But is deprived by Head of Electoral Commission!
There are few opportunities for the Left and workers’ candidates to participate in elections in Russia. There are excluded by the electoral rules from participating in national elections. So the announcement by the liberal leadership of the opposition protests that they would organize elections – primaries – to a ’Coordinating Council’, offered an opportunity for the Left to run candidates and fight to wrest the leadership of the movement from the hands of the liberals and their far right allies.
The CWI stood three candidates, Elena Volkova (from the independent teachers’ union) and Igor Yasin (from the March for Equality) in the ‘general section’ and Alexandra Volkova (Zhenya Otto) nominated by the CWI in the section for Left candidates. Their results were more than respectable, with Zhenya gaining nearly 10,000 votes, one of the top five Left votes and just a few hundred votes less than Vladimir Tor, one of the country’s best-known fascists and a founder of the notorious anti-immigrant “Russian march”. The Head of the Electoral Commission later admitted Zhenya won a seat, but refused to grant her the place. (Explanation follows)
Explosion of protest across Russia
The opposition movement exploded onto Moscow’s streets last December following fraudulent parliamentary elections. Since then, huge demonstrations, on several occasions reaching a hundred thousand participants, have shaken the regime; the largest movement since the heady days that led to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Presented simplistically in many reports as an uprising of the urban or cultural intelligentsia, over the course of the last year the opposition movement has attracted not just those who are opposed to authoritarianism, in general, but also an increasingly large layer of those who are opposed to the economic consequences of neo-liberalism. The last few demos have seen the presence of a growing “education column” i.e. those opposed to the commercialization of education.
The tragedy of the movement has been in its leadership. In the absence of a strong organized working class and Left leadership, a layer of failed neo-liberal politicians, who have fallen out with the regime, and media ‘personalities’ have set the tone of the protests. They have tried to restrict the politicization of the movement, placing “unity of everyone” above a clear programme for ending the Putin regime. The far right and fascists were openly involved. They were allowed to march down the right side of Moscow’s boulevards while the Left used the opposite side. While the liberals and, to their shame, some Lefts were welcoming the far right, these thugs were attacking sections of the crowd, particularly the increasingly politicized LGBT contingent.
But during the year, even the pro-Kremlin opinion pollsters have noted that the mood of the protesters has moved sharply to the Left, reflecting a change of mood in society, as a whole. Despite the decision by many Lefts to boycott the opposition-organised election, approximately the same numbers voted for the Left block of candidates as voted for that of the far-right, giving lie to the argument of both the liberals and some Lefts that the far-right are too strong to combat .
The contradiction between the liberal leadership and the mass of protesters came to the fore most sharply following violent attacks against 6 May protesters. This led to the ‘Occupy Abai’ movement, in which several thousand occupied one of the capital’s squares for a couple of weeks before being broken up. Rank and file protestors, increasingly supporting social demands and quickly learning how to organize themselves, came into open conflict with the “VIP” leaders. These figures turned up, once in a while, trailing the press behind them and claiming to be leaders of the movement, while ignoring what the protesters themselves were actually saying. Such was the pressure from the rank and file protesters however, even the neo-liberal opposition politicians started to speak of the need to “raise social demands” to attract a wider layer, without actually detailing what this meant.
Having lost much credibility amongst the mass of protesters, who no longer listened to the speeches from the podium, the liberals decided to organize elections to a co-ordinating committee to legitimize their domination. There were to be 45 people elected, 30 from a general “social activists” list, 5 each from a liberal, nationalist (far-right) and Left list.
