Democratic Coalition: what next?

After a total wipe-out of Democratic Coalition candidates in this year’s Russian regional elections, questions arise as to the further political strategy of Russian Democrats confronting Vladimir Putin’s regime.

In the face of the upcoming 2016 federal Parliamentary elections, the message sent from Kremlin is quite clear: we don’t want to see any liberal democrats even on the ballots, not to mention in Parliament.

The Democratic Coalition was established in April 2015, less than two months following Boris Nemtsov’s murder, by a number of Russian democratic opposition parties aiming at breaking through Putin’s monopolized political system and securing an independent democratic faction at the 2016 federal Parliament (State Duma) elections for the first time since 2003. The Coalition consists of the late Boris Nemtsov’s Parnas party (now chaired by ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov), Alexey Navalny’s Party of Progress, “Democratic Choice” party chaired by Vladimir Milov (author of this piece), as well as a number of other parties and groups – Solidarity movement, Party of 5th December, Libertarian Party, etc.

The Coalition had announced participation in regional elections of 2015 on the basis of Parnas party as a “rehearsal” for 2016 State Duma elections, targeting 4 priority regions for this year – Kaluga, Kostroma, Magadan, and Novosibirsk. Everywhere in these four regions party lists of the Coalition were banned from elections on the ground of “invalidity” of voters’ signatures gathered to support the party list registration. Even most of the minor single district mandate candidates of the Coalition in the above named four and some other regions were banned, with just a few making it to less important local-level ballots.

Regional and local elections in Russia in 2015 will take place in dozens of different regions at the single election day, September 13th.

Although the struggle for registration of the Democratic Coalition party lists is not formally over just yet, the picture became very clear following the hearing on the Coalition’s appeal to the earliest regional election ban, in Novosibirsk, by Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) on August 7th. The CEC, fully controlled by the current Kremlin-leaning  “big four” parliamentary parties, and chaired by notorious Vladimir Churov, longtime CEC chairman directly responsible for building a near-total election falsification machine in Russia in the past decade, had totally rejected to hear the Coalition’s substantive arguments in support of validity of the gathered voters’ signatures, and had unanimously rejected its claim.

In Novosibirsk region, the Coalition had sumbitted over 10,000 voters’ signatures in support of the registration of its party list, well above the needed threshold. However, over 1,200 of them were declared “invalid”, mainly due to the obscure process of “verification of voters’ passports with the Federal Migration Service (FMS) database”. During cross-check and hearings on that matter in Novosibirsk, it became clear that “FMS database” contains invalid data and there were many input errors recorded during the transfer of signatures into digital format by election commission employees, after which the number of disputed signatures had reduced to just over 300 (with Coalition still being confident that these are valid). However, regional electoral commission had abruptly ended the process of cross-check of signatures at that point and had issued a fast election ban for Coalition. The CEC had also further rejected to substantively consider the case with these disputed signatures, instead issuing a clearly politically motivated ruling.

As a “cherry on top”, CEC had ordered a special “expertise” by the FSB, Russian top security service and the successor authority to former KGB, which had pronounced some more of the gathered voters signatures “invalid” on unclear grounds – raising eyebrows within the electoral process community, as FSB has no authority whatsoever to interfere into the election process.

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Also, before the CEC gathering on August 7th, President Vladimir Putin had an unscheduled meeting with Vladimir Gorodetsky, Governor of Novosibirsk region, where registration ban for Parnas and other opposition parties had sparked out a full-scale political crisis (those parties banned in Novosibirsk included Rodina, a conservative imperialist party of Defense Industries Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin, which has deep roots in Novosibirsk alongside democrats, due to large presence of military hardware manufacturing complex). There’s little doubt that the outcome of CEC hearing, which was postponed several times clearly to fit with the results of meeting between Putin and Gorodetsky, was destined to reflect Putin’s ultimate position on Novosibirsk election.

The appeals to CEC on Coalition bans in Magadan and Kostroma are yet to be considered, but after Novosibirsk case rejection, there’s little hope for any positive outcome. (In Kaluga, the Coalition had decided not to submit voters signatures to the election commission and withdraw from the race, following heavy police pressure and infiltration of discovered large hidden network of provocateurs into our signature-gathering campaign headquarters.)

