a kind of ceremony, a ritual.
This has an impact on elections, because I think that people simply don’t participate in them. It is clear to everyone in the elections: no intrigue, no interests, and no enemies and no friends. In this sense, I think that interest in elections is totally absent.
Dugin went on to conclude: “Therefore I think that elections [are] very uninteresting, boring, and predictable, and naturally United Russia will win. It’s possible to not hold elections at all. [They should] simply announce that United Russia won.”
We should listen to Dugin. Instead of participating in the ritual of pointing out (yet again) the fraud of Russia’s elections (oh, the horror!), perhaps we should sit back and think of them as if they’ve already “jumped the shark” and hope that the Kremlin at some point cancels this bad sitcom so we can move on to other business.