Tag Archives: Alexei Navalny

Analysis of Russian Election Results

The results of last week’s election to the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, are now in. The big winners? The ruling United Russia party (UR) which won 50% of the vote. Second was the Communist Party of the Russian Federation at 19%; next at 7.5% was Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) as well as A Just Russia – For Truth; and last to win a batch a seats was a new formation, New People, which got just over 5%. Nine other parties collected 12% between them but failed to get over the 5% needed to get seats according to the party list system. 

I have analyzed the results in an article for RT (here) As I say, both UR, whose result was 5% down compared with the last election in 2016, and the Communists, whose vote was about 6% up, have reason to be happy. UR will win close to 320 seats out of the 450 available, a majority of over two-thirds. Meanwhile, the CPRF has enjoyed its best election for 20 years, consolidating its position as Russia’s main opposition. When Russians are dissatisfied with their rulers, the Communists are their first choice for an alternative. It’s a sobering thought for those in the West who imagine that a post-Putin Russia will be all love and cuddles. 

There’s only so much that one can put in a 1,000 word article, so I thought I should develop some points further here. 

1. Fraud. UR’s 50% is well above predictions. Pre-election polls had the party pegged at about 35% of decided, definite voters. In the past, undecideds have tended to gravitate towards UR or have just not voted at all, so it was to be expected that UR would get more than the 35% polled. 40% would not have been unreasonable. The state polling company VTsIOM was predicting 45%. But 50% is way beyond expectations. Unsurprisingly, some people consider the result more than a little fishy. 

Of course, some were going to shout fraud whatever happened. But UR’s showing certainly provides grounds for suspicion. The Central Electoral Commission cancelled results from several polling stations after cameras spotted ballot stuffing. Who knows how many others got away with it. 

The main target at this moment in time is the system of electronic voting. For the first time, Russians had the option of voting in person in the old fashion way with pen and paper, or online. Even before the election, critics were saying that the latter was a recipe for abuse, as it would be impossible for outsiders to verify the published results. 

What makes people doubly suspicious is that when the results were issued, it turned out that a higher percentage of online than in-person voters cast their ballots for UR. Moscow has become a particular focus of attention. The electronic results from Moscow were delayed for several hours. Until they were published, opposition (i.e. non-UR) candidates were leading in nearly all the Moscow constituencies. Once the electronic votes were declared, the balance tipped and UR won every single seat. Some people are calling foul, and suggesting that the delay was caused by the requirement to rig the result and calculate just how many extra votes were needed to give UR a win in each constituency.

The Moscow electoral commission stands by its results and says that the delay was due to the novelty of the system, the large number of electronic voters, and the fact that in Moscow electors had the option to change their vote, which supposedly caused some problems in the system. The commission says that it checked the results 4 times to ensure that they were accurate. You may believe it or not, as you wish.

An explanation for the Moscow anomaly could be that different categories of voters prefer different systems of voting. In last year’s US presidential election, for instance, postal voting was greatly preferred by Biden supporters. Trump appeared to be about to win several states until the results of the postal ballots were added, 80% of which went to Biden, swinging the states in favour of the latter. Perhaps a similar dynamic is at work in Russia. Maybe anti-UR voters didn’t trust electronic voting and so stayed clear of it, thus giving them a majority among paper voters but ensuring a majority the other way around among electronic voters.

Or maybe it was fraud, pure and simple. The very nature of electronic voting means that we don’t the evidence at our disposable to say definitively one way or the other. At any rate, the Moscow electronic results will provide those wanting to denounce the elections as fraudulent with a plausible means of doing so. Defeated Communist candidates are calling for protests in Moscow. It will be interesting to see if anyone turns up.

