Russia’s new generation of democratic forces
Free Russia Foundation recently hosted in Washington a delegation of pro-democracy municipal officials and activists from Russia. The delegates, representing various local government and political movements in Russia, participated in a series of panel discussions focusing on the recent success of the Russian opposition at the local level – and hopes for changing the political landscape and building bridges with the West.
Free Russia Foundation organized the panel discussions jointly with the Henry Jackson Foundation on May 4 and with the Atlantic Council on May 7. The following is a selection of key take-outs from the events:
Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation, said that alternative leaders are beginning to emerge in Russia. In September 2017, there was a breakthrough in Moscow’s municipal elections, in which pro-democracy candidates won over 200 seats, becoming the second largest political power in the Russian capital. This focus on local politics is a new strategy of the democratic movement in Russia, said Arno. With over 200,000 municipal seats across the country, local government could be the key to a democratic future in Russia. “The new generation of Russia’s democratic politicians has the vision, the long-term strategy and the determination to continue its fight to make Russia free, democratic and prosperous,” said Arno.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation and vice-chairman of Open Russia, said that in authoritarian states local government is often the only place for “real political life,” where candidates have a close relationship with citizens. At this level, as Kara-Murza said, “official state propaganda loses some of its dominance” and municipal elections reveal the real public opinion, a potential “precursor” for significant political change.
Local government can also play a significant role in national or even international importance, said Kara-Murza. As one example, he cited Washington, D.C., City Council’s recent decision to rename a street in front of the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov, after a similar initiative stalled in the U.S. Congress. The D.C. initiative was carried out under the leadership of Phil Mendelson, who was also a special guest at the Free Russia Foundation event.
Julia Galiamina, a municipal deputy of Moscow’s Timiryazevsky District, said, “The democratization of Russia is only possible from the bottom up because democratizing forces at the top has proven to lead back to the authoritarian regime.” As the success of the 2017 local elections has shown, there are resources and potential at the local level and democratic forces need not move up, but horizontally, to spread democracy and to embrace civil society. During the last seven years, Galiamina said, there has been a rise in grassroots initiatives and civic activity, with people becoming more concerned about various local issues and starting to stand up for their rights. By embracing civic activism, people are moving toward new democratic ideas and democratic leaders should support these movements. The strategy, said Galiamina, should be to help people to become citizens, citizens to become civil activists, and civil activists to become local public office holders. Yet there is also the problem of a low level of trust towards authorities and a fear of politicization, said Galiamina. “One of our goals is to revive trust in politics and democratization,” she said.
Natalia Shavshukova, an organizer of the School of Local Governance and a former municipal deputy of the Levoberezhny District in Moscow, said that democracy cannot be forced on Russia – rather, it is a process and its values need to be advocated. Since democratic forces are excluded from the federal level and often from the regional level, the local level has become the main stage of democratic governance in today’s Russia. Yet there are also opportunities, as the success in last year’s municipal elections in Moscow has shown. “We should go further to replicate the success of Moscow’s city elections in other parts of Russia,” said Shavshukova, adding that the recent success owes itself to collaboration between different democratic groups, mainly new and unofficial ones.
Supporting protests is important since it builds solidarity and civil society, but if a rapid political change were to occur, there could be an issue with professional qualifications. The School of Local Governance provides training to local activists and members of liberal parties and movements, with more than 500 alumni across Russia, including 149 candidates who won seats in the Moscow elections last year, said Shavshukova. Looking at the big picture, there are 200,000 seats in local municipalities throughout Russia, with an additional 4,000 regional deputies and 450 State Duma deputies. But there is a lack of qualified candidates at the moment, said Shavshukova.
Vladislav Naganov is a municipal deputy in Khimki District Council, Moscow Oblast, who has largely built his campaign on the legacy of Evgenia Chirikova – a prominent environmental activist. Naganov said it is extremely important to build the political base and voter support for municipal deputies, which may pave the way for success at the regional and federal level. The network of supporters can grow through various local initiatives, including homeowner associations and environmental campaigns – the latter has enjoyed strong support in the Moscow region, said Naganov. Support can also be found among those who oppose the Moscow Oblast governor’s plans to centralize power in the region by transforming municipals districts into urban jurisdictions, which have appointed leaders as opposed to elected ones.
“Our only chance is to continue our hard work and to prepare for unexpected victories if the opportunity emerges,” said Naganov.
by Valeria Jegisman