In the lead-up to yesterday’s election, newsmedia in the West have paid a lot of attention to the increasingly active and visible political opposition in Russia. It’s certainly a change; rallies of thousands, or tens of thousands, of Putin’s opponents simply haven’t existed previously. Change is news.
But what is the opposition? For now, at least, it’s a momentary alliance of convenience between those with some power and those without, people connected to political institutions and people who want to tear them down: the remains of the Communist Party (whose candidate Zyuganov won a distant second place!), liberals who are never allowed on the ballot, nationalists, anarchists, whatever you call the unknown person in the Guy Fawkes mask who hovers around every rally these days. All were in evidence at the official sanctioned meeting on Pushkin Square in Moscow tonight.
I met up with “Dmitri,” a member of a local activist group, to attend the meeting. He kept an eye on the police presence, made sure I got a white ribbon, and offered a little commentary along the way. He had participated earlier in monitoring vote counting and said he hadn’t personally seen anything untoward, that there surely had been some falsification but in truth, Putin had certainly won a majority of the votes.
This of course is one problem with the obsessive coverage in the US on the outrage over falsification (ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and so on). The ruling party’s control over the political system actually begins much further up the line: as Dmitry pointed out, they already control the main television stations most people rely on for news. Opposition candidates aren’t always allowed onto the ballot in the first place; until very recently most opposition rallies were small and usually cut short by arrests. The election itself is almost a formality, but clearly a potently symbolic ritual for American viewers.
So you could say that the opposition is those who are frustrated with this situation, though they may share very little other ground.
Here’s a pro-Zyuganov sticker I found outside a metro stop: “For honest elections and a decent life!” Is Zyuganov part of a fresh pro-democracy movement bubbling up in the new urban middle class? As a long-time losing presidential candidate for the Communist Party–not so much. But he can still take up the cause! And indeed, there were some red flags a-waving tonight.
In the long term, though, this raises a set of problems that seems always to challenge political oppositions: ideology purity or pragmatic alliances; revolutionary change or reforming existing institutions? Are the liberals willing to work with the Communists to oust Putin? Can anyone convince the anarchists to help form a new political party–or do the anarchists have it right after all?
How can people enact political change?
Happily, there is one singular figure all Russians can support without question:
(Incidentally, Google auto-translate provides the following charming version of the first two lines:
Lord of the weak and wicked,
Bald dude, an enemy of labor
Wonder who that could be!)