2. Liberal defeat and New People. If the Communists did well, Russia’s main liberal parties – Yabloko, Civic Platform, and the Party of Growth – did dismally, polling just 1.5% between the three of them, although it looks like they all might get one Duma deputy due to victories in single member constituencies. Yabloko did the best of the three, but at just over 1% this was its worst result ever. At this point it’s hard to see what purpose the party serves by continuing to exist. It’s a mere shell of its former self and I see no way that it can recover. It’s well past time for the banner of liberalism to pass on to somebody else.

That somebody could perhaps be the party New People, which garnered 5% and so is entitled to about a dozen seats in parliament. New People was only created last year, so it’s hard to say much about it or what it stands for. But as far as I’ve been able to find out (and I’m willing to be corrected if I have this wrong), it’s a moderately economically liberal party that stresses getting practical results in Russia’s localities rather than fighting with the authorities in Moscow. If you know your 19th century Russian liberal history, it strikes me as a little bit like the ‘small deeds’ liberalism of the late imperial zemstvo movement.

There’s a long-standing streak in Russian liberalism that regards fighting the state as pretty much the definition of what it means to be liberal. Gosudarstvennost’ (statehood) and obshchestvennost, (roughly speaking, hand-shakeable, liberally correct public opinion) are assumed to be irreconcilable enemies. Consequently, New People’s attitude to the central authorities makes many members of contemporary obshchestvennost’ consider the party to be little more than a bunch of Kremlin stooges. However, given that the alternatives have failed so utterly dismally, New People’s non-confrontational approach may be about the only hope that Russian liberalism has for a revival.

Will New People amount to anything? Only time will tell, but for now it can legitimately claim to have more appeal among liberally-minded urban professional types than do the likes of Yabloko. Likewise it has some good reasons for claiming that its approach offers greater prospects than the street liberalism of radicals like Alexei Navalny.

Which provides a suitable link for a discussion of ‘smart voting.’

3. Smart Voting. This is the scheme dreamt up by imprisoned activist Alexei Navalny and his team. It encourages electors to vote for whatever candidate in a given constituency has the best chance of defeating the candidate of United Russia. It doesn’t matter which party that first candidate is from – smart voting says that you should vote for him or her in order to stop UR from winning.

Navalny and his boosters claim that smart voting is the bees knees and has the powers that be trembling in their beds. The reality is that it is a dud.

Navalny’s top aide, Leonid Volkov, claims that smart voting won in nearly all the constituencies in Moscow and St Petersburg, at least until the authorities fiddled the vote with the online results. There’s a few things wrong with this.

In the first place, fraud or no fraud, at the end of the day, the candidates recommended by smart voting lost. In the second place, most of them were Communists. If they did well, it was because of the general upsurge in Communist support, not because of smart voting, which in any case didn’t identify the preferred candidates until the day before the election and so can’t have made that much of a difference. Calling Communists ‘Navalny-backed candidates’ and claiming credit for their success is a fraud that nobody should fall for.

And third, in some cases where non-UR candidates won, they did so despite smart voting recommending somebody else. For instance, the Communists beat UR into second place in the far eastern province of Yakutia, but smart voting told people in Yakutia to vote for A Just Russia. Anybody who followed smart voting’s advice would have helped UR not hindered it. Similarly, a Yabloko candidate managed to win a seat in a by-election for the Moscow City Council. But smart voting told electors to cast their ballot for the Communist candidate. This latter case, I think, proves the point that even in Moscow, the most liberal city in Russia, voters don’t do what smart voting tells them to.

To tell if smart voting had any effect, one would have to do a detailed study comparing local single-member constituency results with the votes cast for party lists in the same constituencies, taking into account issues which might distort the sample, such as the popularity or non-popularity of individual candidates. Obviously, this is beyond my means. But even if one did manage to find some minor impact in a few places, at the macro-level UR won nearly 200 of the 225 constituency seats. At the level which matters, in other words, smart voting failed totally.

