Letter From the Editors
In May, when A Just Russia – For Truth leader Sergei Mironov called for this year’s elections to be canceled, one could not escape the irony of how the media shorthanded the party by calling it the esery (based on the Cyrillic initials of the two first words of the party’s name, Spravedlivaya Rossia). Historically, esery has referred to the Socialist Revolutionaries, a party famous for its militant opposition to Tsarist autocracy and military adventurism. The original esery helped force the State Duma into existence, and for one long summer, controlled it; today, in the run-up to an election they sought to avoid, the latter-day esery face the existential question of what Russia’s opposition ought to be opposing, and how hard.
To be fair, many members of the ruling party are confused about this issue too, as our first feature shows. Local election commissions across Russia are facing lawsuits from A Just Russia, RFCP, LDPR and Noviye Lyudi for removing candidates from ballots. Analyst Aleksei Mukhin explains: “Local authorities in the regions act on their own and block the opposition, even though there are no directives from above. . . . The federal center has no interest in election scandals.”
Thus, the courts have tended to intervene on behalf of opposition candidates this election cycle, and United Russia bigwigs themselves would ultimately step in to avoid tainting the party’s strongest polling position in eight years. The Kremlin has other ways of keeping the opposition in line. In Karelia, expert Konstantin Kalachov noted, “although it was originally planned to dilute the [gubernatorial] campaign with 12 opponents, it is technically impossible to register everyone.” Concerning the runner-up party of the past several cycles, another expert comments: “The RFCP has not bothered to participate actively in elections in regions where it can count on success, even though it could come in second in Moscow’s municipal elections.” In Mari El, where the Communists have come out ahead of United Russia before, the underdog party is not even running a gubernatorial candidate. Kalachov explains these arrangements by pointing to the criminal cases against successful oppositionists: “Even if they do get their election candidate into office by bypassing the federal center, he will clearly not last long.”
With the war in Ukraine and Putin himself off limits, the opposition has instead set its sights on Russia’s late first president and his memorial library. Kalachov offers his insights here as well: “For the authorities, a splashy debate can serve as proof that there is democracy in the country. And attacks on the Yeltsin Center are not prohibited, so any ideological opponents of the liberals and the ’90s club can score political points off this. For the authorities, this is yet another excuse to say: ‘This is public opinion, freedom of speech,’ which means dragging the Yeltsin Center through the mud is allowed.” At the same time, “[t]he current president is officially Yeltsin’s successor. So the first president’s center will go on operating.”
Everywhere one looks in Russian politics, the Kremlin’s impulses for conservatism and authoritarianism are coming into conflict. If Putin has any wholesome political instinct, it is that a certain amount of public disputation will make him appear even more indispensable and spare him the hidden daggers. But how much is too much? After all, Putin is an ambitious man, and, as Yulia Latynina pithily observes, “democracy is incompatible with geostrategy.” Jailed opposition politician Ilya Yashin is convinced that the president has repressed public debate to a destabilizing degree and, what’s more, has made himself a liability to many powerful Russians. “Putin himself is not blind: He sees everything perfectly well and receives internal memorandums about the unrest brewing among the elites and the oligarchs.” The only question, according to Yashin, is where the daggers will come from. However, he does not relish the prospect of a bloody coup: “Naturally, the best option would be the peaceful transformation of a dictatorial regime into a normal democracy by means of elections.” One wonders which parties would be up to the task.