Protesters try to legitimize their cause

Voters looking through the results of the elections to the opposition's Coordination Council. Source: ITAR-TASS

Voters looking through the results of the elections to the opposition's Coordination Council. Source: ITAR-TASS

The elections to the opposition’s Coordinating Council sparked debates on the future of Russia's opposition. While some pundits see them as "virtual" and "far removed from reality," others argue it is an attempt to bolster real democracy in the country.

{***The face of protests***}

Russia’s opposition leaders have held elections to its Coordinating Council (CC) – a single governing body that is intended not only to coordinate the protest movements, but also to represent angry citizens in their dialogue with the Kremlin and the State Duma.

A week after the regional elections on Oct. 14, another round of voting has taken place outside of public administration: the election of members to the opposition’s Coordinating Council (CC). The purpose of the body is to develop a unified ideology, coordinate opposition activities, and represent dissatisfied citizens who have been involved in protests since the Duma elections of December 2011.

According to Dmitry Oreshkin, the creation of the Coordinating Council was both inevitable and necessary.

“This is not to say that it will be wonderful, or that it will be made up of the very brightest people, far worthier than those who are in government or who are members of legitimate opposition,” the political scientist said. “It is not even certain that the new body will be able to solve all of the problems it has raised. What matters is that the Coordinating Council is essential for the peaceful and legitimate development of the political situation in Russia.”

"The existence of the opposition’s Coordinating Council does not guarantee success, but its absence guarantees failure," Oreshkin added.

Pavel Sheremet, a political commentator for Kommersant, agrees with Oreshkin on the underlying importance of this political development.

“The elections, by themselves, will of course make no difference,” Sheremet said. “But this is the first occurrence in many years of people coming together to demand just one thing: change.” 

The face of protest

The CC is set up as a body of 45 elected members. Thirty of these members are elected according to the so-called general civil list, under which anyone can run. In addition, there are five representatives from each of the three main ideological strata —the left, liberal, and nationalist regional organizations. The members of the body are elected to serve for one year.

“This formula may not seem that straightforward, but it is the result of a broad compromise between very different political forces,” said CC elections organizers on the official website of the opposition’s Central Electoral Committee.

Political scientist Mikhail Remizov has his doubts about the efficacy of the newly formed governing body.

“These elections do not inspire confidence in a substantial number of real and potential participants,” said Remizov. “The bickering that is growing in the protest milieu obscures the possible positive effects that were initially seen. Leadership should be asserted not through formal procedures, but through some purposeful activities that unite people.”

In total, more than 200 people were in the running for 45 seats. Among them were not only popular leaders of street protests, but also less-prominent businessmen, journalists, public activists and other interested citizens with political ambitions.

“The opposition’s Coordinating Council marks an attempt to broaden the scope of protest activities, on the one hand, and an attempt by some leaders to consolidate their status, on the other. I am referring to Navalny and Sobchak,” said political scientist Alexei Mukhin. “Both have public track records that are checkered, and both are trying to use the Coordinating Council to establish themselves as bona fide politicians.”

Regardless of personalities, track records, and ideologies, Oreshkin believes that the most important task for opposition leaders is to focus on trust.

“October’s regional elections have shown that the system’s politicians (both pro- and anti-establishment) command less and less interest and trust. The turnout was low, sometimes disastrously so. Most of those who turned up at the polls belonged to the “controlled electorate,” who had been mobilized on orders: employees of major enterprises, public sector workers, servicemen, pensioners, etc. Those who were able to stay away from the poles did exactly that.”

According to Oreshkin, opposition leaders can only gain legitimacy – the kind “system politicians” lack – through elections that target audiences’ trust.

“This is the only way to gauge the real weight of the left, the right, the nationalists, the anarchists and the liberals within the protest movement,” said Oreshkin. “Elections will allow us to, if not solve, then at least mitigate the problem of ideological ‘sectarianism’ in different anti-establishment groups, build a mutual understanding and determine priorities.” 

{***Not without scandal***}

Not without scandal

The elections to the CC were initially scheduled for Oct. 20-21, to be held online and at specially sited ballot boxes. However, the opposition was unable to complete the procedure in time: the website of the Central Electoral Committee was attacked by hackers on Oct. 20, and voters were unable to cast their ballots online. As a result, voting was extended until evening the following day.

The voting disturbance reveals the fact that authorities have already taken note of this opposition development, says Ocherkin.

“They do not know who personifies the new political force and what its political weight is; but they know full well (though they keep quiet about it) that it is a force to be reckoned with. Judging from the massive attempts to disrupt or discredit the election of the Coordinating Council, the powers are aware of this too.”

The elections were also hit by financial scandal. According to regulations, the main source of funds for the elections came in the form of a 10,000-ruble ($320) fee, which all registered candidates paid. However, shortly before the elections, some of the registrants accused the organizers of fraud and demanded their money back.

Following an investigation of the alleged fraud, law-enforcement agencies launched criminal proceedings. Organizers of the opposition elections, meanwhile, announced that any candidate who requested a refund would receive their money back.

Ocherkin believes the scandals are overrated, however.

“There will of course be some bad blood and scandals, some will slam the door, stomp their feet, leave the fold and quietly come back. All this is inevitable, because elections are by definition about conflicts of interests. But there is no other way.” 

Mixed reviews

As would be expected, not everyone sees eye-to-eye on the significance of the opposition’s new governing body and the elections that it held. Nikolai Levichev, chairman of the opposition party “A Just Russia,” believes that the elections are an exclusively online project.

“I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. All sorts of communities spring up on the Internet, following all sorts of principles,” Levichev said. “All that is virtual life that is, in my opinion, far removed from reality.”

Ocherkin suggests that the significance is much bigger.

“This, essentially, is the first attempt to counter ‘sovereign’ democracy with genuine democracy and a docile parliament that is ‘no place for discussions’ with a genuine (albeit embryonic) parliament,” he said. “In any case, hands-on experience with alternative politics is good for the country and society, even if it is not crowned with a victory.”

Either way, the development is something that authorities will have to pay attention to, according to Sheremet. “Perhaps being elected to the Coordinating Council is a ticket to jail, but it may also legitimize the new opposition leaders,” said the Kommersant correspondent. “This is why the authorities are so vexed. I am sure that those who ignored the project regret it now.”

Kremlin authorities, for their part, are restrained in their official comments regarding the CC’s future. “We don’t yet understand what kind of structure it is, who the members are, what sort of people they are. Therefore, we can’t comment,” presidential press secretary Dmitri Peskov told Kommersant Vlast. President Putin, however, has already repeatedly stated that he is ready to meet with them. 

Material based on articles published by Kommersant and Kommersant Vlast, RBC Daily, RIA Novosti, and Gazeta.ru.

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