This confirms what I’ve been saying for a long time, namely that Navalny and his team are over-hyped deadenders. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

Vote Smart, Vote Communist

in my latest for RT (here), I discuss Alexei Navalny’s ’smart voting’ scheme in the light of the list of preferred candidates for this week’s Russian parliamentary elections just issued by Navalny’s team. There are 225 single member constituencies up for grab. Team Navalny recommends one candidate per constituency and suggests voters cast their ballot for thar person, as the candidate most likely to beat the ruling United Russia party.

So who does Navalny recommend?

Communists mostly (61% of the total), plus some from the left nationalist Just Russia, and the occasional person from other parties. But only a handful of liberals.

In short, voting smart means voting Communist.

Now tell me, please, what’s so smart about that? As I argue in my article, precious little.

Russian Liberal Infighting Continues

In an article this weekend for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the latest bout of infighting among Russia’s small liberal opposition. In this instance, the Yabloko Party has refused to let associates of Alexei Navalny run as candidates for the party in forthcoming elections. In addition, party leader Grigory Yavlinsky declared that he didn’t even want Navalny supporters’ votes. “Whoever wants to vote for Navalny, don’t vote for us,”  he said. In my article, I discuss what might lie behind Yabloko’s anti Navalny stance.

Enjoy!

Russia’s Futile Extremist Law

This week, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, approved the first reading of a bill designed to restrict the rights of people associated with groups officially designated as ‘extremist’. As described by Meduza:

“According to the draft law, former “leaders” of terrorist or extremist groups will be banned from running for parliament for a five-year period after said organization is outlawed officially. For an organization’s regular employees, as well as “other persons involved in its activities,” the ban on being elected to parliament will last for three years.

What’s more, anyone who led an outlawed organization in the three years before it was blacklisted could be deprived of the right to be elected to the State Duma. Anyone who supported or worked for an outlawed organization one year before the ban could face the same penalty. In other words, the legislation is meant to have retroactive effect.”

Unsurprisingly, this law has engendered some hostile criticism from those who see it is proof that the Russian state is moving away from ‘soft authoritarism’ towards something closer to ‘hard authoritarianism’. I share the general lack of enthusiasm, and regard the law as definitely a step in an undemocratic direction. Beyond that, I also consider it completely pointless. My logic is as follows:

  1. The law in effect allows the executive branch of government to prevent anybody it so wishes from standing for election, simply by declaring the organization to which they belong as ‘extremist’. This is not a power one would wish the executive in any society to have.
  2. Why not? First, because it’s arguably contrary to democratic values in and of itself. Second, because the power is likely to be used arbitrarily. In Russia’s case, it seems to be directed against opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which the Russian state is attempting to label as ‘extremist’. But why FBK? Why not any number of other political groups who one might think much more properly fit the ‘extremist’ label? Why not the Rodina party, or Zhirinovsky’s LDPR? Or others? The reason seems to be that the Russian state doesn’t object to those, whereas it does object to Navalny. That’s not good reasoning.
  3. The only check on this is judicial review of the ‘extremist’ label, but there is an understandable lack of confidence in the Russian courts’ political independence.
  4. It’s completely unnecessary. No ‘extremist’ organization – including Navalny and his team – is in a position to win seats in parliamentary elections. The law seems to be directed against a threat which doesn’t exist.
  5. It’s counterproductive. The primary reason for considering Navalny and co. ‘extremist’ is their choice of tactics – street demonstrations. But there’s a reason why they resort to those – they feel that there is little point in using normal methods of political struggle via elections. It was rather similar in the late Imperial period – liberal oppositionists became more and more radical because the government restricted alternative modes of political engagement. By banning groups from participating in elections, you leave them no choice but to engage in street protest, seek support from foreign governments, etc. The way to de-radicalize them is to make electoral politics meaningful. This legislation does the opposite.

So, all in all, this legislation takes Russia in the wrong direction, in my opinion. How far in that direction remains to seen. Much will depend on how it will be implemented. But even if the Russian state chooses not to list large numbers of groups as ‘extremist’, thereby limiting this laws scope, the very threat of such labelling could have a chilling effect on opposition activity. All in all, a bad week for Russian democracy.

