In Russia opponents but no opposition

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The 18 March presidential election is Russia demonstrates how difficult it is to build and consolidate a political party in such a centralised system. In consequence, Russia has its lot of opponents, but no opposition. Suffice it to look at the choice proposed to voters, with on one side a sure winner and on the other seven expected losers.

Since 1993, the only opposition party has been the Communist Party, which proposes the new face of Pavel Grudinin as the surprise alternative to yet one more candidacy of  Gennadi Ziuganov. It is not only a change of personality but also an ideological switch, from the old apparachik to a kind of “red director”. Grudinin relies on his reputation as successful entrepreneur who reintroduced profitability in a former state farm, but also on a Soviet “collectif” spirit with an accent on ensuring social services to the workers. Russian media campaigns vilifying his fortune and accusations of tax frauds have not greatly shocked a public saturated with stories of corruption; and he will probably get the second highest score after Putin.

On the other side of the picture, the liberal camp is in disarray and has never managed to capitalise on 2011-2012 successful post-electoral protests. This was cruelly exposed on 25 February, when, for the third successive year, the “democratic opposition” marched in memory of one of their champion, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, assassinated on the bridge leading to Red Square. Marchers shouted “Russia without Putin”. But three weeks before the presidential elections, the march was aptly described as “symbolically important” by one of its organiser, Ilia Yashin.

Two candidates were present. One was the veteran Grigori Yavlinsky of Yabloko, whose personality played a crucial role in torpedoing numerous attempts to form a united liberal front. The second was Xenia Sobchak, whose candidacy has been denounced as a decoy of the Kremlin to split the liberal votes.

Alexei Navalny attended too. A non-candidate whose calls for a boycott have been denounced by a large part of the democratic opposition.

In fact, the real question about the Russian presidential election is less about their fairness than about the motives of candidates risking ridiculously low scores.

The simple answer is that none want to win, and that in the absence of structured parties, candidates are involved for personal motives.

Some just want to stay relevant. This is the case with Grigori Yavlinsky and, from a totally opposed background, of Vladimir Zhironovsky, whose party LDPR has a very low level of membership. The case too with Sergei Baburin, a nationalist, the candidate of the Russian All-People’s Union and a former member of the Communist Party (CPRF).

Others are using the campaign to promote their identity with an eye on a political future. This is the case of younger candidates such as Maxim Suraikin and Xenia Sobchak. Though players in different league both represent a younger generation, introducing fresh air.

Suraikin is the candidate of Communists of Russia which broke with the Communist Party (CPRF) in 2012 in protest against the “embourgeoisisation” of the CPRF. He describes himself as a true ‘Leninist-Stalinist”, wants to dismantle capitalism, and rejects Grudinin as an oligarch having no place in a communist party. Amazingly, the Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov does support Gudrinin and not Suraikin (Udaltsov, released in August after 4 years in jail for organising protests in 2012 has obtained permission for a post-electoral rally on central Moscow).

Sobchak has no ideological background but uses the campaign to test the field in Russia, where she is well known thanks to her television programmes, but has to convince voters she is no longer the arrogant golden girl of yesterday. However she is no longer unknown in the West, where she has been touring during the campaign.

Sobchak is also part of a third category of candidates who are polishing their image as persons representing civil society, ready to be co-opted by the regime after the election. They know that Putin would like to promote new faces and give sign of more openness. This category includes Boris Titov, candidate of the small Party of Growth, and an economic liberal entrepreneur who has already associated with the power through his role of President Putin’s Business Ombudsman since 2012.

The 7 + 1 share a declared common will to fight corruption and injustice, an accent echoing the anti-corruption campaign of Alexei Navalny. But Navalny denounces corruption in official circles and their links with criminals. Candidates of the left and nationalists denounce the “neoliberal mafia”. Liberals want reform to allow fairer competition. And Putin keeps the balance between competing circles whose corruption is a tool for ensuring his role of ultimate arbiter.

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