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How to clean up Russian politics

The reality of a one-person autocracy – like in Russia – is that there is no alternative political activity, besides an armed attempt at overthrow, in which the citizens can engage. But to participate in any public political act, in the eyes of those who do not understand, is to cooperate with the regime. But what other choice Russians have?

April 4, 2018 - Vitali Shkliarov - Stories and ideas

Protesters marching along Moscow's Tverskaya Street, 26 March 2017/ Image by Evgeny Feldman

The proverb “the well-fed don’t understand the hungry” comes to mind when thinking of first world views of Russian politics. In other words, it is poor form for those on the outside to criticise those facing powerful and unseen forces on the inside. The stream of social media posts and columns decrying presidential opposition to Vladimir Putin as fake or political puppetry ring hollow. They say that Russians are legitimising the Putin regime by playing by its rules in a mock election.

Such criticism is easy to make from a comfortable New York or Washington D.C. town house, safe, secure and well-fed. It may even be correct from a supremely moral perspective: to traffic with such a regime, to engage in its “legitimacy game” is an immoral act enabling a thoroughly ugly power structure.

My response to such glib criticism is a question: What choice do Russians have?  The reality of a one-person autocracy is that there is no alternative political activity, besides an armed attempt at overthrow, in which the citizens can engage. But to participate in any public political act, in the eyes of those who do not understand, is to cooperate with the regime.

As we learned from the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and in the old USSR, when leaders introduce new freedoms, they often discover the genie cannot be returned to the bottle.  In today’s Russia, there are hopeful signs that the genie has life!

As someone who has worked in politics all over the world, I see these signs firsthand. Over time, I have developed a special perspective on the politics of my homeland. As presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak’s strategist, , I am now trying to effect long lasting change inside of  Russia, rather than playing the role of a puppet master.

Let us take a look at the recent success of the municipal campaign of 2017 as an instance of triumph for independent politics in Russia.  In this campaign, a truly astonishing event occurred: the liberal opposition gained control of the center of the city. This was despite the fact that its 267 candidates were all political amateurs who had no pervious experience. With modern, grass-roots organising, young politicians neutralised the Kremlin’s heretofore automatic advantage in finance and media control to deal the regime a stunning wake up call, and alert the entire country to the possibility of true government by the people.

The outcome is even more astonishing when you realize the 30 of 125 council districts of Greater Moscow won by these independent candidates are in the heart of the city, where Putin himself votes and where security forces watch every move. Nevertheless, the people spoke, bravely, and within the Kremlin’s own rules, since they were running in accordance with electoral laws and processes.

When well-known oppositionist Alexei Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, he received help from the Putin-backed United Russia Party in order to, it was claimed, prevent public protests. Such “cooperation” with the regime – if that is what we are to call running for office in Putin’s Russia – helped Navalny raise his profile and popularity nationally, and he is now considered such a threat that he was barred from running for president this year, despite his announced desire to compete for the office. But few people, apart from some political scientists and journalists, remember it as the “fact of cooperation”, while the giant public campaign that he organised has been viewed in Russian political history as a huge victory. It introduced thousands of volunteers to the political process and laid foundations for the anti-Putin movement and protests for the following years.

It should be obvious that a sophisticated strategy of “cooperation” with the corrupt Putin machine, is the only way for the Russian people to inch closer and closer to a nonviolent transition to true democracy. Whether you register to vote, protest on the street, raise money for sick children, serve as an election observer, or fight for green against the real estate development in Moscow — like it or not — you are acting within the system.  Any political activity is simply not possible in today’s Russia unless you are “cooperating” with the regime – a dangerous, complicated game of cat and mouse in a hall of mirrors. This is the nature and the process of advancing freedom in Russia today.

Standing boldly and publicly in loud, passionate opposition to the regime is a one-way ticket to political and personal oblivion.  Putin is an extraordinarily sophisticated man, a veritable genius at preserving the appearance of democracy while simultaneously tightening his grip on people.  To oppose this wily tiger publicly is to court disaster or even death.

Today’s realist Russian oppositionist learns to work with what they are given, to survive and fight another day, and another day after that. Just the same as if you are starving: Your only objective is to survive, and you are ready to pay any price. If you are offered food to clean up a crap-house, you will clean it. It is hardly the world’s most pleasurable task, but when there is no alternative, you will not let the stink keep you away from a bowl of soup. Dining in a Michelin star restaurant and cleaning up a crap-house are two isolated worlds. They are two extremes,  identical to the two extremes of Russian politics.

“Putin needs voter turnout and legitimacy, so presidential candidates such as Sobchak and Yavlinsky are allowed a high-profile public life,” first world sophisticates say.  Of course, Putin needs turnout in order to continue his charade of legitimacy. The Kremlin is bright enough to fear the people, to know that traditional ballot-stuffing and fake turnout numbers are outmoded strategies.  He was reminded of the need for a more sophisticated sham when large scale protests, known as the Bolotnaya square protests,  shook the regime  in 2011–2012.

Since then, elections have been more open and, from the regime’s perspective, more unpredictable.  This frightens it and empowers the people.  It is no longer possible to blatantly rig elections so that Putin’s cronies are “elected” to each and every seat.  That is progress, and it has been made by people dedicated to freedom working within the system the regime presents to the world. It is a dangerous game which Putin stands to possibly lose, yet it is our – the Russians people’s – best chance.

Each election cycle adds to our working knowledge of how to outmaneuver the regime, and most of all oppositional campaigns since 2011 involved “deals with the regime” — but each of them added a stone to the foundation of civil society and an independent political scene. The victors of 2017’s municipal elections today are establishing a foundation of a free society, no matter if the Kremlin thinks they can be used for its own immoral, corrupt purposes. 

The next step in the long road to freedom is to use the current presidential election process to speak as loudly and plainly as we can for equality, justice, an end to corruption and in favour of a government of the people.

Watch for new political professionals, committed to fighting the regime with its own tools to find their voices and galvanise pubic support as the 2018 campaign unfolds.  Watch carefully how the regime responds – it will fight in subtle yet brutal ways to preserve its power.  Never forget that these brave candidates – who first world thinkers believe are “making deals with regime” – are slowly, deliberately building a foundation upon which Russia can at last become a free, democratic people.  And that is just the kind of goal that makes even cleaning crap houses worth it.

Vitali Shkiliarov is a Belarus-born political adviser, commentator and campaign manager working for liberal candidates in opposition to President Vladimir Putin. He had previously worked in American politics for Senator Bernie Sanders, on the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, and for several other successful Democratic campaigns.

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  • Irakli Bokuchava

    I’m not optimistic of democratization of Russia.I appreciate activity of opposition and individual activists,under real danger of arrest or more severe punishment.Putin’s regime is close for the mentality of absolute majority of Russians.Only outer pressure or resistance of political rival countries can defeat and overthrow present autocracy!

    • Mick Servian

      Did this website, calling itself a “news outlet” just call for an armed uprising, against a legitimate government? WOW
      Democracy has shown the old Athenians just what it really is. Ruin. There are better way’s of governance.
      Even Voltaire said “I’d rather be ruled by one strong lion, then a thousand rats”.
      Western governments understand this perfectly. There is no democracy in the US, and now there is none in Brussels. Headquarters of the united states of Europe.
      Every one speaks such nice words here, like democracy, freedom, equality and other such bs.
      The one word that really matters “Interest”, is never mentioned.

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