The Last Chance

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Some credit must be given to Russia’s “united liberals.”  When, in the fall of 2010, four opposition leaders – Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Milov, Boris Nemtsov, and Vladimir Ryzhkov – formed a new coalition, “For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption”, many predicted that this project would repeat the fate of the numerous “liberal coalitions” of the past: a short life followed by a precipitous collapse under the weight of internal squabbles.

Surprisingly, the new coalition has held so far.  Moreover, in December it was upgraded into political party tastefully named The Party of People’s Freedom (PNS).  Describing the ideological program of the new body, Nemtsov promised it would be “very simple” and based on four principles: deep political reforms, the people’s power (narodovlastye), the fight against criminal establishment, and “introduction of European living standards.” (The fourth principle, the introduction of European living standards, sounds especially “simple” indeed.)

On the surface, the unexpected longevity of the new coalition could be a result of the exclusion of Garry Kasparov, whose dictatorial impulses and inability to listen to any views opposing his own would be a kiss of death for any union.  And yet, there seems to be another, more fundamental reason why the PNS co-founders have so far successfully navigated the Scilla and Haribda of multi-headed leadership and ideological eclecticism.  All four are “former”: Kasyanov is a former prime-minister, Nemtsov is a former deputy prime-minister, Milov is a former deputy minister of energy, and Ryzhkov is a former parliamentarian.  Having lost their positions, some of them more than a decade ago, they spent the following years pursuing relentless — and often very personal-looking — vendetta against Vladimir Putin.  Not only did their criticism of Putin never really registered with the public (no surprise given Putin’s popularity), but their focus on Putin’s real or perceived transgressions has been becoming more and more misplaced as President Medvedev rallies support for his modernization agenda.

All four are smart enough to understand that they have precious little time to reverse the course of sliding backwards, in the past, in oblivion.  The current election cycle presents them with the last opportunity to connect with voters who are forgetting (or have already forgotten) their names.  It is their last chance to squeeze into the future of Russian politics.  It is their last chance to stay relevant – and remain sane.

On Feb. 5, the first regional PNS branch was created in Moscow, at an event attended by the four co-founders and about 300 of their supporters.  According to their plan, by the end of March such regional branches will have been established in 57 of Russia’s regions, bringing a total of 50,000-60,000 members under the PNS banner.  This will allow the PNS to meet the requirements to officially register the party with the Ministry of Justice: the existence of more than 45,000 members in at least 42 of Russia’s regions. 

The founding fathers sounded quite optimistic about their registration prospects.  Kasyanov, for example, told Russian daily Kommersant that 1,000 people have already joined the PNS in Moscow and that there were at least 200 members in each of Russia’s regions.  However, in case the PNS is denied registration, its leaders promised to take 50,000 of their supporters onto the streets on Apr. 16.

Let’s do some math.  200 supporters in 83 regions plus 1,000 in Moscow will bring the party membership to less than 18,000.  Where will the additional 40,000 members come from?  If it took the PNS almost five months to recruit 18,000 followers, what magic tricks do Kasyanov and his pals have up their sleeves to triple this number in less than two months — before the “end of March” deadline?  Well, as they say, politics is a matter of faith, not math.

Besides, if the party does submit the registration papers in the beginning of April, as planned — and doing this on Apr. 1, the April Fools’ Day, would seem to be the most appropriate — the Ministry of Justice still has a full one month, that is, until the end of April, to review the application.  Why, then, are the PNS leaders already planning to protest as early as on Apr. 16?  Because they know well in advance that their application will be grossly insufficient?  Or because they want to pressure the authorities into a favorable decision?  Whatever the case, more respect for due process have been expected from a political movement fighting against “lawlessness.”

The ambitions of the PNS leaders obviously don’t stop with party registration: their declared goal is to take part in the December 2011 Duma election.  (The PNS strategists conveniently ignore the fact that even registered political parties not represented in the current Duma are subject to a separate registration process for the election, a process whose requirements are so harsh that no party can meet them without explicit support from the Kremlin).  To this end, the PNS website features a list of legislative initiatives that the party will be pursuing when it “comes to power.”