The reality where 85% of Russians support Putin and his neo-imperialist agenda just doesn’t exist

Initially, the Coalition had hopes that its party lists will be registered at least somewhere, which will allow to focus and prioritize resources on these official campaign(s) as a prelude to 2016 State Duma elections. Now, it’s all over: we will not be allowed to run any party campaigns this year. So what next?

First: this is probably the worst, but absolutely not an unexpected scenario. It reflects the fact that the reality where 85% of Russians support Putin and his neo-imperialist agenda just doesn’t exist. During our campaigns in the regions, we’ve met great interest and enthusiasm from local population which is visibly willing to see a decent opposition and alternative at the elections. Our public gatherings in the focus regions (particularly, Alexey Navalny’s open-air public June meetings in Novosibirsk, Kaluga and Kostroma) were record-breaking in terms of attendance (particularly impressive with parallel “rallies” of pro-Putin supporter movements like Antimaidan or NOD with just a handful of activists attending). Our printed materials telling the truth about the situation in the country against Putin’s propaganda went like hot cakes. We’ve went door-to-door taking to hundreds of thousands (no less) households, and found out that only low-margin numbers of people are interested in Crimea, Donbass and all of the Putin’s imperialist agenda, and, instead, healthy big numbers are tired of seeing the same old faces in power for many years, tired of widespread corruption and monopolism, and interested in bringing the authorities to accountability for deteriorating economic and social situation in the country.

All this raises great enthusiasm, because it’s clearly visible that the population, even in provinces, is largely not on Putin’s side, and is very open to exploring alternatives. That’s quite an encouraging message from the recent campaign.

We believe that Putin gets this message, too, reflected in numerous secretive opinion polling constantly done by the administration and affiliated pollsters and think tanks. They try their best to discourage their opponents by propagating the televised reality of “unilateral popular support for Putin” — but, at the end of the day, they know the truth.

Second: we are obviously wrapping up the current campaign to analyze its strategic lessons and refocus on the 2016 State Duma campaign, trying to better concentrate on the Kremlin’s weak spots and improve our own preformance. 2016 will be a show no politician can afford to miss, risking being banned or not. It’s the first federal elections to take place in 5 years, in the middle of the worst economic crisis since early 1990s, with living standards of Russians rapidly falling to those of early 2000s, wiping away memory Putin’s “prosperity years”. Even at the last State Duma elections in 2011, after a touch of 2008 financial crisis, Putin’s party had received a weak 49% of the vote, sparking subsequent massive anti-Putin street protests. There’s more chance for it now, as the economic and social situation is much more severe.

Putin and his affiliates understand that and are quite nervous. Recently, they have embarked on an extremely controversial exercise with attempt to move 2016 State Duma elections to just 10 weeks earlier, from December to mid-September (this is a direct violation of the Constitution, which unequivocally states that elected Duma shall execute its powers for 5 years, no less, and had required a “clarification” from Putin’s rubber stamp Constitutional Court). In parallel, a proposal was launched to postpone the academic year (for the first time in Russian history!) from September 1st to a couple of weeks later, thus allowing the Duma election to take place at the time of official Summer vacation. These maneuvers clearly indicate that Putin and his team want the next Parliamentary election to feature maximum low voter turnout, which, as past experiences show, elevate the official Putin’s party results (because the 15-20% of hardcore or controlled loyal voters come in anyway).

There are other signs that Putin is extremely concerned about the upcoming federal elections: in March 2015, just three weeks after the murder of Boris Nemtsov (a crucial figure for forging up a new democratic coalition), Putin spoke at the annual assembly of FSB, stating that it’s FSB’s “priority task” to confront the nasty “enemies of the state” that are looking to “destabilize the situation” during the upcoming federal elections of 2016-2018 (transcript of the speech is available at the Kremlin’s website). See, there we go again: FSB, which legally and constitutionally has no relevance to Russian electoral process whatsoever, is seemingly becoming a “key player” in “managing” the elections.

