On July 13, 2011, Aleksei Navalny shared a link to an interesting “Instruction Manual” on “Tactical Democracy” by Mikhail Zhivov, a Volgograd IT specialist who recently started a LiveJournal blog. Zhivov has just a handful of LJ ‘friends’ and even fewer followers on Twitter. Even Navalny didn’t bother to follow him.
And yet, despite this obscurity, Russia’s ‘top blogger-activist’ tweeted these “instructions” to his more-than-sixty-thousand fans.
Zhivov lays out what might be called an ‘actionable plan’ to fulfill ‘Navalny’s option’ of oppositionist electoral strategy for the December elections: voting for any party other than United Russia. The article at first recommends that activists should avoid rallying behind any individual liberal figures, as it opens the movement to ad hominem debates and distracting scandals. In a lapse of short-term memory, however, Zhivov then transitions seamlessly to explaining how best to defend Navalny from pro-Kremlin attacks. He links to a separate LJ post by another blogger, who has compiled a list of (a) typical criticisms of Navalny (such as the accusations that he’s a CIA spy, or a Kremlin agent, or a nationalist, and so on), and (b) a list of recommended responses to those criticisms. (One expects that, before retweeting the piece, Navalny himself took at peek at this second LJ post — which curiously means that he directed his audience to list of the ten most comment assaults on his character and political motives.)
Zhivov next does something Navalny has refused to do publicly: he makes specific recommendations about which parties the opposition should support, when it votes in December — endorsing KPRF and Pravoe Delo. Zhivov later admits that his advice would change, if closer to election day it seemed that LDPR or ‘A Just Russia’ is better placed to maximize the anti-United-Russia vote. (This statement seems somewhat disingenuous, however, given that Pravoe Delo is currently polling well below the minimum Duma threshold, and is unlikely attract more votes than either KPRF or LDPR in any circumstance.)
Is this Navalny’s way of communicating to his supporters that he privately endorses Pravoe Delo, the Kremlin’s reinvigorated quasi-liberal party? Would he be more comfortable with Vladimir Milov’s subtle promotion of Pravoe Delo alongside Yabloko, or does his personal history with Yavlinksy’s party cast too long a shadow? Perhaps Navalny and Prokhorov share some of the same backers?
Zhirov also recommends an especially ambitious election monitoring campaign, replete with webcam and live-blogging feeds direct from the voting stations, in order to document voter fraud as it happens. Despite Zhirov’s immense energy, however, there’s still nothing critically useful in his article to anyone actually ready to volunteer. Rather than tell activists to go and locate their nearest voting centers, it would have been far more constructive to have cataloged the addresses and contact information of Russia’s various election commissions. This would take a lot of work, but it would be something people could literally use as a reference tool. Instead, members of the opposition are more likely to read Zhivov’s piece and think, ‘Ah yes, I should really march myself down to the … er, where’s the voting station? Oh, never mind.’
The opposition has been on the ground and blogging about ballot abuses for years. In the past, this has led to a glut of angry blog posts, after which people quickly forget about everything. Perhaps I’m being cynical (or maybe I’m underappreciating Zhivov’s vision of ‘mass action’), but I doubt his plan for webcams and live-blogging would produce anything qualitatively new, even if the opposition could suddenly rally significantly more manpower. Live-blogging and webcams stationed within the voting areas also sounds (a) technologically difficult, (b) very possibly illegal, and (c) prone to sensationalism, as monitors so wired to the Web could be more likely to sound the alarm at the first trace of scandal.
Zhivov also drafted a leaflet. The leaflet is long — it’s too long. He wants this thing posted in grocery stores and at bus stops, but I’m confident that nobody but a prison inmate would find the patience to slog through the entire text. Any sane person passing one of these flyers on his way into a shop is not going to pay it a second glance.
Despite any criticisms against Zhivov’s ‘Instructions,’ however, his ‘Manual’ does give a hint of what’s ahead for proponents of ‘Navalny’s Option.’ The success or failure of this strategy will not be half as interesting as what effects such tactics have on the face of the democratic opposition. Indeed, changes and shuffling alliances are already under way.