To say that this “program document” is a huge disappointment would be an understatement.  Some of the proposed “legislative initiatives” — the establishment of an independent judiciary and reduced taxation on business, for example – have long been championed by other liberal parties such as Yabloko and Right Cause.  Promises to increase state spending on education, health care, and science seem to have been lifted from President Medvedev’s annual address.  And some items (such as changing the duration of the presidential term) simply border on delusional, as they would require the PNS to possess the constitutional majority in the Duma. 

There is absolutely nothing in this manifesto that supports the PNS’ claim of being the “only viable alternative to the current regime.”  Despite all the talks about the future, the “united liberals” is the shadow of the past.  Its founders, the “formers”, did have their chance – and they blew it.  Any reason to give them another?

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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17 Responses to The Last Chance

  1. Thanks Eugene for the update. I’ve been concentrating on some other matters. Your commentary keeps me up to date.
    Here’s one recently announced political alternative:
    http://rt.com/politics/monarchy-tsar-party-russia/
    Best,
    Mike

  2. Eugene says:

    Thanks Mike,
    I think that the last thing Russia will run out of is political jerks. These guys are at least benign for now — by not adopting a “strategy-31.” Moreover, I suspect that given free air, they’d collect more votes than the PNS. Yet, the question lingers: can Russia afford another Czar?:)
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  3. Eugene, an obvious negative aspect of absolute monarchy minus checks and balances, is who might get to run the show.
    From the general outline of that RT blip, the folks of the party in question seem to acknowledge this view.
    I kind of like their flag:
    http://www.cafepress.com/+russian_empire_flag_sticker,13342019
    If there can be Soviet nostalgic jerks, I see little if any valid reason to deny Russian monarchy idiots (like…) the opportunity to strut their stuff.
    Salut!
    Mike

  4. Following up on the last set of comments, reformed Communist parties evident in numerous countries. There’re also constitutional monarchies to be found as well.
    You’ve the likes of Niall Ferguson giving historically selective praises of some past monarchical empires.
    Like I suggested, the outline of the announced Russian monarchist party doesn’t seem particularly obtuse. Their described platform doesn’t go against participatory democracy. There’s a difference between bluntly saying that Ukraine and Belarus should be part of Russia, as opposed to sympathizing with a mutually voluntary union of the three, while respecting the current international status quo of these three former Soviet republics and descendants of Rus.
    Getting back to the Ferguson reference, Russia had a pre-1917 past which for accuracy sake shouldn’t be crapped on as has been done in some instances. Some folks not necessarily viewed as anti-Russian take gleeful pot shots at Mikhalkov. Some balance on that particular:
    http://www.russiablog.org/2009/07/nikita-mikhalkov-denikinist-state-averko.php
    http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/205742
    In contrast, Limonov gets greater respect in some circles. Therein lies the kind of ideological slant (bias) that has been evident. This includes being more tolerant of de Custine than Pobedonostsev.
    Touching on the matters of historical accuracy and the goon like attempts to censor, which exist in the “free world.”
    http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2011/02/15/the-tragedy-of-american-education/
    http://balkanstudies.org/articles/“-institute-research-genocide-canada”-genocide-deniers-hypocrites-character-assassins
    Pardon my version of the hop, skip and jump, AKA triple jump.

  5. Eugene says:

    Hi Mike,
    Actually, I do like the constitutional monarchy as, perhaps, the most stable political system in today’s world. The examples of these in Europe are numerous and almost always very positive.
    The problem with Russia is that it — quite unfortunately — is behind this point, and I see no ways for any viable return. The lack of an “obvious” (not even in the “hereditary”, but rather moral term) monarch is only the most clear reason.
    Best,
    Eugene

