As readers are doubtless aware, this weekend marked the occasion of online “elections” in Russia which are supposed to fire up the opposition and elevate new leaders who will establish a “shadow parliament”. Quite often in this brave new world of interventionism, Job One is the establishment of a government-in-exile, usually composed of favoured political dissidents whose ideas meet the interventionist smell-test, which can then be conveniently recognized at the appropriate moment as the legitimate government. This quite often coincides with the outgoing government reeling and staggering from a barrage of bad press coordinated with a push by rebel mercenaries, at least in countries in which conflict in the political arena has escalated to outright violence.
Once it was feared that the kack-handed blundering about of the Russian liberal opposition marked a resolve by the west to overthrow and replace the Putin government,using a model which has become fairly popular among western conservatives and colloquially known as “the Arab Spring”. That has looked increasingly unlikely as time goes on and, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say the west is resigned to the Putin government or is no longer interested in seeing it collapse, the opposition movement in Russia looks steadily less propped-up by western interests.
Perhaps that is motivated by embarrassment.
Let’s look at an example; this weekend’s grimacing failure on the part of what Pavel Danilin first referred to as “The Bolotnaya Politburo”.
In order for us to grasp what a clanging disaster these online elections were, let’s go back a bit, and see what they were supposed to achieve. According to Brian Whitmore at The Power Vertical, these online “primaries” were to be nothing less than a model for free elections to be held in post-Putin Russia. An example of an alternate civil society where decisions are arrived at democratically. An important step in recognizing the legitimacy of the opposition. Even, God help us, a powerful sign that the opposition is serious and maturing. Although I didn’t see it specifically mentioned, an additional bonus likely was the contrasting of Russia’s hip, internet-savvy youth with the doddering technically-inept pro-Kremlin generation, and a bravura demonstration of how the technology tribe would simply go around the easily-duped electorate if it could not go through it. According to the BBC, the election may help decide who will lead the loose alliance of anti-Putin forces, and may offer an opportunity to turn the protest movement from a group of people defined by what they oppose into a group united by a positive and constructive agenda.
Lofty ambitions. But not unreasonable. The only fundamental reason Russia is led by the people who lead it is because it is the will of the people. This is something the opposition seems incapable of absorbing – it is not in charge because it has failed to convince the electorate that it would do a better job leading the country, because it has no plan beyond shouting that Putin is terrible and because it manifestly cannot even stop its members constantly bickering among themselves – how in hell is such a crowd of self-appointed busybodies and would-be martyrs supposed to come together to lead the nation?
Every time there is an election, the opposition dusts off its charges of ballot-stuffing – which it consistently claims to be able to prove and then shows video clips which don’t really show anything and claims they are proof – and carousel voting. However, every time the opposition loses in a landslide, it completely fails to understand why it lost. The opposition loses – every time – because of its failure to inspire the Russian electorate with its vision for Russia. It’s not even that it’s easy to portray the opposition as western-backed, because they are and if that fit with the electorate’s general ambitions for their country, nothing could stop the election of the opposition to power. Being western-backed is not a persuader these days, although once it unarguably was. Be that as it may, today’s liberal opposition in Russia runs the same campaign over and over, and seems repeatedly dismayed that it is again a failure – it’s time for Putin to go. Is it?? And then what??
Putin has been extremely successful in first rescuing the Russian Federation from going over the edge of the cliff to which Yeltsin had pushed it, then building it into a financial colossus and an energy superpower. But the electorate is fickle, and conforms its loyalty into a commodity bought and sold to the beat of Janet Jackson – What have you done for me lately? I can’t say it enough – an opposition with a powerful and resonant message of global inclusiveness, commerce on an advantageous footing and social reform would be an opposition that put Mr. Putin out of a job. It’s not God who keeps him there: God is extremely impartial about such things. Mr. Putin stays in power because he keeps delivering on his promises, and because the opposition doesn’t have a plan, choosing instead to run on a relentlessly-negative and elitist platform of getting rid of Putin.