Opposition election rigged to advantage of liberals and ultra-right
The procedures and rules were rigged from the very beginning. Nationalists and liberals were allowed to vote for the Left and vice versa – thus meaning that any lefts who spoke against unity with the ultra-right would be at a disadvantage. The participation fee for the ultra-right was halved on the grounds their candidates could not pay the 250 euro, even though all but one of the nationalist candidates described themselves as “businessmen”, “bankers” or in one case a “stock market speculator”. The organisers announced at the beginning that there would be no restrictions placed on the money spent by candidates campaigning. They argued that as money was a mark of success, it would be good if more wealthy people were elected. Alexei Navalny, the right wing blogger who topped the poll, reported hired up to a hundred people to work on his campaign.
CWI-Russia seizes opportunity
Nevertheless, participating in the election offered worthwhile opportunities for propagandizing socialist ideas. Each candidate was allowed to publish a manifesto on the central election site; a series of knock-out debates was held on the main opposition TV channel ‘Dozhd’ and candidates were invited to take part in specially-organized debates in clubs and bars. Over 100,000 people registered to vote in the election, so presumably a good part of those watched the debates and read the manifestos.
The TV debates were restrictive. Each candidate had three questions given to them and 30 seconds to answer each one. While most candidates wasted their 30 seconds giving a potted biography of themselves, the CWI candidates cut-to-the-chase by outlining what socialists stand for; the need to widen the scope of the opposition movement by attracting a wider layer of working people by campaigning on social issues – for better wages, against the commercialization of education and health care and for democratic reforms leading not just to a change in faces at the top but to a system in which working people have full democratic control over their lives, including the economy and social conditions.
Three of the debates can be seen here:
In addition, CWI candidates were invited to take part in a series of longer debates and interviews on the radio and TV. Zhenya Otto, for example, took part in an hour long debate on online TV, with Anton Kolganov, a Stalinist, on the way forward for the protest movement. Questions where so detailed that at one stage Zhenya even had to explain how the CWI raises its money from donations from members’ and the wider movement, which is a radical departure for most opposition groups in Russia, which rely on business sponsors. Having started the programme with just 30% of the online vote, Zhenya ended with a total of 61%.
Far right threats shown to be a bluff
During debates in the clubs, the far right candidates were forced onto the defensive, revealing how, in actual fact, they supported privatization and private ownership. During Igor’s debate (Igor was nominated by the ‘March for Equality’, made up of women’s’ rights and LGBT activists) the far right turned on Igor asking him if he was scared because “When we come to power, we will do what they do in Iran and string all you up on lamp-posts”. This thug was taken aback when Igor faced him down and said he was not scared and would do all in his power to build a united campaign to prevent him coming to power. Igor was backed up by a gay activist from the audience who explained that his confidence had grown because when fascists attacked a LGBT column on the first opposition march, other protesters had come to their rescue, forcing the fascists to retreat.
Need for left unity rejected by most of left
The CWI in Russia argues that the Left should put up a united block to fight to win control of the opposition movement from the liberals and their nationalist allies. We appealed from the beginning of the election campaign to all the Left candidates to negotiate a common block around opposition to the neo-liberal policies of budget cuts, the commercialization of education and health and wage cuts, for the rank and file organization of workers, students and pensioners in defense of their rights and against any attempts to poison and divide the workers’ movement using nationalism and other forms of xenophobia. To their shame, none of the other Left candidates, except Nikolai Kavkazskovo, a left social-democrat and LGBT activist, was prepared to agree with these simple conditions. Nevertheless we continued to push for Left unity to defeat the nationalists and liberals.
These elections, and the opposition protests, in general, have demonstrated the complete bankruptcy of most of the Left in Russia. The Communist Party, as explained in previous articles, has turned its back on the protest movement, seeing it as an “orange fever”, spread by the “west” to harm the interests of Russia. It called on former President and now Prime Minister, Medvedev, to take firm action against the spread of the fever.
Over the years, a number of groups have split from the Communist Party, criticizing its leaders for inaction and “opportunism”. At various conferences and forums during the past year these “lefts” have moved from a position of inactivity to complete rejection of the protest movements, which they say are not in the interests of ‘real communists’.
