Russia’s pro-democracy movement: splitting before uniting

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Opposition conferences took place in St. Petersburg and Moscow on April 5 and 6.

Activists gathered for the “New Agenda for the Pro-Democracy Movement” conference on Saturday, April 5 at the Angleterre Hotel near St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. As the Vremya Novostei newspaper reports, this event was mostly attended by members of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), Yabloko, the deregistered Republican Party of Russia (RPR), the United Civil Front, and the People’s Democratic Union. The conference was yet another attempt to unite pro-democracy forces into a new movement.

As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, there was no agreement on tactics, let alone strategy. For example, Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky called on pro-democracy activists to abandon division into parties or “any form of political association requiring official registration” – and thus abandon participation in present-day elections according to the Kremlin’s rules.

But SPS leader Nikita Belykh, according to Kommersant, spoke out in favor of “reloading the pro-democracy forces” and establishing a unified pro-democracy party. True, he did admit that even if the pro-democracy forces do manage to reach agreement, it’s unlikely that they could make the authorities take them into account. Therefore, Belykh proposed considering an alliance with left-wing forces.

Boris Nemtsov, who has suspended his SPS membership, proposed that the pro-democracy forces should change “from sprinters to stayers” – setting their sights on 2020. Kommersant quotes Nemtsov as saying that in the meantime, they should focus on “raising awareness, fighting for free trade unions, and exposing Putin’s crimes.”

The conference concluded by adopting a Political Declaration for the Unified Pro-Democracy Movement of Russia and a resolution calling on all democrats to form an alliance in the battle for broad-ranging European-style political reforms. The Declaration emphasizes that this movement is not intended to destroy or take over any existing pro-democracy forces; it is supposed to be an arena for “maximally broad consolidation.” It was also decided to hold a series of regional pro-democracy conferences, and a Congress of Pro-Democracy Forces in September. A coordination group of 12 people was established for this purpose, and Fontanka.ru has already dubbed them “the Apostles.” The group is holding its first meeting on April 11 to work out a preparations plan for the congress.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the conference of radical leftist movements on April 6 boiled down to internal disputes. The attitude to the right-wing camp was stated immediately and unambiguously. National Bolshevik Party (NBP) leader Eduard Limonov said: “A coalition with the bourgeois parties would be a tactical alliance, not an ideological alliance.”

All the same, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes, the leftists sounded remarkably open to alliances. “I’d even be prepared to work with Novodvorskaya if that would do some good,” said Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Red Youth Vanguard (AKM).

There was a heated debate over the need to establish a Left Front based on the NBP (a banned party), the AKM, the Russian Communist Youth Union (RKSM), and other movements.

In an article for Grani.ru, Eduard Limonov said: “Udaltsov proposed what amounted to establishing the Left Front then and there. Darya Mitina (RKSM secretary) didn’t agree immediately, adding reproachfully that a Left Front would never work without the NBP. Udaltsov kept silent, since he clearly doesn’t want to cooperate with the NBP in establishing the Left Front. And the NBP doesn’t want to join the Left Front either, since that would mean having to work for everyone else and getting involved in exhausting debates with the leftists.”

Novaya Gazeta reports that the leftist conference took a critical view of the Communist Party (CPRF): organizers and participants agreed that this party is “totally ineffective” and “merely pretending to be in opposition” while actually cooperating with the authorities.

The conference elected a hundred delegates to the new National Assembly – an opposition shadow parliament. Eduard Limonov told Novaya Gazeta: “Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov once said that our country’s parliament is no place for debate. But we want to create a place for debate. That is the purpose of the National Assembly. We’ll have to wait and see what else it can do, since that will depend on the climate.”

As RIA Novosti reports, Limonov also proposed a “non-aggression pact” for “left-wing opposition forces and the opposition as a whole, including the liberal forces.”

