A House Divided: the Russian Opposition & the 2011 Elections

As chatter among observers of Russian politics reaches a crescendo on the ‘Putin or Medvedev’ presidential question, another tournament quickly approaches. On December 4, 2011, the 450 seats in Russia’s parliament are up for grabs in national elections. Now that the Justice Ministry has rejected the official registration of the liberal party PARNAS, Russia’s democratic opposition faces a familiar crisis: what should its supporters do on election day?

Navalny's Option

While it remains unclear who among the dissidents enjoys the greatest support, the opposition’s loudest voices and biggest personalities are now in a full-scale war of ideas over what must be done come December. Roughly two weeks ago, on July 15, Grani.ru compiled a very useful list of comments by noteworthy public figures on this very subject. I have read each of the larger stories from which those excerpts were taken, and compiled my own collection of summaries. I’ve eliminated some superfluous characters, and I’ve organized the list by supporters, in order to avoid the confusion of Grani.ru’s original text, which combined supporters and opponents in the same categories.

I hope this will be of use to readers trying to understand the current direction of the opposition’s internal debate on electoral tactics.

The proposals boil down to five different strategies, four of which are very similar in essence. The fifth option, commonly known as “Navalny’s Option,” stands alone as the only plan that advocates actual voting. Let’s review the five strategies:

  • (Passive) Boycott
  • “Spoiling” Ballots
  • Removing Ballots from the Voting Stations
  • Limonov’s Option
  • Navalny’s Option

The idea of a boycott (which critics usually modify with the word “passive”) is the simplest election strategy. It merely involves avoiding the voting stations altogether, though some also stress the need for street protests on election day. “Spoiling ballots” entails registering to vote, going to the voting booth on election day, and then invalidating one’s own ballot by writing some kind of political statement in place of an actual vote. People too uncomfortable with or uncreative for the need to author a unique statement are advised to simply cross out the names of all the candidates. Removing ballots from the voting stations is a sort of combination of boycotting and spoiling, as it involves registering, going to the booths, but then exiting with one’s ballot in hand. Supporters of this tactic sometimes promote the idea of burning or destroying the ballot publicly, before an audience of journalists preferably. Limonov’s Option, called such because he appears to be one of its few proponents, involves going to the voting station and publicly demanding to be removed from the voters’ list. Finally, Navalny’s Option, known by the phrase “Not One Vote to the Party of Crooks and Thieves,” actually advocates voting for an officially registered political party — any party, other than United Russia.

Before getting to the individuals for and against these plans, however, it’s worth studying Aleksandr Artem’ev’s electoral autobiography. A journalist and a member of Solidarnost’, Artem’ev says:

In 2004, I took my ballot with me [from the voting station]. In 2007, I voted for the suddenly recovered party SPS. In 2008, I spoiled my ballot, writing, ‘Thanks, we’ll take it from here.’ And in the 2009 Moscow city elections, I gave my single-mandate vote to a Communist and again spoiled my ballot for the party lists.

Grani.ru wisely placed Artem’ev outside the five strategies. He landed in a quasi-category titled “Anything, As Long As It’s Together.” His experience runs the gamut of oppositionist tactics, though it only dates back seven years. In other words, the current infighting among dissidents is not new.

That said, it remains important to know who among the opposition is working with whom, as this information is necessary for tracking the growing and shrinking influences of the movement’s various (often competing) leaders. As we’ll see, more than a few oppositionist actors appear to have united around different election strategies based in part on personal political ambitions.

I draw the reader’s attention to Aleksandr Ryklin, Garry Kasparov, and Leonid Volkov (each discussed below). Kasparov represents an older generation of oppositionists, committed to moral struggle, but grown too suspicious of the authorities to consider working within the system. Volkov specifically acknowledges the generational component of today’s dissident infighting, respectfully but forcefully breaking from liberalism’s ‘Old Guard.’ Ryklin, on the other hand, attacks Vladimir Milov for promoting himself over the interests of the movement as a whole. Ryklin’s criticism, of course, has universal applicability to all politicians, Russian or otherwise, and we can expect to see more debates and squabbles with a similar flavor, if the opposition fails to consolidate behind any one strategy.

(Passive) Boycott

Stanislav Belkovsky (Political scientist, Journalist, ‘Other Russia’ activist)

Belkovsky wants to counter the Popular Front with a ‘Popular Rear Guard.’ The concept of the ‘Narodnyi Tyl‘ is based somewhat sarcastically on Medvedev’s regular emphasis on technology (specifically the Internet) and moving Russia toward more direct democracy. The Popular Rear Guard is not a political party, and Belkovsky does not favor voting in the official elections. Indeed, boycotting the elections is something he’s advocated in the past, previously lobbying the Communists (unsuccessfully) to withdraw from the ballot. (Incidentally, Aleksei Navalny, when he was still stumping in the NAROD movement, joined Belkovsky in this failed effort.)

