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Activists at a protest camp, demonstrating against President Putin in central Moscow, May 15, 2012.

Opinion: The opposition doesn't need leaders right now Where Russia's protesters should go from here

Source: Vedomosti
Activists at a protest camp, demonstrating against President Putin in central Moscow, May 15, 2012.
Activists at a protest camp, demonstrating against President Putin in central Moscow, May 15, 2012.
Photo: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In a new opinion piece for the newspaper Vedomosti, sociologist and economist Anton Oleinik argues that there could be a bright side to the recent scandals that have rocked many of the Russian opposition's leaders, resulting in the collapse of the so-called “Democratic Coalition,” which united several protest factions and political groups. According to Olenik, the lack of turnover in Russian elections and the country's absence of a consensus on the basic rules of politics mean that a different, leaderless approach to protests could be more successful than strategies that mirror how those in power operate. Meduza translates Vedomosti's text here.

Many argue that the scandals involving the leaders of Russia's political opposition in the run-up to this September's parliamentary elections play right into the hands of the ruling elite. Using any means available to discredit the leaders of the democratic opposition, it's said that the people now in power are ensuring desired outcomes in the State Duma elections this fall, and in the presidential election in 2018. 

But if we look at the situation from another point of view, it could be that today's disappointment in the opposition's leaders and the collapse of the democratic coalition, ironically, may contribute to qualitative changes in Russia's protest potential, perhaps ultimately strengthening it. Critically minded citizens, after all, must learn to live without thinking only of their leaders—and this includes the opposition's leaders. 

Where's the trust?

In Western countries, the differences between the political forces in power and in the opposition are visible, as economists say, only “at the margins.” In other words, they're split on certain issues (the social security system, or global warming, for instance), but they agree about the existing rules of the game in politics. Adam Przeworski, a famous theorist of democratic societies, says the losing side in democratic elections still has the chance of regaining power in the next elections, and so it remains interested in the preservation of the system of democratic elections.

The creators of the popular BBC series “The Thick of It,” a show about the inner workings of the British government, took this idea to its logical, grotesque conclusion. In the show, there are virtually no differences whatsoever between the Labor Party and the Conservatives. Both groups are interested solely in gaining access to the levers of power. Except only one side enjoys that coveted access at any one time, and the other is forced to wait temporarily—until its next chance—while settling for a spot in the “shadow cabinet.” 

In the case of Russia, things break down a little differently. While the chances of a change in the country's leadership hover around zero, the existing rules of the game appeal only to those already in power, while the opposition is left totally unsatisfied. 

It was precisely a rejection of these existing rules (the virtual impossibility of turnover in the government by means of elections) that brought together an opposition coalition in 2011 and 2012, which was composed of disparate political forces and even groups of diverging worldviews: from moderate nationalists to leftists. Russia's ruling elite campaigned under a banner of preserving the status quo, while the opposition stressed the need to change the basic rules of the game (and not just, for instance, the fees charged on toll roads). 

The rules of the road

The opposition coalition eventually dwindled until it ultimately fell apart, but the need to demand fundamental changes in the rules of the political system has not disappeared. But the fact is that Russia's opposition is built largely on the same principles as the country's ruling elite. One of these principles is the leader figure, who personifies the movement, making all the key decisions for the group.

This scenario is fine when both the group in power and those in the opposition can agree about the existing rules of the game in politics, differing only about the details. But clearly this is not the case in Russia. And in order to campaign convincingly for new, democratic rules of the game, the opposition would be wise to implement them in its own organization and activism. Among other things, this would mean rejecting the idea that everything must be pegged to the leader figure, whoever that leader is. 

In other words, to promote democratic rules of the game in politics, opposition forces must transition to a model that doesn't have explicit leaders.

Some historical examples

There are well-known precedents here. For example, the student protests in the United States in the 1960s did not have formal leaders. Their success (in terms of using protests to prompt changes in mainstream culture and institutions) was the achievement not of concrete leaders, but of ordinary members of critically minded communities. The sit-ins and occupied spaces that would later become classics of nonviolent protest weren't devised by anyone in particular. Unnamed opposition activists in the late 1960s merely adapted them to the conditions that prevailed then in American society. 

Another example of an opposition movement without clearly expressed leaders existed up until a certain point in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. Contrary to the “Western” or “oligarchic” rationales aggressively propagated in Russia about Ukrainian protesters, the Maidan movement is a good illustration of a spontaneous, grassroots mobilization of a critically minded mass group. All the movement's formal leaders—from the current mayor of Kiev to today's Ukrainian president—originally played deeply secondary roles in the internal dynamics of Ukraine's protests. And the fact that these protests have led to Ukraine's current crisis should not be counted against the movement's lack of leaders, but understood largely as the result of factors external to the protests altogether.

There have been attempts in Russia to form an opposition movement without leaders. For instance, the “Oborona” youth movement (which was active in the latter half of the 2000s, but virtually nonexistent during the protests between 2011 and 2013) first positioned itself as a group free from the problems of leadership. In the end, however, it, too, transformed into an organization with a strong internal hierarchy. 

Where do they go from here?

There are, of course, challenges to building a Russian opposition without a leader, and they are considerable. For instance, where in Russia can activists learn self-organization?  Where can they learn to achieve anything without turning to a leadership? In their hierarchically organized families, schools, universities, and offices? 

At the same time, incentives to start experimenting with grassroots self-organization without explicit leaders is stronger now than ever. It's significantly harder for the authorities to discredit a leaderless movement. Whose bedrooms do they bug? Whose brother do they declare a swindler and then throw behind bars? Every critically thinking citizen? It's unlikely that Russia's prisons or even its technological capacity for surveillance could meet such needs. So it's at least worth trying to live and to protest without turning to leaders and without putting our hopes in a single figure “who knows and decides everything.”

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.

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