For Putin, arrival of independent opposition in the federal Parliament – even in small numbers – can be truly dangerous. Even a small faction can near-automatically put forward a Presidential candidate for the 2018 race. This faction can bring the language of truth and expose Putin’s corruption and mishandling of politics and the economy into the corridors of power and onto the screens of state media. Such developments can further fracture Putin’s elites and stimulate population to support the opposition as economic situation deteriorates further.

Don’t you dare running for elections next year. Leave the country, give up politics, whatever – we, the Kremlin, see no room for you in official politics.

Here’s an answer as to why the Democratic Coalition ban from regional elections in 2015 was such a coordinated attack by so many state-linked agents: federal and regional electoral commissions acting unilaterally, FSB and police pursing provocations against our campaign staff, Federal Investigative Committee opening criminal cases against Coalition’s campaign activists and arresting some of them (like the head of Kostroma campaign headquarters Andrey Pivovarov), Federal Migration Service offering its database as open excuse for election fraud, pro-Kremlin street movements attacking and harassing our people being covered by the police, state media launching a massive-scale smear campaign against the Coalition. The coordinated nature of these efforts, similar in all regions where we had campaigned, leaves no doubt that an attack Democratic Coalition had originated and was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

One message Kremlin wishes to send to regional political and business elites: these (the Democratic Coalition) are enemies, we won’t allow them anywhere, don’t you dare supporting them in any way or allowing them to operate. This is why we are thankful to multiple decent people in the regions who still dare to help us despite all the pressure from Kremlin. There’s one more for us: don’t you dare running for elections next year. Leave the country, give up politics, whatever – we, the Kremlin, see no room for you in official politics.

But do we give up that easily when we have already “tasted the meat” and felt the strong potential support for the opposition among ordinary Russians? When we have realized how strong is the disappointment with every specific aspect of Putin’s domestic politics (save his nominal popularity as a television icon) and the demand for political alternative? Do we let our voters down and give in just because of a few regional election bans?

What is painful for Putin is to learn that he is not as popular among Russians as country’s loyal pollsters suggest

No way. 2016 State Duma elections will be a crucial stress test for the current monopolized political system. Even if some political forces do not fit into the Kremlin’s scenario for these elections and may possibly be banned, there’s still great room to raise political capital through massive scale grass-roots work with ordinary Russian voters as we did in 2016. Bans are not dangerous for us – we have been through this stuff before, it’s not as painful as one may think it is, just disappointing. What is painful for Putin is  to learn that he is not as popular among Russians as country’s loyal pollsters suggest – and we now have developed many techniques to influence the outcome of elections even if we are not on the ballot.

That’s the key point of the strategy: make a difference even despite Putin’s efforts to legally exclude the real opposition from the political space.

On top of that, the Parnas party still maintains a right to run for State Duma elections without the need to collect voters’ signatures for registration. This barrier may be yet re-introduced in the coming months, but attempts to ban us on signatures again will be another nationwide freakshow which will just expose Putin’s system’s weakness and our strength. We now have a stockpile of experience from 2015 and past campaigns to help us learn how to do better in 2015. We are committed to doing so much political damage to Putin during 2016 campaign as we possibly can, no matter what.

There’s more on the positive side. During the recent regional campaigning, many of our staff had grown from inexperienced volunteers into highly skilled campaign professionals, capable of handling 2016 regional Duma campaigning. We have successfully developed new pragmatic language of talking to voters, addressing the key social and economic issues of the day which Putin’s system is unable to address, new methods of communication with voters to break through Kremlin’s information blockade. We were able to go as far as formulate the overall agenda for election campaign, where authorities couldn’t – and they were forced in many cases to react to what we were doing. There’s still a long road ahead to learn from these positive experiences, continue to train our staff and help our Coalition evolve into a viable nationwide political project in 2016, but in the current circumstances, it certainly looks doable, and the staff, the techniques and the vast recent experiences are certainly there.

So, Mr. Putin, the Democratic Coalition is not going anywhere. If you had bitter moments this year confronting the real opposition in the Russian regions, prepare for more in 2016.

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