Belkovsky compares the elections to a soccer match, the result of which interests no one. Contrary to Navalny’s Option, he argues that voting for any of the officially registered parties actually strengthens — not weakens — the regime’s grip on power. Turnout and the election’s results, Belkovsky insists, are already predetermined, meaning that a boycott won’t assist United Russia in any way, as the vote tally is unalterable. The Kremlin lacks the finesse to manage a truly multiparty system and will “wield a sledgehammer” to defend United Russia’s constitutional majority in the Duma.

Aleksei Kondaurov (Journalist, KPRF member)

Kondaurov advocates a boycott in order to “to give oneself a clear conscience” and make the right “aesthetic and moral choice.” He argues that the current regime won’t survive long past 2012 (even if oil prices jump to $300 per barrel), and that it will be important to have been on the right side of Russia’s current time of troubles. This ‘question of history’ rationale is similar to Andrei Piontkovsky’s ‘historical short-run’ reasons for a boycott (discussed below).

Sergei Udal’tsov (Leader of Levyi Front)

Udal’tsov describes the rejection of PARNAS’ registration as a sort of last straw for the opposition. The time for “endless maneuvering and [self-]embedding into the system” is over, he declares, explaining: “the higher the turnout, the higher the Duma’s legitimacy.” Udal’tsov prefers large street demonstrations, ideally combined with some kind of Internet-orchestrated ‘alternate election’ to fill a “People’s Parliament” shadow government. “If you come to the square [to protest], it means you’ve voted,” he argues.

Andrei Piontkovsky (Journalist)

Piontkovsky draws five conclusions about United Russia: (1) it has no illusions about its own corruption; (2) its members understand that the party is doomed to collapse in the historical short-run; (3) the regime is rotten to such a degree that it’s incapable of internal “evolution”; (4) the regime has two options: leaving the country voluntarily or being forced out by legal investigations; and (5) the latter option becomes more likely as the regime “ossifies” further with the 2011 and 2012 “farce elections.” (Quick note: point number four gets into an August 2010 debate that Piontkovsky had with Yuri Mukhin over the concepts of “Vorobskoi parakhod” and “Osinovoi kol,” representing respectively voluntary and involuntary exile for the regime’s leaders.)

Piontkovsky’s bottom line is that a “responsible opposition” must not participate in the elections, which he calls “a thieves’ farce.”

“Spoiling” Ballots

Boris Nemtsov (PARNAS, Solidarnost’)

Simply not voting, Nemtsov believes, is too passive a tactic, as it does nothing to publicize the opposition’s reason for refusing to vote. Instead, he advocates the ‘spoiling’ strategy, introducing the slogan “Cross out the thieving authorities!” (ПОСТАВЬ КРЕСТ НА ВОРОВСКОЙ ВЛАСТИ!). Nemtsov directly rejects Navalny’s Option because it “sustains the myth of the elections’ legitimacy,” arguing: “[Establishing] the elections’ illegitimacy will much sooner lead to the collapse of the regime of crooks and thieves than another one or two extra seats [in the Duma] for the Communists or LDPR.”

Nemtsov successfully lobbied both PARNAS and Solidarnost’ to adopt the slogan: “Not one vote to the Party of Crooks and Thieves, to Its Leaders, or Its Satellites” (НИ ОДНОГО ГОЛОСА ПАРТИИ ЖУЛИКОВ И ВОРОВ, ЕЕ ЛИДЕРУ И САТЕЛЛИТАМ). This strategy borrows the first part of Navalny’s Option, riding the popularity of the ‘ЖиВ’ formula, without actually urging dissidents to vote.

Vladimir Ryzhkov (PARNAS, Republican Party of Russia)

Ryzhkov believes that the abolition of a minimum voter turnout for valid elections, along with the removal of an ‘against all’ option from ballots, has left the opposition “with no other option” but spoiling its ballots. If it could manage to disqualify 15-20% of the total number of ballots, he argues, dissidents would succeed in “revealing the voters’ [true] relationship to the authorities.”

Il’ia Yashin (Solidarnost’)

“The main short coming of [Navalny’s option],” Yashin argues, “is that it legitimizes the authorities and the elections.” It says to the world that Russians consent to the censorship of TV, to the rejection of true opposition parties, and the political monopoly of United Russia. “The Putin Regime,” he continues, “has survived its hardest days thanks to illusions” and “fantasies” about “thaw” and “liberalization.” The current hopes — for an empowered Medvedev, a future pardon for Khodorkovsky, and a reinvigorated parliament, reinstated as a ‘place for discussion’ — are nothing but more fantasy, according to Yashin.