Experts say that any new pro-democracy movement will encounter a number of problems. The first problem concerns a long-running argument over whether the pro-democracy forces can or should cooperate with the socialist left opposition in fighting for general democratic demands. In an article for Grani.ru, rights activist Alexander Skobov points out that many speakers at the pro-democracy conference said that this kind of cooperation is possible and necessary. However, no mention was made of this in the resolution adopted at the end of the conference. Skobov concludes that “the liberals don’t really want any non-liberal allies.”

Alexander Skobov: “Worst of all, the draft resolution goes along with old prejudices long established among the liberals: it identifies ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ as synonymous concepts. The only democratic force recognized by the authors is the liberal opposition – that is, themselves. All non-liberals are denied the right to call themselves democrats.”

Skobov maintains that if the word “democrat” is used in its original sense, then a communist or a nationalist can be a democrat too – as long as he doesn’t aim to suppress the opposition after coming to power, for the sake of the “higher interests” of class or nation.

This view is challenged by Andrei Kolesnikov, deputy editor-in-chief of The New Times, writing for RIA Novosti: “Leftists can only be democrats in a very narrow, street-hooligan sense of the term. Their ideology is totalitarian, and if the leftists ever come to power they would tighten the screws much more than the present-day state capitalist regime.”

Kolesnikov agrees with Skobov that being an economic liberal is not enough to be considered a democrat. However, says Kolesnikov, “you can’t be a true democrat without being an economic liberal, since the two kinds of liberty – economic and political – are difficult to achieve separately.”

Kolesnikov’s conclusion: “Sooner or later, the New Agenda forces will have to split before they can unite.”

The second problem, according to the journalist, concerns how the left-wing liberals and right-wing liberals regard the 1990s. The leftist liberals view the 1990s as a decade of criminalization, when the Motherland was sold off and oligarchic capitalism was established. The right-wing liberals view the 1990s as the decade of reforms that laid the foundations for the relative economic prosperity of today. The journalist regards this as an insurmountable difference.

According to Skobov, Russia is taking the same path that Argentina and Brazil took in the last quarter of the 20th Century: “In the late 1970s and early 1980s, politics in those countries resembled politics in Russia today: executive branch dictatorship, tame parliaments, elections resembling plebiscites and accompanied by administrative and police abuses, pressure on the opposition and the independent press, artificial attempts to create a ‘compact’ party system, and so on.”

Skobov points out that a stronger middle class played a significant role in the triumph of democracy in Argentina and Brazil. The middle class was kept out of politics in the military dictatorship years, so it fought for its rights at the micro-level: acting locally and addressing specific grass-roots problems. The end of military rule was preceded by rapid development of clubs and associations, comprising what is known as civil society, and mostly uniting members of the middle class. At a certain point, the activities of these organizations turned political; they demanded a voice in state decisions, and the military rulers had to surrender power to civilian governments.

A similar situation with the middle class is now taking shape in Russia. The New Times notes that the number of “informal” groups is growing as people unite to defend their rights without help from the state or “tame” non-governmental organizations. This conclusion is presented in “Public Associations of a New Type,” a report presented at a forum organized by the Liberal Mission Foundation.

The researchers studied 228 associations in Moscow and the Moscow region, St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region, and cities along the Volga and in the Russian Far East.

What kind of issues are leading people to unite? The environment; housing and everything associated with it; helping the underprivileged; socio-economic rights and the rights of small business owners; rights to education and health-care; preserving ethnic cultures and historical landmarks; the rights of car owners and drivers. In other words, people are striving to ensure that the authorities observe their elementary rights.

The New Times maintains that the potential base for such movements is half of Russia’s working-age population.

As Moskovskii Korrespondent reports, a particularly relevant piece of advice for the pro-democracy forces was delivered at the St. Petersburg conference by Youth Yabloko leader Ilya Yashin: “Glamorous snobbery should be burned out with red-hot iron.” Indeed, recent months have seen a trend among liberal speakers and columnists – statements to the effect that there must be something wrong with the Russian people if they don’t support the liberal and democratic forces. Moskovskii Korrespondent points out that anyone who takes that view has no hope of influencing the masses.

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