More Bad Journalism on Russia

Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.

First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.

As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?

Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.

This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.

This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.

Continue reading More Bad Journalism on Russia

Why Aren’t More Russians Sympathetic to Navalny?

Opinion polls suggest that a) most Russians don’t believe that Alexei Navalny was poisoned, and b) far more Russians think that his imprisonment is fair than think it is unfair.

Why is this?

I discuss various theories in my latest piece for RT, which you can read here. Possible answers include:

a. Russians’ brains have been addled by state propaganda.

b. ‘The slave soul of the Russians’, which makes them resent anything that represents freedom.

c. Navalny himself – just not a very likeable guy.

d. Navalny’s association with the liberal opposition, a group that, in light of the experience of the 1990s, is considered by many to be irredeemably corrupt, as well as lackeys of the West.

e. Crying wolf – Russians don’t trust the source of the story that Navalny was poisoned, i.e. the West. This may be due to the extreme hyperbole that Western media and politicians have used in recent years.

Take your pick as to which you think is correct.

Amnesty, and the Failure of the Navalny REvolution

I don’t like spending too much time on the story of Alexei Navalny. For all of its personal drama and tragedy, ultimately, I suspect, it will end up being a mere footnote in history. Basically, as I see it, Navalny is a political dead end, not the paradigm changing revolutionary that so many in the hack pack believe him to be.

That said, people seem to expect me to churn out Navalny stories, so in response to the demand, I have written a couple.

The first, which you can find on the website of the Centre for International Policy Studies here, is a fairly basic survey of the whole Navalny saga, and explains why, in my opinion, his return to Russia and subsequent arrest has not sparked the mass political turmoil that so many pundits were expecting.

The second article, which is on RT here, looks at Amnesty International’s decision to stop referring to Navalny as a ‘prisoner of conscience.’ I point out that the decision makes little sense given that a) the hate speech Amnesty refers to is not relevant to Navalny’s imprisonment, and b) Amnesty continues to insist that Navalny’s jailing is political. The message seems to be that we only deem people ‘prisoners of conscience’ if we happen to like them. I conclude that this is a bad precedent.

Enjoy!

Defaming Veterans

I have written a piece for RT paralleling Alexei Navalny’s trial for defaming a WW2 veteran with the arrest of someone in Scotland on similar charges, and link it all to the place of WW2 in national mythology. You can read it here.

Meanwhile, my morning newspaper brought me this story of a fellow professor at the University of Ottawa whom a Polish court has just ordered to apologize for allegedly defaming someone (long dead, I believe) in relation to WW2. Is this a new trend?

Talking about Navalny on Al-Jazeera

I joined a panel on Al-Jazeera’s show ‘The Stream’ today, to discuss Alexei Navalny. The video is embedded below.

The key moment for me was when another guest, Roman Dobrokhotov, said that things in Russia would be very different if millions of people protested ‘and that is what is likely to happen.’ It strikes me that these people are living in a world of fantasy, in which they will be able to mobilize vast hordes onto the streets and bring about a revolution. At the same time, they are obviously rather isolated even within the opposition movement. This became clear when Dobrokhotov called Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky ‘Putin’s man’, who does whatever Putin tells him to (which is clearly not true).

Anyway, decide for yourself.

Navalny REvolution Collapses in Mutual Recrimination

Last week, I spent some time writing about the Decembrists – a group of disgruntled army officers who launched a failed coup in December 1825 in an attempt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. The Decembrists were divided into two groups – the Northern Society and the Southern Society. The former were considered more moderate, and came up with a plan for a constitutional monarchy. The latter, by contrast, plotted to murder the entire Royal family and institute a republic.