Like Egypt before it, Russia has ‘voting’ but no ‘elections.’ True Russian political freedom will presumably have to be won in the streets, as well.

Aleksandr Ryklin (Editor of Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal)

According to Ryklin, though there are subtle (and sometimes even significant) differences existing between establishment candidates and parties, none of it means anything in “the shameful [elections] procedure imposed on us by the authorities.” He prefers the ‘spoiling’ tactic because defiling a ballot is impossible to interpret as “participation in the farce” and “automatically becomes an [act of] protest.”

Calling election day a “holiday of the Putin political system,” Ryklin points out that PARNAS might very well have decided not to participate in the December elections, even if the Justice Ministry had agreed to register the party. He also takes a few shots at Vladimir Milov, whose movement ‘DemVybor’ has threatened to split from PARNAS, if it refuses to field a unified liberal candidate in the 2012 presidential race. (Ryklin notes that Milov is clearly advocating his own candidacy.)

Mikhail Shneider (Solidarnost’)

Shneider cites Article 82, Clause 4, from Federal Law 51 ‘on the Election of Duma Deputies,’ stating that all federal candidates’ lists must receive at least 60% of all votes — otherwise the election is invalidated. He believes that, when combined with the number of Russians who express interest in selecting an ‘against all’ option, the opposition could theoretically organize 40% of the electorate to spoil its ballots.

Echoing Ryzhkov, Shneider argues that spoiling just 15-20% of the ballots would be enough to “bring the nation out from its hibernation.”

Segei Davidis (Human rights activist)

Davidis acknowledges that Navalny’s Option has some appeal. Even if the official parties are controlled by the Kremlin, they have to adopt anti-establisment rhetoric when appealing to the public during election season, inadvertently nurturing the “disillusionment of citizens.” Davidis even draws parallels to perestroika-era Poland, where purely “decorative” official parties flocked to Solidarity as soon as elections liberalized only slightly in 1989.

Ultimately, however, he believes that voting for the registered opposition parties will mainly legitimize the elections, further propping up the regime and delaying its collapse. After parsing and ranking these varying protest tactics, Davidis ironically concludes that — above all else — the most important thing for the democratic opposition is a consolidated, uniform protest strategy. (If that doesn’t work out, a unified slogan could help the cause, as well.)

Removing Ballots from Voting Stations

Evgeny Chichvarkin (Entrepreneur, anti-corruption activist)

Chichvarkin says he would like to go to the voting booth, take a ballot, and “wipe his ass” with it. “There will be no change,” he concludes ominously, singing a rhyming ditty that translates to: “Elections – elections, candidates – shitheads.”

Garry Kasparov (United Civil Front)

Kasparov makes one of the sharpest criticisms of Navalny’s Option, calling it a veiled promotion of nothing other than Pravoe Delo, the “new liberal dummy, designed to neutralize the negative effect of [Putin’s] dictatorship.” Voting for the official opposition “falsely presupposes some level of oppositionness in the Kremlin-registered political parties,” he argues.

Limonov’s Option asks too much “civil courage” of common citizens, presenting too many personal dangers and organizational complications. (Kasparov confesses to no such fears about the ‘removing ballots’ scheme, emphasizing that there’s nothing illegal about it — though Limonov’s Option is not likely criminal in any way, either.)

Like Udal’tsov, Kasparov urges that official election results cannot be the gauge of the democratic opposition’s success — it must be measured by public demonstrations “against the occupying regime.”

Oleg Kolzlovsky (Oborona)

Kozlovsky points out that Navalny’s Option, even if successful, allows too many interpretations. If the strategy is able to boost the representation of KPRF, for instance, what’s to stop the world from concluding simply that Russia suddenly shifted to the Left politically? (Indeed, growing support for KPRF in urban areas has already raised this debate.)

Spoiled ballots, on the other hand, are merely redistributed as Duma seats to the various parties crossing the 7% vote threshold — meaning that this strategy also fails, as it deprives the authorities of nothing.

Removing ballots from voting stations, Kozlovsky argues, will affect the difference between the number of ballots handed out and the number received — and this is a statistic that the Central Election Committee officially releases. In other words, oppositionists could use this figure as a de facto stand-in for the ‘against all’ option.

Limonov’s Option

Eduard Limonov (Writer, ‘Other Russia’ and ‘NatsBol’ activist)

Because there are no parties on the ballot that reflect his political convictions, Limonov vows to go to the voting station and demand to have his name removed from the voters’ list. He intends to “document” this act publicly somehow.

Unlike any passive boycott, Limonov insists that his option produces a “demonstrative boycott” that fulfills one’s “duties as a citizen.”

Similar to Aleksandr Artem’ev, Limonov says:

I’ve participated in many election boycott campaigns where different political forces urged people to adopt different forms of protest. The result was always the same: a zero effect. And all because it was impossible to measure any of these forms of boycott.

