Russia’s opposition demonstration scheduled for March 5th was supposed to have been the defining moment in the chain of events started by the mass protests of December of last year. Nothing of any substance occurred, however. Furthermore, instead of a crescendo it popped and fizzled. Of course half a year ago the collection of tens of thousands of people at Pushkin Square would have been a sensation; however the fact that there had been hundreds of thousands of people protesting across Moscow made this mob look modest. It was a testament to the demobilization of the mass-movement.
Having repeated the same words once more – about the corrupt regime, pouring bile onto Vladimir Putin, and calling citizens out to do battle, the organizers of the demonstration quietly dispersed. A few radicals who had waited until the majority of people had left the square then held their own mini-demonstration by the fountain. Drawing their strength from several hundred supporters, before whom they announced their readiness to settle in Pushkin Square and to stay there until the criminal regime apparently realizes all the horror and hopelessness of its position, hands them the keys to the Kremlin and go away on its own. The night spent sitting about in the cold March winds clearly threatened the participants of this action with colds and even pneumonia, however their potential ailments were prevented by “benevolent” law enforcement officials who twisted their arms, brought them into warm, enclosed spaces, and subsequently let them go home.
It seems that this time the liberal publicist Denis Dragunsky was right: history repeats itself not twice, but three times. The first time it was in the form of a tragedy, the second time in the form of a farce, and the third time for fools. Rather, the inability of the Russian opposition leaders to understand or learn anything is so phenomenal that even this humiliating defeat is unlikely to cause them to change anything in their actions.
The lessons of the last two months are painfully obvious; and what is most insulting is that they were completely predictable. The reluctance of opposition leaders to develop and grow the protest leads to the movement’s decline. Their intention to keep around them, regardless of what would happen, the widest spectrum of forces, precluded their ability to formulate even the semblance of a constructive program, which in turn led to a narrowing of the social base of the protests and to the demoralization of its participants. It all boiled down to a personal insult of Putin, in whom they saw the sole and single cause to all their ills and evils. Political slogans were limited to cries of theft and corruption. It was already impossible to motivate a society awakened from political apathy with such primitive and abstract slogans. However, the most important contributing factor in the opposition’s political suicide was their attitude towards the presidential elections.
On the evening of December 4th, when the powers that be announced Putin’s victory, the moral leader of the opposition demonstrations, Boris Akunin, announced that the extent of the fraud was not of great importance (analysts agree that there were indeed violations, and they were quite significant, however, even without them Putin would have won more than half of the votes.) It is impossible to recognize this election as legitimate simply because initially it was not free and the sitting government picked and nominated candidates for the opposition. They acted as a troupe of backup singers next to a lone soloist, emphasizing his advantages and illustrating the main thesis of the official propaganda, that there were no alternatives to Putin. So then the elections were not free from the very beginning, nor were they democratic or legitimate. Why then was it necessary to wait out the entire election to recognize this obvious fact? With regard to such an election boycott is the only morally and politically justifiable position. Only such a position provided the foundation for calm and confident discourse regarding the refusal to recognize the results of the election. Only such a position provided the opportunity to systematically introduce general agitation during the span of the entire pre-election campaign; without reviewing slogans and decisions, nor demobilizing supporters following the completion of the election, nor worrying too much about the conclusions of the election committee or what the video cameras set up at the polling stations showed. It is important to note that the populations of the capitals, which had endured the experiences of December and February’s mass protests spontaneously submitted themselves to just such a position; Moscow and St. Petersburg experienced rather low voter turnout. Even the official numbers, inflated as they may be, showed a sharp decline in voter activity (less than 50%.) However, this did not occur as a result of the opposition’s agitation, but in spite of it!
The one and only political argument made by opponents of the boycott consisted of the assertion that indeed such tactics are “ineffective.” Just how effective their tactics were was plain for all of us to see on March 5th when the decline in protestors became apparent as a mathematical fact, and this was juxtaposed against the backdrop of popular discontent when, in the words of one of my students, “irritation was sparking in the subway stations.” The question, however, is what is it that we have in mind when discussing political effectiveness? If the discussion is about overthrowing the government, then under the current system it is something simply impossible to do in Russia through an election. Indeed in this sort of situation a boycott could not produce any kind of results; in the exact same manner as any other tactic could not.