Those lefts that do see the need for participating in the opposition movement – part of Sergei Udaltsov’s ‘Left Front’ and the ‘Russian Socialist Movement’ (RSM) – do so by completing cow-towing to the demands of the liberals, and in Udaltsov’s case, the far right. They refused at the start of the protests to raise social and economic demands, and now only do so formally, for fear of being outstripped on the left by the liberals.
The RSM, having refused to join a common left block, proposed an uninspiring perspective in their manifesto based on “self-financing projects and autonomous territories” in which “we understand that competition between different projects for the construction of society is necessary”. In debates, their representatives failed to raise any clear demands, just calling for the “need for social demands”. Instead they proposed ideas fully in line with those of the liberals, such as calling for “freedom for all political prisoners” (some of those held by the regime are extreme right wing thugs who have been involved in violence against ethnic minorities). When asked if she thought that the demands of the ‘March of Millions’ should be whittled down to just one slogan, one of the RSM’s leading figures, Isabel Magkoevu, said it should be ‘Freedom of Political Prisoners’ and replied: “100%. This is the only demand we can achieve now. But instead of this we carry on like worshippers, coming out onto the streets chanting one and the same thing: Down with Putin. Give us free elections. But this is just not achievable”.
Liberals win almost all seats
The thirty people who were elected to the “general section” of the Coordination Council consist of a combination of supporters of the oligarch Michael Prokorov, who wants a 60 hour working week introduced, the right wing “anti corruption” blogger Aleksei Navalnii, ex neo-liberal ministers and presidential advisors and representatives of the neo-liberal opposition parties. There are at least six millionaires represented. Evgenii Chirikova, leader of the campaign to save Khimkinskii forest and a pro-capitalist green, also won a seat.
Role of the “Left”
Only two “lefts” were officially elected. One, Oleg Shein, a former left trade-unionist who describes himself as a “socialist” has spent the last few years acting as one of the leaders of the pro-Kremlin ‘Just Russia’ party. The other, Sergei Udaltsov, who gained 21, 424 votes, has become the best known “left” over the past couple of years.
But Sergei Udaltsov has not played a good role in developing the Left. From the beginning of the protests, he argued and acted for unity with the liberals and the ultra-right. Superficially radical – always the last to leave the protest and the first to be arrested – Udaltsov just echoes liberal slogans on democracy and the need for “social demands”. A Stalinist, Udaltsov openly states that the current stage Russia is going through is the struggle for bourgeois democracy and only when that is achieved, he says, we can talk about fighting for socialism, some time in the distant future. To the CWI proposal to form a block of left candidates on the basis of the principles we proposed (see above), in his TV debate with Zhenya Otto, a CWI candidate, Udaltsov cynically proposed a block of Left organisations, well-knowing that his own “Left Front” was split – half were opposed to participation in the election, at all and the other half were in favour of unity with the ultra-right. Udaltsov then demonstrated his real position in the days before the election by calling for a “balanced” election; he announced he was giving just half of his votes to the left candidates, while the rest were to be shared between the liberals and the fascists!
Ultra-right – not so strong
Quite significant however is the poor showing for the ultra-right. They did not win a single seat in the General Block, although the anti-corruption blogger, Alexei Navalny, who topped the poll, is close to the far right. He coined the term, “Don’t feed the Caucuses” – a call to stop government subsidies to Russia’s poorest regions such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Since then, other ‘liberals’ have encouraged people to join this week’s so-called “Russian March”, organized by the far right and Great Russian chauvinists. During the election debates, the ultra-right stressed their support for neo-liberal policies yet most of the support for the far right comes from those whose incomes and social benefits are suffering as a result of the very same neo-liberal policies. In the light of this, those such as Udaltsov and other lefts, including the RSM, who do not pose answers to the problems caused by neo-liberalism, must bear some of the responsibility for the strength of the far-right. Even more scandalously, part of Udaltsov’s Left front have decided to participate in the Russian March in St Petersburg.