The leader of the Southern Society was an officer named Pavel Pestel, who wrote a sort of draft constitution for his proposed republic, in which everyone was to be equal before the law, citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, and the country would have a parliament elected by universal franchise. It all sounded very democratic. Except that Pestel made it clear that all of that stuff would have to wait for at least ten years. In the meantime, Russia would be run by a dictatorship. Who was to be the dictator? Pestel didn’t say, but many of his colleagues felt that it was obvious that he had himself in mind. According to his biographer, Pestel alienated many others in the movement by ‘the perceived Napoleonic scale of his personal ambitions.’

The idea of the wannabe Napoleon lurking behind a democratic façade was making headlines again this week, with the publication of an article by the leader of the liberal Russian party Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky. In this Yavlinsky denounced opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was recently jailed after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from poisoning.

After making some unsavoury comments about the Putin ‘regime’, Yavlinsky condemned Navalny’s tactic of endless street protests, saying that they couldn’t possibly overthrow the government and would only lead to more repression. He then cited at length the late liberal writer Valeriia Novodvorskaia, who called Navalny ‘the future leader of the mindless mob, with a Nazi inclination.’ ‘If the masses follow Navalny’, Yavlinsky quoted Novodvorskaia as saying, ‘fascism awaits the country.’ Yavlinksy made it clear that he agreed. ‘There is nothing positive in Navalny’s pretensions to participate in Russian politics,’ he wrote.

Yavlinsky’s suspicions of Navalny aren’t unique among Russian liberals. I get the impression that a lot of them don’t like him very much. But Russian oppositionists have long taken the view that the only real enemy is the state, and so you shouldn’t attack others who are with you in wanting to overthrow it. Consequently, it didn’t take long for people to start laying into Yavlinsky for having dared to break this taboo. Most notably, the former mayor of Ekaterinburg Evgeny Roizman declared that it would now be impossible for him to ally with the Yabloko party in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Russian liberals are divided enough as it is, with several parties competing for what is already a small share of the vote. Rather than uniting the opposition, it would seem that Navalny’s return to Russia has served to split them into even smaller fragments.

This is not what was meant to have happened. For weeks, Western media was crowing that something had fundamentally changed in Russia, and that the demonstrations against Navalny’s arrest which took place in cities across the country were a sign of a new mood of discontent that was bound to lead to an accelerating wave of protest. Navalny, it was said, had galvanised the Russian population against the government.

Yet after two weekends of demonstrations, last week Navalny’s deputy Leonid Volkov called them off. That was it – the great wave of protests lasted all of two weekends. All things told, it can only be deemed a failure.

Volkov then made things worse by declaring that he was embarking on a new strategy, namely to mobilize Western states to impose more and more sanctions on Russia. If he’d wanted to endorse the Kremlin’s claim that Navalny and his team are in the pay of the West, Volkov couldn’t have found a better way.

Meanwhile, Navalny dug his own grave a bit more this past week in an appearance in court to face charges that he had slandered a World War Two veteran. If you don’t want to be convicted of slander, one might imagine that you would avoid insulting the person you are accused of slandering in court. You might, but not if you’re Alexei Navalny, who took the opportunity to accuse the veteran of being a ‘puppet’. Putting aside the validity of the court process, one can see that this wasn’t the wisest thing to do. There aren’t many war veterans left alive, and those that are have a sort of holy image that is wrapped up in Russians’ sense of patriotic pride of the victory over Nazi Germany. You insult that at your peril. Needless to say, the Russian media were all over the story, painting Navalny as treacherous and unpatriotic, and disrespectful of Russia’s sacrifices in the struggle versus fascism.

If something like the modern press had existed two hundred years ago, one can imagine how they would have covered the Decembrist revolt: ‘Regime in trouble’; ‘Failed coup marks first step in campaign of protest’; ‘Arrest of Pestel further undermines Tsar’s legitimacy’. And so on. Yet Nicholas I lived on as Tsar for another 30 years, and it took another 50 years on top of that before another serious attempt to overthrow the regime took place. Of course, history never exactly repeats itself, but for now it looks very much as if the Navalny revolution has shot its bolt.