The Headless Horseman

It has become conventional wisdom that the Russian opposition has no plan. So much conventional it appears that recently this claim was repeated by the star of the French cinema and newly-minted Russian citizen Gérard Depardieu, someone who can’t be a priori suspected in knowing much about Russian politics. Yet the rising star of political analysis confidently told the Rossiya 24 TV Channel that “[t]he opposition in Russia has no program–nothing at all.”

Conventional things are only useful for as long as they are periodically reassessed, and in this post, I want to reassess the conventional wisdom so eloquently articulated by monsieur Depardieu.

Let’s begin with the so-called systemic opposition, the one represented in the State Duma by the three minority parties: the Communist Party (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), and the Just Russia Party (SR). A brief examination of the party’s websites (something I can assist mon ami Depardieu with) reveals that all three include special sections named the Party Program: here is for KPRF, here is for the Liberal Democrats, and here is for Just Russia. Naturally, you can disagree with specific provisions in these programs–I, for one, disagree with the Communists’ assertion that capitalism leads Russia to the national catastrophe and the end of the Russian civilization–but you can’t say they don’t exist.

Political parties not represented in the Duma have their programs too. Here is a set of program documents of the liberal Yabloko Party; here is the program of the newly-registered Democratic Choice; here is the program of the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS). The last document is actually quite elaborate: it includes 105 specific demands organized in three major “goals.” Again, you can argue with every single of them, but you can’t say they don’t exist. Incidentally, the federal law on political parties (Article 16) lists presentation of a party program as a mandatory requirement for the party’s registration. That means that whatever number of Russian political parties (among 55 registered as of today) can be called “the opposition,” ALL of them have programs.

Of course, we all understand that critics of the opposition primarily target its so-called non-systemic part, a.k.a. “the street opposition.” These guys, the argument goes, don’t have any program, any plan. Don’t they really? Here is a webpage (“The Documents”) created by Sergei Udaltsov‘s Left Front movement. The page includes such sections as “The Political Platform of the Left Front,” a draft of the program and even specific goals of the Front for 2012. True, cold winds of October 1917 blow from the pages of these documents, but we all remember what happened back then. The Bolsheviks had a program; moreover, they had a plan.

Finally, my account won’t be complete without mentioning the Opposition Coordination Council, a motley group of political activists united only in their rabid opposition to the Kremlin. Barely three-month-old (it was formed by a public on-line vote in October 2012) and composed of only 45 people, the Council has already come up not with one, but two program statements, a fact reflecting more the lack of ideological coherency than the extreme productivity of its members. Yet, this is hardly a reason to claim that the “street opposition” has produced “nothing at all.”

Constantly accusing the opposition in having no plan naturally assumes that such a plan has been clearly articulated by the powers that be. More specifically, that the ruling United Russia party has a detailed and up-to-date plan addressing Russia’s most pressing problems. Does it really? In fact, it doesn’t. Here is a six-page, completely empty-worded document posted to the party’s registration page at the Ministry of Justice’s website. Composed in December 2001 (when United Russia was created) and obviously serving as a placeholder to satisfy the registration requirements, this “program” isn’t even posted to United Russia’s official website. Far from having a program that is better than the opposition’s, United Russia is the only Russian political party that doesn’t have a working party program. As mon petit Gérard would say: no program–nothing at all.

The perils of lacking actionable party program has been debated within United Russia for years, but privately, many in the party leadership have argued that the party didn’t need any program at all for as long as it could associate itself with a mysterious “Putin’s Plan,” a never published and reportedly never finalized bundle of political and economic ideas of Russian president Vladimir Putin. And here lies the real problem: like his “pedestal party,” Putin himself has no program and no plan. Having returned to the Kremlin shockingly unprepared to lead the country, all that Putin could offer was a twelve-year-old–and woefully inadequate today–slogan of “stability.”

Overwhelmed with joy about the weakness of the opposition, Russian political elites have forgotten important historic lesson: every government is as strong as strong the opposition it faces. That lacking, the government rapidly loses its agility, becomes sclerotic and eventually impotent. The string of idiotic laws coming out of the State Duma as of late–in a process resembling more diarrhea than lawmaking–is a clear evidence of such impotence.

