A Historic Opportunity


The sudden announcement in June of the early Moscow mayoral elections led to a whole series of events that could result in a drastic change of the political situation in Russia.  Alexey Navalny, one of the leaders of what we call the “non-systemic,” (that is, real) opposition to the Putin regime, is among those who registered to take part in the race.  However, on July 18th of the same year he was sentenced to five years in prison.  He was taken into custody in the courtroom but was released the next day on bail pending appeal.  Whether this was a result of the spontaneous street demonstrations that followed the court’s verdict or a result of phone calls from “above”, he has been allowed to continue his campaign.

Such bizarre twists in Navalny’s story would undoubtedly produce multiple conspiracy theories in countries that are inherently much less suspicious than Russia.  As for us, based on analysis of the limited amount of available facts: some have claimed the split among the elites, a plot against Putin himself, while there are also those who say that it was the result of a complex power struggle.  There are also those who cite the intention of the Kremlin’s appointee for mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, to legitimize the elections and solidify his political stance.  There are heated debates whether the inclusion of Navalny into the race was a blow against Sobyanin or instead would play in his favor.  Naturally, many also wonder who is Navalny himself?  Is he an agent of the Kremlin or an honest opposition activist who got caught in the web of the regime’s complex power machinations?

Regardless of the designs that might have guided the Kremlin’s puppeteers, this time they have grossly miscalculated.  Thus, a true drama is unfolding before our eyes, one that was not part of their original script. Navalny has suddenly become the opposition candidate who is now gathering various opposition groups around him.

It is now crucial to concentrate on the main principles that unite these people.  The vast majority of them are passionate in their aspirations for Russia to quickly climb its way out of the swamp of corruption, isolationism and bigotry –the swamp it was plunged into by Putin’s regime.  They want to see a prosperous, civilized, and democratic state replacing the authoritarian oligarchy.

In this new reality we find that the old dilemma facing opposition movements, to participate in or to boycott the elections altogether, appears pointless.  Intentionally avoiding the political puppet theater and the chorus of extras that only serve to highlight the scripted triumph of the “right guys”, I have strongly advocated a boycott of the so-called elections since the autumn of 2011 up until the current “Moscow Saga”.   But on September 8th, discounting any sudden surprises, we are facing real elections in which we must participate!

It is clear that a fair election is the only method to effect peaceful, non-violent regime change.  The authorities, given the known practice of late, could attempt to use “administrative resources” and conduct vote rigging in the best traditions of a “Churov-style” vote count.  However, it is doubtful that such attempts will remain without serious consequences in the Moscow of 2013.  Mass voter fraud, as it happened in past “elections”, may result in an unprecedented wave of ever more vigorous protests.

Some have suggested that this  is actually the plan of the authorities: to provoke unrest and then prosecute those responsible, much like what was done in the “Bolotnaya Square Case”.  But there is no reason to attribute such complex, multi-layered combinations to the regime.  Up until now they have limited themselves to the simplest and most straightforward solutions.  The same clumsy methods are unlikely to yield a desired result this time.

Undoubtedly, the figure of Navalny as a politician is not without controversy.  Active analysis of his past rhetoric and actions is a normal part of an open political competition and one of the hallmarks of the electoral process.  Unsurprisingly, no one was interested in the biographies of those who only simulated political struggle in the past – those voluntary outsiders appointed by the Kremlin and assigned the roles of designated losers. Navalny, on the other hand, is constantly the center of attention, operating under a heavy fire of criticism, including from the liberal-minded parts of the society.  The public is actively discussing his involvement in the “Russian marches”, his attitude toward the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, and is posing tough questions to which he does not always give satisfactory answers.  That is not entirely surprising for someone who only recently emerged on the stage of public politics directly from a prison cell.  Let’s not forget that no one has yet annulled his court sentence or the other pending court cases that are hanging above him and his family.

