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Monday, April 14, 2008

Annals of Opposition

Blood on the Rizla reports first-hand observations of the Russian opposition:

Last week, Russia's fractious and divided political opposition gathered in Moscow and St Petersburg to try to set aside their differences and concentrate on building a united front to restore democracy and raise awareness of the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, but it may be too little too late.

The Russian opposition has been in a state of crisis due to its inability to effectively stand up to President Vladimir Putin's rollback of press and political freedom, let alone even challenge the transition to his hand-picked presidential successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Today's opposition is the fractured remnants of what were either political forces in the 1990s, a strange collection of punk-fascist movements associated with youth culture and recent media-focused and vacuous civil rights organizations. It would seem that Russia has regressed from being a country where political disputes were part of everyday life in the 1990s, to a state were being interested in politics is like being interested in monarchy.

The democratic parties there were doubly hit during the build-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections by the regime's manipulation of the law in order to cut them out of the contest, massive fraud, unfair access to the national media and a country-wide mood that saw their popularity collapse.

Neither the Union of Rights Forces, a right-of-center liberal party, nor the left-leaning Yabloko managed to pass the threshold necessary to gain seats in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

The mainstream non-Kremlin-backed democratic candidates were all blocked from participating in the presidential elections. The result is that the parties are in financial meltdown, with serious leadership disputes between the generations building up in Yabloko.

Fractious arguments about whether the party should try and act as a lobbying influence on the government or a government in embryo have led to acrimony between the two major leaders, Grigory Yavlinsky and Ilya Yashin.

In forthcoming elections, short of a financial miracle, it seems unlikely that more than one democratic party will be able compete. Mergers are actively being discussed, but more probable is that one or more will simply fold.

A democratic front?

Garry Kasparov, the renowned chess player, cut a sorry figure standing in the lobby of the Hotel Anglia in St Petersburg. Crowds gathered on the historic St Isaac's Square outside, but not for him or anyone from the dissident conference. The electronics company Samsung was distributing free balloons to delighted masses of people, while the only group paying any attention to the opposition was a squadron of visibly bored and chain-smoking riot police.

Speaking to ISN Security Watch, Kasparov was defiant, both about the chances of rebuilding Russian democracy and about his own relevance. He insists it is not too late.

"I wouldn't be so pessimistic. The window of opportunity is open and though time is slowly running out, more and more people are coming round to our point of view.

"Advocating your ideas is not a one way street: It depends on the needs of society. The steady decline of living standards [...] is turning a lot of people against the state propaganda machine, when people begin to experience a rise in living standards they will see the necessity of our ideas," he said.

Kasparov recently entered the minefield of Russian politics. According to his press secretary Ludmilla Mamina, "He entered due to a sense of pressing moral urgency, hoping to apply his grasp of strategy to helping his country. The Other Russia coalition was founded in order to bring in all different kinds of groups under an effective banner.

"Though we have received criticism for bringing in groups such as the National Bolshevik Party [a punk-fascist party] we have strongly moderated their position. We do this because we need another Russia."

However, Other Russia has received much criticism for being sensationally hostile to the ever-popular Putin, and suffered a serious blow when it was abandoned by Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of the small People's Democratic Union. Kasparov's aloof and combative style, along with his ties to the West, have not endeared him to the Russian public. He is widely suspected of trying to further his own personal ambitions above all else.

The gatherings of democratic forces in Moscow and St Petersburg at a conference entitled "A New Agenda For Russian Liberal Forces" must be a turning point if the opposition is going to pose a serious challenge to the regime during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.

Riven by personal disputes, theoretical wrangling about policy and financial meltdown, the urgency of establishing a unity coalition to defend human rights and restore free and fair elections is essential if the parties are going to survive the next few years in a meaningful shape.

Kasparov insists that "the mood is optimistic, we are making progress and I'm happy with what we've agreed on."

Denis Bilunov, director of the United Civil Front - the social movement lead by Kasparov - believes that the steps being taken represent a real turning point for Russia.

"The hope is that after these conferences we will be able to establish an alternative parliament for all the forces locked out of the political process. Our estimates are that roughly 15 million people support the opposition, with optimists going as high as 30 million," he told ISN Security Watch.

"An alternative parliament could convert in time into a real national institution and not a political party. I am actively looking forward to the disputes we will be having and all that they will do to build civil society in this country. More importantly, it represents a historic chance for the Russian left and right to make a bold declaration of faith in democratic principles."