Unfortunately, today’s Russia reminds me of the proverbial Headless Horseman: a huge country with the real problems and government that is unwilling–and, I’m afraid, incapable–of tackling them. By the way, don’t you think that if someone decided to make a new version of the “The Headless Horseman” movie, no one would have been better fit for the title part than Gérard Depardieu?

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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7 Responses to The Headless Horseman

  1. Fedia Kriukov says:

    United Russia isn’t the government. If you ask whether the Russian gov’t has a plan, don’t go to the UR web site, go to the web sites of various Russian ministries. They have TOO MANY plans.

    On the subject of the opposition, their plans for when they come to power are of little relevance because those clowns will never come to power. In order to look like they have a plan, they need to come up with sane and specific proposals for they want to change in Russia’s government, other than without unconstitutionally replacing the head of state. Now, I’ve seen plenty of micro-proposals from individual members of the opposition, but they need to bring those micro-proposals together into one coherent document and agree on them. Then they’ll have a plan. And maybe then they’ll have a few votes.

    But you do make a good point that the crap opposition contributes to crap government. At the same time, the cure has to lie with the opposition, not the gov’t. It’s not the gov’t’s responsibility to create a sane and competent opposition to itself. Unfortunately, I don’t see the prospect of a good opposition materializing between the corrupting influence of the west and the apathy (or rather, laziness) of the people any time soon. At the same time, I’m optimistic, because all of Russia’s recent history is about things changing for the better, not worse. Russia just needs more time.

  2. Eugene says:

    Comparing political parties–pro-government or opposition–with ministries is a classic example of comparing apples to oranges. The former are free unions of people with rights to express their views; the latter are state structures obliged to implement decisions of higher authorities (president, parliament, etc.). I compare comparable: political parties with political party. Besides, I claim that the highest executive of the country, the president, has no plan. And if he doesn’t, checking out “plans” of his multiple ministries is a waste of time.

    Here is again the party program of PARNAS:

    I’m not endorsing it, but many of its 105 articles are sane and quite specific; none calls for “unconstitutionally replacing the head of state.” They are brought together into a coherent document and approved by a party congress. Now, why is this not a plan?

    The government responsibility includes creating and maintaining conditions that ensure equal participation of every political union in the democratic process. With this in place, the opposition will take care of itself. Yet, I can’t call government responsible if it systematically tweaks rules of the political process in its favor.

    And this brings me again to my major point: the Kremlin doesn’t let the opposition to power not because the opposition doesn’t have a plan–as conventional “wisdom” suggests–but because the Kremlin doesn’t want to lose the monopoly for power. With all associated financial perks of this monopoly.

  3. Fedia Kriukov says:

    You’re simply forgetting that UR is a party that the gov’t formed, not the other way around. It doesn’t need a “plan”, because that would be just redundant. That’s why it’s your comparison that’s apples and oranges.

    Your claim that Putin doesn’t have a plan misses the mark. He’s already in power, his plan is what he does daily — i.e., he doesn’t need to draw up a wish list, he just goes ahead and implements what he wants. If you’re going to say that Putin doesn’t conduct any gov’t reforms, you’d be very wrong, wouldn’t you?

    On the issue of gov’t responsibility, I’m sorry, but you’re making this up. The gov’t responsibility in ensuring the preservation of democracy is typically proscribed in the constitution. If they’re not violating the constitution or any other laws, then what’s the problem? This whole discussion of the gov’t “not letting the opposition into power” is bordering on ludicrous. To get into power the opposition needs popular support, which it doesn’t have. If it did, the gov’t wouldn’t be able to hold it back. Please don’t claim that it’s the Kremlin machinations that keep the opposition from gaining popular support, I have a higher opinion of you than that. In general, is there any gov’t on the planet that lets the opposition into power when they don’t have to? Why are you holding the Russian gov’t to a different standard?

    Thanks for the example of an opposition “plan”. This is obviously open to debate, but I find only about 30% of the points “sane and specific”, and of those, probably half are already being implemented by Putin’s gov’t. Given that percentage, you can’t call the overall plan “sane and specific”. So the conventional wisdom of the opposition not having a plan is just that — wisdom without quotes. And even if they don’t have the overthrow of Putin in the “plan”, they call for it in their rallies. Which I admit is specific, but also insane.

  4. Eugene says:

    I’m not going to argue with you on the percentage of sane points in PARNAS’ program; after all, you have only quite limited time to look over it. The bottom line of our discussion is this: the opposition does have a plan, and it’s at least 30% sane. I take it.

