The first of possibly several waves of mass demonstrations has swept Russia. Yesterday, a crowd maybe as big as one-hundred thousand people gathered in downtown Moscow to protest voter fraud in the December 4th parliamentary elections. The big question now is: where does Russia go from here? For most observers on the ground, there is an air of intense expectation. Journalist Julia Ioffe echoed the sentiments of many Western correspondents when she tweeted: “Thousands protesting in cities all over Russia. Police don’t crack down. If [the] Kremlin doesn’t hear this, they sign [their] own death certificate.” Russian activists are similarly convinced that big changes are coming. A few hours ago, Evgenia Chirikova proposed (seriously, one assumes) that Vladimir Putin should publicly debate Aleksei Navalny (who is still serving out a fifteen-day jail sentence for taking part in December 5th’s Chistye Prudy march).
Even ‘pro-regime’ figures like Maksim Kononenko, despite ridiculing the opposition, have indicated that they consider the stakes of Russia’s current unrest to be dire. “‘Peaceful rallies against election fraud’ have never in any country ended peacefully,” Kononenko warned ominously. Throughout Russia’s post-election tensions, former United Russia Duma deputy Konstantin Rykov has been tweeting intentionally inflammatory and absurd things about the violence and chaos that could result from the opposition’s protests. On December 5th, he joked that the police were shutting off the Internet and raiding the liberal-leaning Dodzh’ station’s television studio, and before yesterday’s large demonstrations, Rykov promised to “take thirty liberals down with him” in a killing spree at the site of the rally. (This latter tweet Rykov later deleted, possibly fearing criminal liability.)
All this optimism and hysteria suggests that Russia’s chattering classes are increasingly convinced that some kind of watershed moment is nearing. Just what is supposed to happen, however, remains thoroughly unclear. Focusing on the challenges facing the Kremlin (rather than the goals of Moscow’s protesters), Tatyana Stanovaya has suggested a basic four-step policy approach for the federal authorities:
- Either address the election irregularities or say nothing about them. The government’s stream of statements, explaining why they’re ignoring the protesters, only proves that they aren’t, and only further infuriates the opposition.
- There need to be cadre shifts. Central Elections Commissioner Vladimir Churov can’t remain at his post. Putin should start elevating new faces within the state, reforming United Russia, and promoting the newness of his coming government (but abandoning Medvedev’s already-tainted ‘big government’).
- Putin needs a platform. Consolidating for the sake of consolidation is no longer a viable political program.
- There needs to be more dialogue and openness with society. (Whatever that means.)
This, it seems to me, is a fairly realistic forecast of the compromises and adjustments that the Kremlin needs and likely will agree to make. But what if it doesn’t? What if Russia’s hardliners prevail, driven by either self-confidence or excessive fear, and the authorities continue down a road of non-responsiveness?
Yesterday, flashing what seemed like a potential institutional lever of power, ‘Just Russia’ Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov called on the country’s (registered) opposition parties to refuse the mandates they won in the December 4th election. Gudkov’s son, also a ‘Just Russia’ functionary, elaborated on Twitter this morning, explaining, “If two fractions surrender [their mandates], there will be a revote. […] Tomorrow we are going to discuss it with KPRF.” Vladimir Pribylovsky responded within the hour, directing Gudkov Jr. to a detailed explanation of why his mandate scheme for an election redo was legally impossible. Gudkov answered Pribylovsky shortly afterwards, saying only that his plan was “morally sufficient.”
Here is a rough summary of blogger di09en’s argument (endorsed by Pribylovsky):
- A political party’s leaders cannot refuse the mandates awarded to the individuals on its party list. Only those individuals can make this decision.
- Even if all deputies from both ‘Just Russia’ and KPRF agreed to refuse their Duma seats, the Elections Commission would simply award them to the next people on the parties’ lists, which amounts to six-hundred people for each party. Furthermore, even if all six-hundred individuals from both parties’ lists refused their seats, Point 6 of Article 89 of the ‘Federal Law on the Election of [Duma] Deputies’ (No.51-FZ) states that the seats would simply remain vacant until the next parliamentary election (scheduled for 2016).
- If all party-list members of ‘Just Russia’ and KPRF indeed refused to join the Duma, there would remain just two fractions (United Russia and LDPR) and just 294 deputies — which is less than two-thirds of all seats. Gudkov has argued that this renders the parliament inoperable. But di09en asserts that two fractions are all that’s required for a legitimate Duma. Furthermore, because the Elections Committee has already distributed the deputy seats, the spots allotted to ‘Just Russia’ and KPRF will still count as the presence of additional party fractions — the seats will simply be empty. On the other hand, a Duma with less than two-thirds of its seats allotted would indeed have limited powers, however, it only forbids (a) hearing constitutional legislation, (b) amending the Constitution, and (c) impeaching the President.
- Even if ‘Just Russia’ and KPRF had planned ahead and removed its lists of candidates from the Election Commission’s consideration, Point 10 of Article 83 of federal election law merely activates a mechanism by which deputy seats are then proportionally allocated to any parties that received at least the number of votes equal to one mandate (which di09en estimates to be about 0.02% of the general vote). Article 83 only goes into effect if the Duma is left with less than 226 seats allotted. In other words, even this clause could not have applied to the December 4th election, where United Russia alone won 238 mandates.
What’s It Mean, All This Jazz?
The discourse in and about Russia right now is increasingly apprehensive. This is not an accusation: all sides of the political spectrum seem to agree that a swelling demand for change makes either reform or violence inevitable. Stanovaya offers a reasonable blueprint that the Kremlin could adopt, if it comes to accept that at least some adjustments to its self-defense strategy are necessary to end the ‘Snow Revolution.’
But it’s possible that the authorities will not come to this conclusion. ‘Peaceful protests’ are, after all, essentially large groups of people standing around, cheering occasionally, and eventually dispersing. With winter approaching, ‘tent cities’ or other forms of truly long-term street demonstrations will be difficult, to say the least. Otherwise, this type of activism can really only threaten a handful of things: disrupting traffic and the flow of daily life for the government and the city; recurrent ‘negative PR’ from the mass media; and explosions of police brutality that could spark even larger rallies. This is to say nothing of the implicit threat in any large gathering: that the participants might become violent themselves, if pushed too far.
Since May this year, beginning with Mironov’s ouster from his spot atop the Federation Council and peaking with the party’s surprising resurgence on December 4th, ‘Just Russia’ has twinkled with the promise of potentially empowering the non-systemic opposition. Whether it might have been a vent on social pressures or a bridge to a more inclusive government, Gudkov’s suggestion yesterday about forcing a new election by surrendering the seats won a week ago was exciting.
Had the opposition finally found a legal instrument of real political power?
The answer, it seems, is still no.