  6. Hi back Eugene,
    Some difficulties for sure. Within White Russian nobility circles, there’s some dispute over at least one person making a claim:
    http://www.riuo.org
    In the 1970s, there was a periodical known as “Problems of Communism,” which still exsits with a different crew.
    I note a number of ideologically motivated orgs., leading me to such ideas as a periodical addressing the “Problems of Monarchism” and a “Monarchist International.”
    Your last set of comments touches on how some (stress some) see the 1990s era in Russia, followed by Putin and “Putvedev” as a possible delayed historical process of what Russia’s development might’ve been like if the Bolshes didn’t prevail.
    I’m reluctant to be overly dismissive of some kind of limited monarchical return in Russia. I know this might appear kooky to a good number. On the other hand, there’re other kinds of matter which are evident and arguably kooky.
    Best,
    Mike

  7. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    As always a thought-provoking post🙂
    In this case, I asked myself why I don’t like/trust Nemtsov & Co? And the answer in part, is the one you mentioned – they are from THE same familiar stock, they had been there already, they have far too much money (at least Nemtosv) for an appealing politician in the country with average annual income ~ $12K. Since the Russian “capitalists” do not know how to steal in moderation, from whom not to steal, how not to demonstrate what they have – and can share only among themselves, IMHO – the “viable” opposition in Russia will be based on either the Communists – if they get rid of Zyuganov (& some of their other domesticated), or nationalists in one or another form – or a combination of both. The nationalists seem less threatening to the elite right now, but that will change abruptly, when it is too late. And this sort of opposition does not need shows on Triumfalnaya. They will just come one day.
    (you see why I don’t maintain my own blog ? because I have yours🙂
    Cheers

  8. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Igor,
    Well, however might I fear the scenario you’re outlining, I think you’re absolutely right.
    I’m slightly encouraged with the fact that recently, Medvedev began showing some signs of intellectual alertness. I know, I know: all these “unannounced” visits to vokzaly and Vnukovo is more PR than substance. And yet, he shows he understands where public concerns are.
    Also to watch is the brewing scandal around the Prokuratura. This may be the beginning of the decisive battle for the Kremlin in 2012.
    Cheers,
    Eugene
    p.s. You’re ALWAYS welcome in this space. Yet, I’m missing your blog.

  9. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    I am too cannot quite figure out what really drives that man … (or even the other one)
    Cheers
    PS. Just for information on another topic your were interested in ( closer to home🙂
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/20/texas-guns-campus-colleges_n_825718.html

  10. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    Any reason to give them another chance? Yes, there is one – let them lose elections on a periodic basis. The more, the merrier.
    Best wishes,
    Leo

  11. Eugene says:

    Leo,
    When “denying” them the last chance, I was figuratively speaking for Russian voters. I sincerely see no reason for an “average” Russian to vote for the PNS.
    Sure, let them go to the elections and lose. The problem here — and this is something that people in the West are refusing to accept — is that they DO NOT have 50,000 supporters needed to register the party. They simply don’t.
    I fully realize that this is a testament to the draconian laws the country has on the books, but there is no way that a political party could get registered without explicit Kremlin’s help.
    And then, there are no less draconian rules to register for the elections (I long argued that once registered political party should automatically get access to ALL elections, but my influence with the Kremlin is somewhat limited:), which, again, no non-Duma party can realistically meet. If nothing else, the current political situation in Russia is an example of the power of incumbency elevated to absurdity. Reminds me of the two-party system in the US, where no “third” party movement has a realistic chance to stick.
    Best,
    Eugene

  12. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    I’d take issue with your assertion that Nemtsov & Co. cannot muster 50K signatures in the entire Russia. To me this is a chicken and egg situation. To give you an example – when “Strategists 31” finally got approval to demonstrate in Moscow, on that particular date the attendance increased something like five-fold. Because most people have things to lose and don’t need problems with authority or 15 days in the joint. So, sympathetic people (and businesses as potential donors) will think a thousand times whether they want to have anything to do with Nemtsov & Co.
    But I do agree that in the US the Reps and Dems cover just about the whole spectrum. It will require a major political event to create room for a third party.
    Best wishes,
    Leo