CWI demands votes are genuine
Some explanation is required about the votes. According to the official results of the Electoral Commission set up by the opposition to oversee the elections, CWI candidates won the following votes: Elena Volkova 13,437 (18%) of those voting and Igor 3,334 (4%). Zhenya, on the Left list, won 9963 (15%). Although Lena’s vote was greeted with considerable enthusiasm, it turned out to be an incorrect figure.
In the mid 1990’s, a notorious con-man, Sergei Mavrodi, set up the huge ‘MMM pyramid scheme’, which, when it collapsed, left hundreds of thousands without savings. Having served some time in prison and having made his peace with the Kremlin, Mavrodi, started running new financial schemes. He organized for up to 60 of his “investors” to register as candidates in the opposition elections and up to 40,000 people to register as voters. They were apparently instructed to vote for Mavrodi’s list of candidates under threat of having their accounts blocked.
Having realized what was happening, the Electoral Commission – a body appointed by opposition leaders – disqualified the candidates and managed to identify nearly 17,000 of Mavrodi’s “voters”. They disqualified 9,500 of them, but on a flimsy excuse the remainder was allowed to vote. If the 9,500 had remained as voters, at least eight of the liberals who won seats would have lost their places. But by leaving 7500 ‘voters, the result for the Left block was considerably distorted but without affecting either the nationalist or the liberals results. Four of the five “victors” of the Left block were actually supported by these remaining 7,500 Mavrodi votes.
Unfortunately, and to her disgust, Lena was included in Mavrodi’s list of candidates he suggested should be supported. The logic is that Mavrodi claims to stand for “the ordinary person” against the rich and famous. Thus in the view of the CWI in Russia, Lena’s real vote, which was later accepted by the head of the Electoral Commission , was 5,836, which, in itself, is an incredible achievement for someone who had started the campaign as practically unknown. The Head of the Electoral Commission also accepted that if the fraudulent voting on the Left list was ignored, both Zhenya Otto and one other left were actually elected. However, the Head refused to recognize their election, appealing instead to the candidates who had been fraudulently elected to stand aside, which is as about as effective as asking Putin to voluntarily step down.
Liberal democracy for the rich, no better than Putin’s
The elections have demonstrated what form of democracy the liberals want. Big business candidates in the form of the blocks of Navalnii and Prokorov managed to win their places in the General List with the help of money and widespread media exposure (one of those elected actually owns the ‘Dozhd’ opposition TV channel), while the Left were kept out using the ‘carousel tactics’ using Mavrodi’s votes. (The fraudulent parliamentary and presidential elections, earlier this year, saw the widespread use of the carousel whereby thousands of voters were paid and transported around polling stations to vote for certain candidates). To rub salt into the wound, it has now emerged that one of the “lefts” elected fraudulently in this way is also an activist in the pro-Putin ‘Nashi’ movement and another is a regular participant in fascist activities.
CWI comes out stronger
Nevertheless, the CWI in Russia did not participate with the sole aim of winning. Participation in these elections raised our profile significantly. Remarkably, Lena managed to go from being a hardly-known candidate to chasing the heels of many ‘VIP candidates’ – many of those who actually finished ahead of her are TV presenters, former ministers, leading opposition figures, journalists and TV show hosts and deputies, most of whom appear on the TV, in one form or another, day-in, day-out.
We demonstrated that our candidates can present a socialist programme in an attractive way without making political concessions and perhaps, most importantly, we demonstrated that the Russian Left needs to change its approach. The sectarian dismissal of the protest by many lefts, on the one side, and the opportunist adaption to the demands of the liberals and nationalists, on the other side, were no policy for the working class and youth. The success of CWI candidates demonstrated that if the Left was to present a united front, campaigning against neo-liberalism and nationalism and encouraging the rank and file involvement in decision making on the protests, it would be possible for the Left to take over the leadership of the protests.