    • Fedia Kriukov says:

      I guess I too will have to be satisfied with your unspoken admission that the Putin plan exists. As for the opposition plan, I don’t want to argue about terminology, but a plan that is 70% insane isn’t a plan. (And sorry for the late reply.)

  5. Dear Eugene,

    As you may know I recently had an eye operation so I am afraid I have not been keeping fully abreast of things. Apologies for that and for the flurry comments I am now going to inflict on you.

    I have to say that I basically agree with what Fedia is saying.

    We have discussed United Russia many times. As you know I don’t consider it to be really a party at all but more a rag bag of politicians cobbled together in the early 2000s to support the government. To expect such a politically amorphous force which cannot even agree on its own ideology or say whether it is a Left wing party or the Right wing party and which includes both former Soviet officials and right wing nationalists and even some liberals to have any sort of programme or plan is to expect the impossible.

    However if United Russia does not have a programme or a plan the same emphatically cannot be said about Putin. Since the only reason for United Russia’s existence is to support Putin its absence of a programme hardly matters. One could in fact go further and say that United Russia’s “programme” is its support for Putin. As for Putin, not only does he have a plan or programme but he has repeatedly set it out at what can only call fantastic length. He did it in his series of articles during the Presidential election and he was at it again only recently in his speech to the Federal Assembly and in his recent marathon press conference. What Putin said in the articles, the speech and the press conference are all essentially consistent with one another even if there are inevitable differences of nuance. Moreover as I have also previously said, Putin’s programme has not only been spelt out by him in extraordinary detail but it is also quite incredibly ambitious. I have serious doubts whether even the most transcendentally great politician could possibly see such an extraordinarily ambitious programme through.

    As to the overall direction, I would basically sum it up as follows:

    1. A strong emphasis on financial discipline, with an extreme aversion to debt financing and a long term commitment to monetary discipline, balanced budgets etc;

    2. Within those constraints a strongly interventionist even dirigiste economic policy with the state taking a leading role in industrial planning and infrastructure development but always within the context of a market economy;

    3. A very strong commitment to generous welfare spending together with a clear assumption of the state’s role and responsibility for fostering education and healthcare;

    4. An emphasis on patriotism and a strong defence combined however with a marked aversion to foreign adventures. This goes together with a certain tendency to support a moderately conservative social policy though this is an aspect of Putin’s programme that in my opinion is grossly over emphasised. Despite all the talk of family values etc there is no suggestion of restrictions being placed on divorce or of serious limits being put on abortion and there is nothing like the sort of culture wars we see in the US;

    5. A strong emphasis on political stability together with continued institution building. The latter is one aspect of Putin’s activity that gets far too little attention because political commentators are bored by it though it has been crucial to Putin’s success. There was another example today with the abolition of the post of Presidential Adviser in the context of a reorganisation of the Presidential Secretariat. As for the emphasis on political stability, given the enormous changes Russia has been through in the last quarter century (not to mention the century before that) it is completely unsurprising why Putin should emphasise it or why his doing so works so well for him or why supporters of more “reform” (or should that be “continuous revolution”?) get such a stony reception.

    Beyond this there is a mass of detail including suggestions for such things as introducing work councils in Russian companies on the German model, detailed proposals for language teaching, an ambitious demographic policy etc.

    One can argue about the merits of this programme but of its existence and of the overall thrust of policy there can be absolutely no doubt. Putin has consistently refused to define himself politically but by West European and even more by US standards this is a very Left wing stance and programme. All the evidence (including a recent sociological study carried out by a German institute) suggests that it corresponds closely with popular sentiment, which is why Putin is as politically dominant as he is.

  6. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    It was actually a news for me that you’ve had an eye surgery, and I do hope that you’ll fully recover. On my part, I’ll try not to torture you with long responses.

    Sure, we can endlessly argue on the merits of Putin’s program (or lack thereof). However, I made another point: that the Russian opposition too has a program, and in my opinion, this program is hardly worse than Putin’s and certainly better than UR’s, given that the latter doesn’t have it at all. This undermines the widespread opinion that the Kremlin has no one to talk to because the opposition “has no plan.” The fact is that the Kremlin is trying to preserve its monopoly for power and thus invents one argument after another to justify this.

    I truly believe in the power of a constructive political dialog, and such is lacking in Putin’s Russia.


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