Kagarlitsky: How I became an enemy of the state

March 29, 2000

MOSCOW — A few months ago I was simply a political analyst. However, since March, I have stepped back into a role I had almost forgotten — that of coordinator of an informal political movement, in this case to organise a boycott of the Russian presidential election.

The only response a self-respecting person can make to this election is to refuse to play along. Democracy without freedom is impossible, and freedom stops where manipulation begins. An indestructible bloc of oligarchs and political fixers merits only contempt — and a boycott. The only way for the Russian people to "win" in this election is to ignore the propaganda, make pointless the manipulations by the political puppeteers, and, in the process, to turn their intrigues back upon them.

So the Union 2000 movement arose, putting forward the slogan: "Don't vote — It'd be shameful". Its members see that legitimising acting president Vladimir Putin's rule would be a political farce.

The campaign began with a demonstration on Moscow's Theatre Square on March 11, when activists smashed television sets at the monument to Karl Marx. A rock group performed, and young anarchists sang and danced in a ring. More respectable members of other left tendencies stood and watched. It was a sacrificial offering, a Russian journalist remarked.

The Russian police (militia) detained activist Vladimir Malkin and myself as instigators of acts of vengeance against defenceless television sets. As we were shoved into a militia Lada, young anarchists with threatening expressions gathered about. Peace was restored when we explained that as law-abiding citizens, we would not put up any resistance. The third "instigator", journalist Ivan Zasursky, was left alone by the militia; someone had to ensure order on the square. Through a megaphone, Zasursky declared the demonstration a success, since the organisers had been arrested.

We were not charged. On the contrary, the militia members were intrigued. After studying the leaflets distributed by Union 2000, they asked whether the smashing of the television sets had damaged the Karl Marx monument. We assured them that no damage had been done, and that the organisers held Marx and his monument in the utmost respect.

After a pause, a militia colonel asked: "What brand were the sets?". Temp and Rubin, made in Russia and considered of dubious quality. "We've got a Sony here", said a representative of the authorities. After 20 minutes, we were set loose.

On March 14, people calling for a vote against all the candidates decided to mount their own action, but unlike the organisers of the earlier boycott demonstration, they did not obtain the required permission from the authorities. The result was 14 arrests, including four passers-by.

In the city of Kirov, an activist of the radical left Movement for a Workers' Party was arrested while pasting up posters denouncing Putin and the elections. When a fellow member of the movement, a deputy in the provincial assembly, tried to intervene on his behalf, he was threatened with the loss of his legislator's immunity from prosecution.

On March 17, activists of Union 2000 who had been pasting up posters in Moscow were also stopped by the militia, who confiscated the posters and let the activists go.

Meanwhile, wreaking vengeance on television sets proved such a popular idea that Zasursky's phone ran hot as friends got in touch and offered their sets to be smashed. True, the offerings were mostly of ancient black and white Rekords and Rubins, rather than state-of-the-art imported models.

The television sets were not altogether defenceless. Beginning on the evening of March 11, they began to strike back. All television channels featured reports in which the organisers of day's boycott demonstration were accused of extremism, and of trying to undermine the Russian state system. The people trying to sabotage the elections were enemies of democracy, declared the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Mr Veshnyakov, who went on to threaten that the authorities would not stay on the sidelines.

Supporters of the boycott, Veshnyakov suggested, might be charged under Article 41 of the Criminal Code — hindering the exercise of electoral rights. Poor Veshnyakov evidently did not realise that this article is aimed primarily at his fellow officials in the electoral apparatus. If, for example, we bolt the doors of the polling stations, burn the ballot boxes, and send the ballot papers off to be pulped, that would be a breach of Article 41.

Practical jokes such as these are permitted only to officials. Activists exercising their freedom of speech and conducting lawful agitation on the streets, and filling out all the required forms and obtaining permission for their actions, clearly belong to another category of people. Especially since the right not to vote is just as sacred as the right to vote and to stand for election.

Hard-headed analysts and political specialists immediately began trying to work out who was behind the boycotters. It did not enter their heads that people might act on their own initiative. For the political fixers to accept that a demonstration shown on almost all the television stations could be mounted without spending money was quite impossible; that would be to undermine the market for their own services.

Such a demonstration must certainly have cost several thousand dollars, they declared. The cost of reproducing the labour power of the election specialists, including holidays by the Black Sea and dinners in expensive restaurants, would have needed to be met. But this time, nothing came of the specialists' search.

On March 13, representatives of left organisations opposed to the elections decided to hold a press conference. An hour and a half before it was due to begin, the National Press Institute, which was providing the hall, called the meeting off. Since press releases had already gone out, and editors had assigned reporters to cover the event, a group of journalists had gathered at the doors of the institute. The radical left parliamentarian Oleg Shein arrived and an impromptu meeting with journalists then took place.

Our press conference was finally held on March 17 in the House of Journalists. Here, there was a new surprise. Before the meeting with the press, Ivan Zasursky received a phone call. "The authorities are creating not only angels such as Putin", Zasursky observed, "but also demons. The authorities now need to present the people campaigning against the elections as a terrible destabilising force. They need to create the next enemy. I have received a phone call from someone close to Putin's election campaign staff, offering to finance our actions."

It seems that Union 2000 is not the only group that has received offers of money. Roman Tkach, leader of Proryv ("Breakthrough"), which has held a series of demonstrations under the slogan "Vote against all of them!". According to the internet source <http://www.deadline.ru> money was most likely offered to Proryv.

On March 18, Tkach appeared at a Union 2000 demonstration with a dozen of his followers, each of them with a professionally prepared placard. Accompanying them was a brass band. This would have been simply amusing if they had not had with them a truck carrying 200 kilograms of buckwheat, which the Proryv members planned to distribute to the population.

If Electoral Commission chief Veshnyakov had needed proof that the opponents of the elections were using illegal methods, here it was. A classic case of vote-buying, and those who were answerable for it were not the people from Proryv, but the organisers of the demonstration. The provocation did not succeed, as Union 2000 called a halt to the demonstration. As soon as this was announced, the militants of Proryv loaded their placards into the truck and quit the square.

Why should political specialists close to the authorities play these games? The answers are simple: they need an enemy, and they need to have people turn up at the polling stations — even if people vote against Putin. Provided enough people do this, the vote-counting specialists will manage the rest. In the 2000 presidential elections, "Against All" is being cast in the role filled by Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in 1993 and 1996 polls.

The electoral "technocrats" around the Kremlin have clearly been carried away with the game they are playing. They have ensured that the only meaningful choice before electors is to either vote against all the candidates, or to boycott. In the process, the political fixers have unmasked the system they helped construct. Now they have nowhere left to retreat to.

If things continue in this fashion, at the next elections the population will be offered a choice between a boycott and an armed insurrection. What if they choose the latter?

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.