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This last Sunday, Russia held its latest round of local elections. Ninety-three percent of the country’s regions (77 of 83) went to the ballot box to vote on mayors, regional parliaments, municipal authorities, and so on. Not surprisingly, United Russia won nearly everywhere, taking slightly more than half of all votes. Wading through the editorial moaning and collective sighing following this ‘national embarrassment,’ I noticed the following line in an article from Gazeta.ru:
Just as before, United Russia’s best results were in the regional periphery, and KPRF had its best results in cities, home to the younger and – most importantly – more educated voter.
This little statement is a hidden explosive; it runs counter to everything we hear about the Russian opposition and the future of Russian politics. Russia’s Communists and its smaller Leftist groups are the great untold story in Russian contemporary protests.
The faces of the anti-establishment are familiar enough: Ilya Yashin, Oleg Kozlovsky, Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Milov, etcetera and so on. These people are all either young themselves (like Yashin and Kozlovsky) or somehow associated with youth and the post-Soviet generation (like Nemtsov). All of them are ‘intelligentsia’ – members of a social class that Lenin once referred to as “not a nation’s mind, but a nation’s shit.” They are professional thinkers and organizers, authors and speech-givers.
As their popularity has dwindled, liberal groups have expanded the scope of their grievances. I distinctly remember being in Moscow in 2003 (before Khodorkovsky was arrested) and listening to a Russian university professor enumerate the key tenets of the Yabloko Party. The party’s goals included things like transparency in government and business, and a basic social safety net. The presentation (which was pure political propaganda from a card-carrying Yabloko member) was made to differentiate the party from SPS, another liberal group that (according to this professor) didn’t pursue social equality so much as promote laissez faire economics. Though SPS has since collapsed and Yabloko persistently refuses to merge with other like-minded groups, it’s worth noting that the rhetoric from this camp has become increasingly grand. Nemtsov and Chubais were once heads of the same party (SPS). Now the latter is a high ranking technocrat working for the Kremlin and the former blogs invectives against the “criminal state” under Vladimir Putin.
In the last decade, the face of the Russian opposition has changed – and it no longer belongs to the admittedly handsome Boris Nemtsov.
Who then are Russia’s brave new protesters?
The latest election results indicate that Russia’s opposition is urban and educated. Others, perhaps not mutually exclusively, draw the line by generation. Writing in Vedomosti last week, Mikhail Barshchevskii argued that the people born after the fall of the USSR are reaching political maturity. They favor market-friendly social spending, he says, sprinkled with impatience for government corruption (migalki, Anna Shavenkova) and national embarrassments like the winter Olympics. (Barshchevskii thought this makes Spravedlivaia Rossia the best candidate for an official opposition party – Russia’s elusive ‘missing link to a two-party system.’) There are other reasons to believe, however, that the opposition is actually fairly blue-collar. The New Times originally reported that the infamous “Putin Must Go” petition was supported mostly by middle class folks. But that analysis only addressed the first 6,475 signatures. A follow-up report on the first 35,000 signatures changed the picture dramatically: blue-collar support jumped from 4.95% to 23%. (White-collar signatures hovered around 10-12%.)
Writing yesterday in his Ekho Moskvy blog, Nemtsov oddly claimed that KPRF failed to improve its elections showing. (KPRF announced two days ago that, despite fraud, the elections demonstrated its growing appeal.) Not surprisingly, Nemtsov blamed the Communists for collaborating with the Kremlin (and responding poorly to the miners crisis in Raspadskaia earlier this year), and suggested that “Communist voters sensed the falsities and didn’t want to support them.” Nemtsov’s ill will toward KPRF’s leadership is understandable: earlier this year, Gennady Ziuganov, with limited success, forbade his Kaliningrad minions from protesting alongside Nemtsov and other Moscow liberals. Attacking KPRF (a perfectly legitimate enterprise) is the liberal version of ‘splitting the tandem,’ except replace ‘the tandem’ with ‘the largest and best organized opposition group.’ It’s in the interests of liberals that the local, on-the-ground wings of KPRF operate as independently as possible from the ‘collaborationist’ top echelons of the party. Such decentralization, after all, increases the odds that small-time Communists will collaborate with the liberals instead! Indeed, Kaliningrad, Samara, and countless other provincial, spontaneous protests have demonstrated that this does happen.
So what is the face of Russia’s real opposition? Op-ed columnists writing from the East Coast of the United States would like to think that Russia’s opposition is rooted in liberal intellectuals. These are the people who provide the counterpoint quotes for their articles. These are the people who made history under Yeltsin. They frequent Washington, DC, and speak fluent English. Indeed, any one of Nemtsov’s blog posts is packed with important-sounding declarations like the first sentence of yesterday’s post: “Yesterday on October 10th, in six regional parliamentary elections, the United Russia party of thieves and traitors won handily.” Nemtsov and three other bigwigs recently announced the umpteenth liberal political coalition: “the Party of People Freedom” (Partiia narodnoi svobody). Last week, he and Milov released a YouTube Frontline-style version of their anti-Putin text.
And then there is the Communist Party. Co-opted, shriveled, and supposedly graying, KPRF enjoys good returns in cities. Younger members of the Left, like AKM leader Sergei Udal’tsov, have scored big opposition points with protest-institutions like ‘the Day of Rage.’ Ziuganov and the Communists announced yesterday that they refuse to acknowledge the election results in three cities (Krasnodar, Chapaevsk, and Tyva). Like good democrats, they’re preparing to submit a complaint to the European Court.
All this begs the question: with Communists like these, who needs the liberals?