So, what went wrong this time? A good place to start would be the candidates, which included let-it-all-hang-out exhibitionist Peter Verzilov and, if you can believe it, his swell-headed smirking common-law wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: the former a Canadian citizen, and the latter a guest of the Russian Federation’s state prison system for the next two years. What a proud moment for Russia, to be able to acknowledge such a couple as contributors to state policy! Vladimir Ryzhkov, perennial malcontent, whose Republicans barely cleared the 5% required to participate in recent regional elections and won a single seat on the Barnaul City Council although “well-connected political strategist” Stanislav Belkovsky predicted Ryzhkov would easily win the governorship of the entire Altai region (according to reliably unreliable numpty Vladimir Kara-Murza). Incidentally, Kara-Murza does not shrink from ambitious predictions himself, forecasting gleefully back in May that restoration of direct elections spelled new trouble for the Kremlin. My, yes; they sure have. Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, both under investigation for serious crimes. TV presenter Ksenya Sobchak, who is probably the smartest and most compelling of the lot. Lots of other vanity candidates who appear to have been chosen solely because they create the appearance of getting up Putin’s nose – have I mentioned the weaknesses of campaigning solely as an opposer?
There’s another solid reason for staying away from this silly online posturing – Sergei Mavrodi. If any two words should strike terror into the hearts of those asked to offer personal and financial information in a public forum, those two would have to rank high on the list. Pathologically incapable of staying away from Ponzi schemes which make money from the unwary and the incurious, Mavrodi and his operatives have heavily infiltrated the voter registration lists, providing by Kommersant’s estimate as much as 30% of the body of registered voters. Of course Mavrodi’s bandwagon-jumping is not the fault of the opposition – in fact, since it has the effect of complicating the opposition’s mission, it was instantly blamed on the Kremlin, although there is no reason whatever to believe the Russian government would bring a pit viper like Mavrodi back into circulation just to wreck the lame opposition, and a moment’s reflection would clarify how stupid a suggestion it is. Sergei Mavrodi’s schemes are conspicuously subject to mission creep, and once he had destroyed the opposition there would be nothing to stop him continuing his predations on everyone else. Also, as long as the opposition continues to flail and to repeat stupid mistakes with metronomic regularity, there is less chance a strong and united opposition will emerge, so likely the current crop of posing halfwits suits the Kremlin just fine. But the complaint that this is a Kremlin provocation serves to camouflage the reality that the registration turnout -once stripped of Mavrodi schemers – is even more pitiful than originally imagined. Small turnouts don’t trouble the opposition, though, because they live in the fantasy that they enjoy broad popular support despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Alexei Navalny, for example, was quite chuffed about winning the title “Virtual Mayor of Moscow” after amassing about 30,000 votes of a total 67,000 in an online poll sponsored by Kommersant and Gazeta.ru. Somewhere between 13 and 15 million people live in Moscow. His next-closest rival, comically, was “Against All Candidates”.
Sweetly ironic is Bloomberg’s contention that an online election which includes verifiable interference by the individual known as “The Russian Bernie Madoff”, whose MMM pyramid scheme cost millions of Russians their life’s savings, is “an honest election”, and recommends that “[i]f Putin were interested, the voting mechanism could be further developed to eliminate fraud and hold fair nationwide elections. He is not, so his opponents view the exercise as an investment in the future. They would rather build a working model of democracy than take part in what passes for it in Putin’s system.”
Well, let’s look at that “voting mechanism” through the lens of its ability to realize the opposition’s dreams, shall we? Perhaps Putin is being a fool by not simply putting the opposition in charge of ensuring fairness in voting. First, as a model for free elections to be held in post-Putin Russia. I realize that’s a rather grandiose ambition, but even had it been stated more modestly I think we would have to acknowledge it was not in any way an improvement on the manner in which elections are conducted already. Not yet, at least. According to figures just becoming available from the chaotic weekend and even allowing voting was extended an extra day to make sure everyone got a chance to vote, only about 80,000 people were registered in accordance with the criteria established by the opposition leaders and their advisers. Only 80,000 people in a country of 140,000,000. I don’t think even Alexei Navalny would have the brass to argue that the will of 80,000 people, perhaps – as Yalensis suggests elsewhere – twice as many if you factor in those who were keen but were unable to navigate the computer complexities, should be held representative of the will of 140,000,000. As to the shrill accusations that Putin is responsible for denial-of-service attacks against the voting website, don’t make me laugh. Websites that experience higher-than-usual volume go down all the time for a variety of reasons, chief among them being it was not set up properly to handle heavy volume. We were told Internet genius Ilya Segalovich, co-founder of Yandex, helped design the site. How many protest movements get the benefit of a major electronics engineering technologist to help design their website? Segalovich has worked in software for more than 20 years, as a team leader for much of that. And he has Navalny, who is “wery good at Internet” to help him out, plus Leonid Volkhov – computer entrepreneur – and his team of 25 eager acolytes from among the smartest hipsters to help him out. Failure on this scale due to computer problems would suggest, I’m afraid, the advertisement that all the savvy young byte-crunchers in today’s Russia are lined up in ranks against the old ways and the grey old men of the Kremlin is a bit of a pipe-dream. More to the point, if Putin – who we are told basically ignores the internet – is a match for Navalny (who we are told basically owns the internet), how good at internet is Navalny, really? And to what degree does he enjoy the support of Russia’s hipster computer crowd?