  13. Eugene says:

    Leo,
    Let me start with the “Strategy-31.” You’re right: once perennially stupid Moscow City authorities got a bit smarter and allowed the demonstrations, the attendance increased somewhat 5-fold: from 150-200 to 800-1,000. And this is for a 10-million city! Any meeting organized by the KPRF gets thousands (of “waning and nostalgic” babushkas, as you call them). What you refer to is good example of the lack of any support for so-called non-systemic opposition.
    Back to PNS. I didn’t make up their numbers; I refer to what Kasyanov said. After combining memberships of their 4 respective movements and after recruiting since September, they now have fewer than 20,000 members. And they say that they’ll recruit 40,000 more in 1.5 month. Give me a break!
    Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible in principle to get 50,000 people in Russia supporting PNS. But everything takes time and strategy. Remember Green Party in Europe, say, Germany? They started from school boards, then village boards, then town halls. Then they began running in regional elections and finally went after Bundestag. But this isn’t how PNS operates. They began registering their party late (intentionally?) and they want nothing but the Duma and presidential elections. (Reminds me of Ralph Nader, who was nowhere to be seen except for once in 4 years when he ran for president.) And their program? Down with the Putin regime, a regime that, incidentally, enjoys 60-70% approval rates (whether fairly or not, that’s another question). Now, let me ask you this question: are these guys serious or they are simply political provocateurs?
    About business sponsorship. Despite popular belief in the West to the contrary, businesses in Russia do support political parties. But they do this not of charitable considerations, but for lobbying purposes – surprise! All Duma parties get money from the business and they (parties) pay back. (I read somewhere that there is a list of “services” that Duma deputies perform for certain amount of money.) Now, if PNS started somewhere in the region, in a municipal election – i.e. with at least some chance to get elected – I’m sure that some businesses would give them money: just in case. But tell me: what businessman in his right mind would give money to PNS whose professed goal is to “come to power” on the federal level by forming the majority in the Duma and installing its candidate in the Kremlin? This is insanity!
    Being not registered, not allowed, banned, repressed – this is PNS’ only cause, their raison d’etre. That’s the major problem I have with these guys.
    Best,
    Eugene

  14. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    You provide correct reasoning, but in a very theoretical sense for Russia is not Germany. Nemtsov & Co or other “non-systemic” opposition simply cannot start “low” from winning local, then regional and then federal elections. Local authorities in Uryupinsk have a lot more opportunity to quietly deal with opposition to make sure it ceases being such. Or to discover fire safety violations in a sympathetic business entity. No spotlight, no cameras or pesky journalists and NGOs to worry about. Therefore, running for public office on the federal level in Moscow is their only chance in today’s Russia.
    But I do agree that the goals Nemtsov & Co set are completely unrealistic.
    Best wishes,
    Leo

  15. Eugene says:

    Leo,
    OK, you’re making good points. By what about joining (or at least publicly supporting) the Defenders of Khimki Forest or the Movement of Blue Buckets? Something that ordinary Russians care about and that still can be performed without leaving Moscow for Uryupinsk:)
    By the way, United Russia sponsors building new pools across the country. So every time a pool (built on the budget money, of course) is opened, a UR rep shows up and takes credit. Why won’t RNS begin sponsorship over, say, sandboxes for kids? Again, something that ordinary people would notice. No, they need the constitutional majority in the Duma to change the duration of the presidential term.
    Leo, here is this stubborn truth: like it or not, this regime IS GENUINELY POPULAR in the country. Running on the sole purpose to trash it is a non-starter. Which part of this equation is so difficult to understand?
    Best,
    Eugene

  16. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    I am not sure any more where this thread is going. I was talking about opportunities (or lack thereof) for, let’s call them Naders of Russia, to exercise their constitutional rigths. What does this have to do with regime’s popularity (which I don’t remember ever disputing)? The way this non-systemic opposition is treated tells more about the regimes lack of confidence and preceived illegitimacy.
    All the best,
    Leo

  17. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Leo,
    Exercising constitutional rights means following the contry’s laws. The law requires 45,000 VALID signatures to get a political party registered. If you don’t have the signatures, you’re not getting registered. Period.
    Yes, it’s possible in contemporary Russia to rally up 20,000-30,000 people on the slogan “Down with the Putin regime.” However, it’s not enough to create a political party. That’s what it has to do with the regime’s popularity.
    All the best to you too,
    Eugene

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