Ekaterina Vinokurova , a 20-something journalist and press secretary of the Russian Democratic Party, has pessimistic views that reflect much of the attitude of young Russians who have positioned themselves against the regime.

"My position and that of my party is that we either have to liquidate or unite, we urgently need new leaders, new organic party structure and internal democracy within our movements. The simple question is who are these fratricidal leaders, where do they come from and who chose them? These are not the structures that create real democratic parties," she told ISN Security Watch.

"We have an opportunity that as the generational transition plays itself out, the last cohort of leaders trained in the USSR will be retiring when the new generation reaches the right age to be able to act politically. We are breeding a generation of apathetic, individualistic young people in Russia that feel turned off by the undemocratic structures of current opposition parties and dislike the old fashioned leadership," she continued.

"If we are to bring people into the fold we need to get involved with all kinds of aspects of the arts, social movements, internet culture as quickly as possible. This is how we can begin playing a long game."

The long game

Ordinary Russians feel even more disenchanted with the opposition, with frequent accusations that they are out of touch, self-interested intellectuals.

Dmitry Koryakin is a traveling salesman whose opinions capture a vast swathe of the Russian population.

"I want respect, I want it from the foreigners, I want it from the immigrants, I want it from the police. But more importantly I want clean water, cheap food and better services. The 'democratic parties' don't seem to be offering either of those things. Who are these intellectuals anyway who are having their own private argument with the government and claiming the people are behind them? If they want to help they should start coming up with plans for better hospitals then," he told ISN Security Watch.

Being unable to advertise their views on mainstream nationwide television channels or spread information that is potentially damaging to the government to a citizenry that was almost wholly born and bred in the USSR and in Russia's disastrous 1990s has left the opposition with only one option, according to Maxim Reznik, head of the St Petersburg branch of the left-leaning democratic party Yabloko.

"We are a political and social movement that concentrates on what we think are the most pressing problems facing us, those being the erosion of human rights and raising awareness of that fact. However, you have to realize that in Russia we have to start by convincing the elite before we can spread our ideas to the population. This is the beginning of a long process for us."

The assumptions guiding the unity conferences last week were that the regime's popularity has peaked along with oil prices and that inflation - especially rising food prices and the continued decline in infrastructure - would soon begin to rapidly undermine the Kremlin's grip on things.

Speaking to opposition activists the mood seemed to be one of confidence that an economic crisis was imminent and even joyfully so.

A source close to Kasparov expressed personal distaste at his insistence that "the worse it gets for the country, the better it gets for us."

There appears to be little idea of what to do when the awaited economic crisis arrives and none of what should be done if it does not. For now the opposition strategy is focused on building a new front where decisions can be taken in the long term, but at the present moment no common long-term strategy exists.

Seeds of change

Oleg Zykov, a senior lobbyist, president of the Moscow Medical Academy and member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, which monitors parliament and scrutinizes legislation, believes that working toward improving the lives of his fellow countrymen should be done by trying to achieve better governance and social standards aiming to build a civil society and not another political rupture.

In an interview with ISN Security Watch he said the problems lie deeper than the opposition would have us believe.

"Post-totalitarian society is deeply based on its members' paternalism, when people strongly believe that it is the authorities who should, and even must, solve their problems, which vastly extends functions and powers of government bureaucracy," he said.

"This is costly and ineffective. A simple change of personalities at the helm, whether they be loyal, pro-Kremlin figures or opposition leaders, will not alter society's mental pattern. The way to improve this situation is to promote social initiative, being a fundamental basis of civil society, which is now only being developed. Contemporary Russia is facing evolution in understanding the role of social initiative."

The average Russian tends to lean toward his position. The Other Russia's plan for an opposition alternative parliament has generated as much laughter as interest while many of the other groups are dismissed as games for rich kids and fantasists.

With support for the regime running so high and the average citizen so fearful of a return to the chaos and social collapse of the 1990s, it seems unlikely that this politically exhausted nation will throw itself into another adventure without serious reasons.

One of the most crucial threats to Russia's transition to a stable model is the estimated 70,000 neo-Nazi skinheads in the country (and their numbers continually rising) and the fact that all major Kremlin-backed political parties espouse varieties of soft nationalism, with political extremism fuelled by anti-immigration and declining living standards for the poor.

If the country's democratic potential is to be tapped, time, patience and the ability to compromise and build up real grass-roots support and responsive political party structures is essential. Given these circumstances, the Russian opposition needs to play a long game, at long odds - by making improved awareness, governance and civil society construction its priorities.

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