Well, let’s move on. An example of an alternate civil society where decisions are arrived at democratically? I’m afraid I’m not sold. Only 30 seats on the 45-seat “Coordinating Council” are up for grabs based on a free vote; the remaining 15 are reserved in advance – 5 each – for the three major ideological blocs. Can you imagine what the opposition’s response might be to the suggestion that United Russia was going to reserve a third of all seats in regional elections for itself? I can. “Call that an election??” would likely be the collective shriek. No matter what might have been the altruistic motives of the planners when they dreamed that one up, keep in mind that it is how your actions are perceived by the voters that counts, not what you were thinking when you made the decision. I think this satisfies the relative accuracy of “an important step in recognizing the legitimacy of the opposition” as well.
Which brings us to “a powerful sign that the opposition is serious and maturing.” Anybody see that? No, I’m afraid I didn’t, either. Instead, I saw in Navalny’s continued angry accusations that Putin is responsible for all the problems the organizers experienced – after they smugly announced these were going to be the best elections evah – a return to the only formula he knows. In an environment in which the opposition is supposedly ground to powder under the ruthless jackboot of the state, its organizers and their western backers nevertheless gloated that “slick web clips have publicized the virtual contest and popular opposition-oriented cable-and-internet TV channel Dozhd has aired hours of vibrant debates among the candidates“. Internet penetration is steadily increasing in Russia, and apparently the opposition has its own TV station. Face it, gang; everybody in Russia who was motivated by a burning desire for deep and rapid political change knew about your elections. Those who didn’t turn up to vote, weren’t. Alexei, they’re just not that into you.
Of course the whole sad debacle will either be spun as a defining period in Russian politics or ignored as if it never happened. But those who were looking to this as the moment the opposition emerged as a coherent political blunt instrument that would smash Putin like a bug may as well go back to blowing up “Free Pussy Riot” balloons.
Much has been made of Mr. Putin’s reference to the Bandar-Log; the monkey-folk of Rudyard Kipling’s brilliant “Jungle Book” – from this, the chattering press concludes that Putin compared his opposition to “chattering monkeys” in the context that its message is smug and self-congratulatory, and not to be taken seriously. Serious devotees of Kipling would note, however, that the passage he chose to quote referred to the hypnotic thrall in which Kaa, the rock python, held the terrified Bandar-Log; that for all their squealing and poo-flinging while they felt themselves to be safe, when they were offered the opportunity to say it to the face of the enemy, they were struck dumb. Whether or not it was deliberate on Mr.Putin’s part – and I believe, from my totally amateur non-insider analysis viewpoint, that it was – it suggests the opposition likes to make a big noise about what it will do and to hint at great capabilities; but like monkeys hypnotized by a snake, when subjected to the cold and emotionless gaze of state power, it is both afraid to meet its eye, and unable to look away.
But since the image of chattering monkeys is not entirely inappropriate regardless the intention, here’s Boris, Ksenya, Ilya, Sergei, Alexei, Garry and Vladimir to sing us out with “The Road-Song of the Bandar-Log” (with apologies to Kipling);Here we sit in a branchy row, Thinking of beautiful things we know; Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do, All complete, in a minute or two: Something noble and wise and good, Done by merely wishing we could; We’ve forgotten, but…..never mind: Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!