Navalny’s Option

Aleksei Navalny (Lawyer, blogger, activist)

“For some reason,” Navalny writes humbly, “this strategy got the name ‘Navalny’s option’ and is discussed under that term, though I don’t pretend to have authored the idea, or to have any exclusive rights on it. It’s quite clear that many people were talking about it long before me.” Navalny has approvingly cited and quoted the work of Aleksandr Kynev (discussed below), who has linked the ‘get out the vote’ campaign to the anti-corruption battle against the influence of the North Caucasus.

Vladimir Milov (PARNAS, DemVybor)

Like Shneider and Ryzhkov, Milov claims that his preferred strategy “could mean big changes for the country,” saying that Navalny’s Option is capable of reducing United Russia’s Duma representation to below 50%. “So you don’t like these [official] parties?” he asks, “I don’t like them either. But you’re allowed to close your eyes [when you vote]. None of this is important today. Only the result is important.”

Like Navalny, Milov argues that it doesn’t matter which parties (other than United Russia) get the opposition’s votes. Presumably, people like Navalny and Milov are hesitating to make direct endorsements because it surrenders the spotlight to other political actors. It’s also possible, I suppose, that oppositionists don’t want to appear to be ‘in the pockets’ of Kremlin-controled parties. (Despite this caution, Milov has singled out Yabloko and Pravoe Delo as ‘lesser evil’ best options.)

Evgeniia Chirikova (Defense of Khimki Forrest)

Khimki Forrest’s protector, Evgeniia Chirikova, says she’ll close her eyes in the voting booth and pick any of United Russia’s opponents at random. With this announcement, she also stressed the need to organize monitoring activities on election day.

Leonid Volkov (Ekaterinburg duma deputy, PARNAS)

Volkov criticizes his own movement PARNAS for endorsing Nemtsov’s plan to ‘spoil’ ballots, calling the decision “childish.”

“Navalny’s Option has a political rationale,” Volkov explains, “whereas all other options [amount to] political impotence, no matter how beautiful the symbolic meaning is that’s invested into a boycott of the elections.” Addressing the opposition’s frequent resort to moral symbolism and philosophical extrapolation, he adds: “And stop already with the talk that participating in the elections is ‘legitimizing’ them. From the perspective of the authorities, these elections are already legitimate and will be such regardless of our participation in them.” Meanwhile, from the international perspective, Russia’s elections are already illegitimate, making any boycotts entirely superfluous.

Similar to Milov, Volkov notes that he’ll be voting for Pravoe Delo in the federal elections and KPRF in the regional elections (depending on the individuals who ultimately join their tickets).

He also synthesizes a particularly damning criticism of Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, and Kasyanov, who for Volkov embody the Old Guard of the democratic opposition. Despite their enduring authority and respectability, these figures “have already had their time,” Volkov concludes. He then unsubtly implies that politicians like Navalny and Milov — younger men with Internet savvy — represent the opposition’s future.

Aleksandr Kynev (Foundation for the Development of Information Policy)

Kynev offers one of the most elaborate arguments in favor of Navalny’s Option. His thesis is that the mechanism by which Duma seats are allocated is the engine of election falsification. In regional elections, authorities have some interest in allowing local parliaments “of balanced composition,” for practical concerns and the sake of image. In federal elections, political competition is less between parties than it is between regions. The number of seats a region receives is dependent on the absolute number of votes a party receives inside its territory. Thus, higher competition reduces the turnout for individual parties, reducing the region’s overall representation in the Duma.

(Boris Nadezhdin has produced charts on the Caucasus Effect, as well: http://echo.msk.ru/blog/bornad/792396-echo/)

Because urban centers are home to a more opposition-leaning, better educated electorate, it is in the Kremlin’s interests to suppress turnout in the cities. In the provinces — particularly in the North Caucasus, where election irregularities are rampant and United Russia’s monopoly is best enforced — the Kremlin seeks to maximize turnout.

Kynev believes that United Russia’s fallen popularity today makes a repetition of the 2007 elections impossible without a “total falsification” this December. The Popular Front “clearly indicates that trust in the system is in big trouble. Otherwise, there would be no sense in the creation of any kind of ‘Front’ and recruitment of whole railroad and postal services.”

It’s no surprise that Kynev appeals to guys like Navalny and Milov, both of whom have flirted with the idea of combining liberalism and nationalism. Kynev concludes his analysis with a phrase that undoubtedly appeals to ‘liberal nationalists’: “You don’t vote, the Caucasus votes.”


  1. Unfortunately, people who fight for a cause do not think. My hero is Jawaharlal Nehru, who excelled in the art of the compromise. To quote the Time, “The art of compromise, which is essential to democracy, seems to have gone out of style in recent years of angry all-or-nothing politics.”

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