Personally, I do not like some of his answers either.  His views on the Russian-Georgian war are diametrically opposed to mine.  It was premeditated aggression on the part of Russia (here I completely agree with the detailed analysis of Andrei Illarionov) that became one of the crimes committed by Putin’s regime.  However, are these differences important in the election of Moscow’s mayor?  No, they are not.  The discussions about the future of the Caucasus region, primarily South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are rather pointless under the current regime.  These questions will come into consideration as part of a comprehensive political agenda only after there is a cardinal change in the federal government’s structure.  Only then, given an overall shift in the situation nationwide, the people who disagree with Navalny will be able to not only discuss these issues but also have a direct impact on key decisions.  The Russian-Georgian war, along with the war in Chechnya, are all a part of the Putin myth.  That myth will only dissipate along with Putin himself.

In my support of Navalny there is no reason to reiterate the thoughtful analysis by Dmitry Bykov and Maria Baronova, who, along with others, have claimed that at this time he is the best chance to bring about much needed change.  Also, it is perhaps our only hope, at the moment, of freeing political prisoners from Khodorkovsky to the prisoners of the Bolotnaya Square case — all those who were labeled enemies of the regime.  The pathetic babble of the Supreme Court in its evaluation of the “Yukos” case is yet another example of this simple fact: as long as Putin’s power structure remains, the political prisoners’ prospects for release remain bleak.

It is also important to consider that Navalny’s victory would assure the destruction of Putin’s desolate political system of simulacrums.  There were, of course, a series of fraudulent practices in the 90’s.  But since 2000 the system of a perpetual charade has been tuned to perfection.  All political and social movements that in any way could pose a threat to the existing regime were marginalized, labeled non-systemic opposition, and pushed to the sidelines of the political process.  Those that were allowed to remain within the official political landscape had to participate in a counterfeit political struggle, never encroaching upon real power.  The Olympic slogan “Participating is more important than winning” became their mission statement.  The complete stagnation of political life was instilled and perpetuated.

Even within the tightly packed ranks of “United Russia” there have been more changes in personnel than among the so-called “opposition parties”.  It is scary to think how long Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky and Yavlinsky have been in active politics.  They are still the symbols of official “opposition”, still playing their designated roles in a simulated struggle of pretend ideological rivalry.  Obviously these main participants in the never-ending charade would be least interested in real change.

Ironically, it was Navalny who gave them a chance to rise up at the time of congressional (Duma) elections in 2011.  Back then he asked Russians to vote for any party other than the “United Russia”.  But false oppositionists shamefully shied away from uniting with the rising real protest movement, instead preferring to accept the customary Kremlin treats.

There is a sense of historic justice in the fact that today it is Navalny who has been called upon to bury the myth of the systemic “opposition”.  These “parties” only exist on the orders of the Kremlin and strictly as part of the overall charade that constitutes the Russian political system today.  It is more than obvious that had political life been more open neither Zyuganov nor Zhirinovsky would survive the onslaught of the new wave of political activists from the left and the right.  The same is true for a decaying  “Yabloko” party that would certainly have become a historical anachronism had there been an open, unbiased registration of political parties in the past decade.

The best proof of that will be the result Navalny receives in this mayoral election.  I’m convinced that his result will outperform the combined  votes received by all the pseudo-opposition candidates combined.

Unfortunately, it is not only the old-timers of political theater who are afraid to lose their spots in line if real change takes place.  Among those clinging to the faltering regime are the opposition journalists from the few media outlets that still remain.  Allowing the existence of a few intact areas of freedom makes it easier for the regime to maintain its grip on the political process. For instance, “Novaya Gazeta” and “Moskovsky Komsomolets” reserved themselves only to a handful of articles about the achievements of the acting mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, and his preparations for the elections.  There was no criticism offered and no real tough questions asked.  As for the rest of Moscow’s papers, they are under the direct control of the mayor’s office.