The elections in Russia are especially planned and carried out in such a way that, no matter how one tries, it is impossible for anyone to win them other than the current government. However, if the goal of the agitation was to expose the system, if it was imperative to demonstrate the categorical rejection of an imitation of democracy, if it was important to consolidate supporters and raise moral capital, then the boycott was not just an effective method, it was truly the only effective method. Moreover, the boycott campaign did not preclude the work of organizations which were monitoring the elections whose goals were not a correct vote count for each candidate but instead the battle against ballot stuffing
It was a boycott that the opposition feared more than anything else, and liberal politicians did their utmost to not even utter the word. If one tenth of the effort spent on anti-boycott propaganda was spent somewhere else then the picture on March 5th would have been dramatically different. However, the leaders of the opposition on the street were not ready to decisively break ranks with the official opposition which, in turn, offered nothing new and was much like an institution of the existing system. For their part, those on the left feared nothing more than a schism with the liberals and as a result initially closed the door on even the possibility of a united stance on the elections as it would undoubtedly lead to a division among the leaders of the “civil protest.” The liberals relied on opposition Presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov. As a result an active campaign calling for a boycott would mean conflict with them. In contrast, support for other candidates was not viewed as a threat by liberal leaders. After all, left leaning voters were rather unlikely to cast their ballots for a billionaire who gained notoriety for his desire to institute in Russia a 60-hour workweek. Howeve,r those voices could have still been counted as being anti-Putin. In their support for other opposition candidates Mironov and Zyuganov, those on the left spoke out against Prokhorov in much the same way that Mironov and Zyuganov spoke out against Putin. As a result the left was left going back and forth between two mutually exclusive choices, some supported Zyuganov, others Mironov. A third category urged not voting and a fourth did nothing at all.
In this sense there was a very indicative pre-election editorial piece published in the newspaper The Socialist with the headline: “Not a Single Vote for Putin!” From this head slogan it can be logically deduced that there is no problem in voting for Prokhorov the billionaire, however, further into the article, in the fine print, the authors explain that voting for him, or any other “right-wing candidate” for that matter, is not necessary either. How, yet, to treat candidates who present themselves as being on the “left?” On this point the text of the article becomes quiet murky and muddled, leaving the reader completely confused. On the one hand it doesn’t really make too much sense to support them; on the other hand they are better than Putin after all. Most importantly however, don’t waste a vote on a member of the government, the rest you can figure out on your own. I have to admit that the most honest position came from Sergei Udaltsov the leader of Left Front. He openly supported Zyuganov. The “ultra left” Victor Ampilov gained fame from the fact that he called on people to vote for Presidential candidate Zhirinovsky. It is not surprising then that in the collapse of the liberal strategy the left not only failed to earn them any points but did quite the opposite, they further weakened their position in the civil movement. Momentarily escaping from their marginalized ghetto they demonstrated that they are not yet ready to function out in the wider world. Trembling before independence and responsibility, they confirmed that their desire to attach themselves to someone else superseded any of their principles and even proved to be more powerful than the logic of political rationality.
On March 6th historian Vasily Zharkov wrote the following on his Facebook wall, “A young, pretty, lively and sociable protest movement seeks a new program, leaders and supporters.” To a large extent this formula represents the political conclusions come to by the hundreds of thousands of participants of protests and demonstrations who have had three months of political lessons. Having become a landmark triumph against the opposition, March 5th is Pyrrhic victory for the government, as the Kremlin neither has answers for country’s problems nor the resources to deal with the impending second wave of the global crisis. The social base for the ruling group continues to shrink, gaps between the elites cannot be bridged, and the press is out of control. By maneuvering and promising reforms the government only complicates and confuses its situation. The pre-election promises made by the government contradict each other, do not fit into the budget, and irritate the public with their obvious impossibility. A revolutionary situation in Russia remains a reality.
Such a situation guarantees that regardless of the failures of the opposition, the waves of protests will rise again. We still remain in the ascending phase of a political crisis and the reasons for protest will not diminish. Aware of this fact, the leaders of the opposition, including its leftist elements, will not work on rectifying any of their mistakes. They are not learning a thing nor will they. Society on the whole however is quite another matter. The spontaneous resistance to the election by millions of residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg speaks volumes. This societal audit must be completed. This civil movement must be reconstructed anew, from the bottom and from the left.