The votes are in, the violations are online, and Moscow’s oppositionists are out on the streets, gathered at dawn in Kitai Gorod, chanting at cops to release their most beloved celebrity, Aleksei Navalny. Russia’s best known activist-blogger found himself in police custody earlier tonight, when Sunday’s parliamentary election results confirmed for many that the authorities had falsified the vote count. If you’re like me, you followed the protest’s events on Twitter, where dozens of prominent dissidents posted blurry photos of scary OMON officers and jubilant protesters carrying signs with angry and irreverent slogans. Some micro-bloggers suddenly started tweeting occasionally in English, indicating a belief (or at least a hope) that a wider world was tuning in. The word “revolution” appeared frequently in the protesters’ chants and in the online dispatches of witnesses.
The Great Digital Hype
Alexey Sidorenko of RuNet Echo tweeted earlier today that “as United Russia has 49% with all these violations, we can say: yes the Navalny Option has worked.” Sidorenko is a brilliant observer of the RuNet and I strongly recommend his regular posts about Russian bloggers and online phenomena. That said, Sidorenko’s reportage often crosses over from analysis into advocacy. RuNet Echo, a wonderful project from Global Voices, is dedicated to “expanding and deepening understanding of the Russian language Internet.” The inherent logic here, of course, is that the RuNet is worth understanding. While this is a perfectly defensible proposition, it has a tendency to guide its disciples to sometimes exaggerate the political significance (or even ambitions) of digital activism.
For instance, the day before the election, Sidorenko wrote that “It seems that through digital discussions on whether to vote or not [...] users have finally chosen the option proposed by blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny [...]: to vote for any other party but PM Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.” I agree that Navalny’s Option had palpable attraction and momentum among Russian bloggers, but Sidorenko seems to clearly over-simplify the very long and unfinished debate among oppositionists about the best voting strategy. When I asked Sidorenko via Twitter to name any major shifts in the ‘digital discussion’ as I laid it out in a July AGT post, he only named one individual who’d converted to Navalny’s camp.
Why downplay the diffusion of opinion among digital dissidents? My best guess is that students (and advocates) of online civil society want to present it as potent and coherent as possible, when the context is electoral behavior. Given the ‘real-world’ obscurity of Russian bloggers (only six percent of Russians had ever heard of Navalny back in April), even a truly unified digital campaign would likely have had just a small impact on this Sunday’s vote tally.
As it happens, yesterday’s national turnout was 60.2% — three percent lower than in 2007. While I suppose turnout among younger age groups would be the most telling (I’ve yet to see these figures reported), the fact is that less of the Russian electorate bothered to cast a ballot in this election. If this is proof that Navalny’s Option worked, then it’s also proof that Belkovsky’s and Udal’tsov’s Option worked, too. After all, the ‘passive boycott’ advocated staying at home and producing a lower turnout!
Meanwhile, the “New Political Reality”
Amidst all the tweets and self-celebration, above and behind the outrage against vote-stuffing ‘carousels’ and ballot-buying schemes, the Grey Cardinal himself — the President’s First Deputy Chief of Staff, Vladislav Surkov — sat down to discuss the election with writer, blogger, and TV show host Sergei Minaev.
Surkov described United Russia’s ‘victory’ with unwavering optimism, calling the result: “very good,” “simply excellent,” “splendid,” and “expected and natural.” Surkov was in good form, dismissing the higher expectations of some United Russia officials (cough, cough: Boris Gryzlov) as “acts of faith,” not serious analysis. “On the principle of religious tolerance,” he quipped, “I’ll make no further comments about this subject.”
Repeating remarks from more than a year ago, Surkov argued that United Russia’s constitutional majority was “abnormally high.” (Never mind that Surkov’s tone was slightly more optimistic immediately following last September’s ‘castling.’) Complex, fragmented societies typically cannot sustain electoral victories over 40%, he said, adding about yesterday’s election: “It’s good that a normalization of the political system has come after the abnormal period. The system has become more balanced and, consequently, more stable.”
Making it ever clearer that the era of power verticals and sovereign democracy is at least rhetorically over, Surkov declared “a new political reality” and criticized Russian politics for being too closed, even implying that it suffers from a certain backwardness:
The vertical responds to its failures in management by aspiring to become even more vertical — to become more primitive, to put it simpler. This is a flawed method. It leads to even greater insularity, and consequently to greater chaos. Therefore, in order for the system to survive and develop, it has to be opened up. Allow in new players. There has to be more than a single figure. A big party cannot win by fielding just one figure, even if it’s the figure of the king. You can’t be ‘solus rex’ — the lone king. You have to act in concert, and not close up. In an open system, there is greater turbulence, but paradoxically there is also greater stability. And we’re for stability, aren’t we?
Surkov also reveals a few sticks and carrots for the liberal opposition. First, he criticizes “negative and provocative” interpretations of the election’s effect on state institutions, promising that such efforts are “doomed to fail” (though he never explains at what exactly they’ll fail). “Everything is under control,” he says rather unnecessarily, in what could fuel future satirical online memes. “So to all the squawkers,” Surkov adds, “I answer: enough squawking. We’re tired of it.”
But it’s not all threats and defensiveness. When Minaev asks him what Russia’s political system lacks, Surkov admits that the country needs a “mass liberal party” (which he defines as “a party of the disgruntled urban communities”). Liberals’ participation in the current system (comprised mostly of media consortiums ironically owned by the entrenched authorities) is “too little,” and “they must also be given [...] parliamentary representation.”
Discussing the winners of yesterday’s election, Surkov singled out ‘A Just Russia,’ saying that many dismissed Mironov’s party after he lost his seat as Chairman of the Federation Council. “But thankfully they turned out to be wrong,” Surkov concluded, adding: “The party has come into its own as a real, seasoned political force that people believe in. Without [A Just Russia], the system’s stability and validity [adekvatnost'] before the public mood and tastes would be lower.”
A Just & United Russia
So what happens when we combine the three biggest stories to come out of the 2011 Duma elections? (1) United Russia lost its constitutional majority; (2) Navalny’s camp of young oppositionist liberals claims to have achieved some kind of victory against the political establishment; and (3) ‘A Just Russia’ reinvigorated itself in the months before the election to pull off a surprise comeback, actually outdoing Zhirinovsky’s better established LDPR by almost a million votes.
Surkov says he’s happy with the results of the election. Though he marched tonight in protest on the streets of Moscow, Navalny too appears to be pleased with his impact on the vote. Sergei Mironov, who a few months ago was probably drafting different versions of his resignation speech, is undoubtedly happy with yesterday’s ‘splendid result.’ If we take everyone at their word, we’re left to guess at shared interests or possible tacit plans. Tumbling down that rabbit hole is for another post, but those itching for a head start are encouraged to begin the conspiracy hunt here, here, here, and here.