What surprised me was the revelation made by the deputy chief editor of “Moskovsky Komsomolets”, Ayder Muzhdabayev, who was brave enough to ask “five straightforward questions to a candidate for mayor, Alexei Navalny” and then said: “As for other candidates, I have no further questions.”  But how is that possible, if you consider yourself a journalist, to have no questions for the sitting mayor?  Instead of dedicating its opinion columns to posting pointless letters to the President, why wouldn’t “Moskovsky Komsomolets” organize a tough conversation with the mayor of the very city it is named after?

Furthermore, in his blog Muzhdabayev discusses the creation of the concentration camps for the migrant Vietnamese workers, a novel invention in the Moscow of 2013.  While addressing his questions to Putin, he makes no mention of Sobyanin when discussing the Nazi-like nature of these camps.

It is sad that journalists are incapable of posing vital questions to the man who has been the mayor of such a grand metropolis as Moscow for almost three years.  If they think that Sobyanin has nothing to do with the problems of migrant workers, the often-broken subways, and illegal construction, then perhaps they could’ve asked him about the events of May 6, 2012 and the Bolotnaya Square case.  After all, the mayor of the nation’s capital is not a strictly administrative position.  Should we remind them that political journalism consists primarily of raising questions that are vital to the public?  That is what newspapers are for.  And if Sobyanin doesn’t answer, go ahead and publish investigation reports; repeat your questions in your daily columns.

Let me remind the editors of “MK” and “Novaya Gazeta” that fair elections can only take place when all candidates are held accountable for their actions.  Your publications, in my opinion, are obligated to pose inconvenient questions to the acting city chief.  There is a reason why in a civilized and democratic society the press is called the “fourth branch of power”.

This protracted “silence of the lambs” is a clear sign of the dependency of the journalistic profession and its attachment to the ugly system of political coordinates in modern-day Russia.

The chief editor of Echo of Moscow acted more professionally when he offered his station to serve as the podium for all the candidates to conduct election debates.  Navalny has already accepted the offer.  As for Sobyanin, it does not seem like he is interested in participating in any debates.  However, perhaps it is time to simply invite the latter for a traditional interview on Echo of Moscow?  Ask him about the problems that matter to the city’s residents (not about municipal electoral screens and signature collections, as happened on June 27).  Perhaps, if not journalists, regular people could ask Putin’s appointee a whole range of questions, especially considering that Echo of Moscow is rather good at posing tough questions.  It is unclear why candidate Sobyanin is outside this “range of fire” when it comes to the election.

At the end of the day, the process of fair elections does not consist of an analysis of Navalny’s personal case file.  It must be a detailed, even microscopic analysis of all candidates.  In this case there are only two main candidates.   Do us all a favor and please point the microscope accordingly (or at least a light bulb) at Sobyanin and the others whose participation in this election generates a degree of tension due to the increased likelihood of a runoff.

Of course, one would hope for a more ideal transition from authoritarianism to democracy.  However, after the country lost several good opportunities for developing a mature political system in the 90’s and then slowly slipped down Yeltsin’s slippery slope straight into Putinism, the transformation will not be simple or painless.  I will not contest that Navalny brings with him a sense of great uncertainty that might be frightening to some people.  However, any amount of uncertainty is better than the humiliating stillness of Putin’s Russia.  Once we overcome that, I very much hope that we keep our future in our hands.

I agree with the common sentiment that today, unlike in Yeltsin’s days, the time of superheroes has passed.  Thanks to the internet we can easily find out substantial amounts of information about any politician’s life, views, and positions taken.  It is also clear that if Navalny wins this election more questions and demands will be directed at him.  However, it will already be the next chapter of our history.  We must vote for Navalny to have the opportunity of beginning this new chapter.  And when we vote, we must understand clearly that his success does not guarantee us a happy ending.  It can only rekindle our hopes that our motherland will see a better tomorrow and that our children will be lucky enough to study the real history of Russia and not one with the KGB-approved dictates of “Putin’s textbook”.


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