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Moscow’s East-German scenario Oppositionist Leonid Volkov explains how a daring new voting strategy is supposed to destroy Russia’s political monopoly

Source: Meduza
Alexandra Zotova / PhotoXPress

Moscow’s political crisis continues, as demonstrators gear up for more protests against election officials’ refusal to register dozens of independent candidates for September 8’s City Duma race. On August 14, supporters of Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) proposed a voting strategy for the opposition, coordinated through the organization’s “Smart Vote” project. If the city’s independent candidates are not allowed onto the ballot, Navalny’s team wants people to vote for the most competitive candidates who aren’t directly associated with the Mayor’s Office. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova spoke to close Navalny aide and FBK project manager Leonid Volkov to find out how this campaign is supposed to work.

Explain the “Smart Voter” system. How does it work?

Based on experience in past elections, we know that up to 40 percent of voters wait until the moment the ballot is in their hands before deciding whom to support. People participate in elections on a whim or because they run into a neighbor leaving for the polls. And often they find themselves asking, “Who are all these people?” They look over a list of the candidates and make a decision. The signs posted with the candidates’ portraits are just pictures of complete nobodies, because no one knows their own City Duma representative or any of their competitors.

Now, with all the opposition candidates purged from the race, the remaining campaigns are proceeding as quietly and under-the-radar as possible. In this situation, we want a significant part of that 40 percent of people showing up at the polls to remember: “I don’t want to vote for somebody from United Russia, but how do I know who to vote for? Didn’t Navalny have something for this?” and then they google “Smart Vote,” and go vote. We’re mounting a whole promotional campaign right now, so as many people as possible find out about this “Smart Vote” thing, and as many people as possible register with the project. The website, of course, will still offer recommendations to those who don’t register, but clearly the more people who register, the easier it will be for us to contact them.

The better part of Muscovites support the protests, not Putin or United Russia. If voters can find information about how to vote against United Russia, we’ll win. The problem is that all the United Russia candidates are running as independents. There are 45 people on the Mayor’s List — they’re all from United Russia, and they’re all hiding their party affiliation. That’s why it’s especially important for us to explain this, so our voters (who are generally protest-inclined) don’t accidentally vote for some hospital chief physician who’s really just another vile member of [Mayor] Sobyanin’s United Russia, running in the elections as an independent.

United Russia’s rating in Moscow is under 30 percent. But that’s still enough to win in a single-mandate district, when there are five candidates. The United Russia candidates get 30 percent, because the state employees vote for them, and the other four each get 15 percent. The people with 30 percent become the deputies, even though nobody really supports them. We want to overcome this by consolidating the protest vote. Our message is very simple: we want to out-vote the people from United Russia. And this isn’t just about Moscow: we’re doing all this for 27 regional elections on Voting Day [September 8].

If you’re publishing the list on the website, why would anyone register?

We really want people to register because we expect major attacks on the website. They’ll try to block it, DDoS-attack it, and who knows what. When people register, it gives us their emails, which means we can still get them information and reach out. We don’t want to rely entirely on the website, but yes we’ll put all the information on the site, and do everything we can to protect it.

After the Telegram channel Comrade Major published a database of people who attended Moscow’s protests and allegedly support Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), do you think people will hesitate to share personal information?

Not once in the entire history of our work with databases have we ever had a single leak. Stories like [Comrade Major’s “leak”] are obviously published in an attempt to make people afraid to share their information. We’re seeing the authorities doing a lot to mess with “Smart Vote.” The whole thing scares them and makes them nervous. I’m certain there’s a reason for all these leaks and other stuff. The money-laundering case against FBK is also intended to scare off everyone [from donating], and so on. Honestly, we’ve never tried “Smart Vote” before, so we don’t know what its potential is. And they don’t know, either. That’s what scares them.

Have you started talking actively about “Smart Vote” right now because you’ve finally decided that your candidates won’t be allowed onto September’s ballot?

We came up with the project and announced it back in January.

Yes, but you’ve really started promoting it only now.

No. You just weren’t listening! But it’s good that you’re listening now. We’ve been promoting it actively the whole way through.

In terms of Moscow, what percentage of the electorate do you need to convince to vote according to your recommendations, in order to achieve your goals?

To beat United Russia, we need to get through to about three percent of voters. There are 7.5 million of them registered in Moscow, so 3.5 percent is roughly 225,000 to 250,000 people. We’ll round that up to 300,000, to be safe. Turnout for the Moscow City Duma elections is about 20 percent. If three percent come and vote as we ask, they’ll be 15 percent of turnout. If they cast ballots for the strongest opponents among all the registered candidates, it will be enough to win.

In the last elections, the typical picture was different: United Russia candidates won with 40 percent, and the runner up got 30 percent. If we’d convinced three percent of voters to consolidate their support for a single candidate, instead of 40 and 30 percent, we’d get 40 and 45 percent, where our candidate wins and United Russia loses. Of course, all these numbers are just abstract, and the districts are all different. There are more opposition-leaning areas, and more problematic districts, where United Russia wins by large margins. But on average 250,000 to 300,000 votes would be enough for us to beat United Russia in a large number of districts, and if we can mobilize twice as many voters, not a single United Russia candidate wins a seat in the City Duma. 

Do you think that’s realistic?

I recall that more than 650,000 people voted for Alexey Navalny in Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election.

But people then were rallying around a single name. The situation here is a bit different. Even judging by the comments on Navalny’s blog about “Smart Vote,” it’s clear that some people are concerned that they’d have to vote for a Communist, for example.

Yes, “Smart Vote” is a politically complex idea. That’s why I’m setting a more modest goal, and I’m not talking about mobilizing a million people. I’m saying that we can achieve a lot by turning out 300,000. Like I wrote online: there were 60,000 people at the Sakharov Prospekt rally, and we’d have those 300,000 votes, if everyone there brings five people to the polls on Election Day. With “Smart Vote,” we have to consolidate votes for the candidates with the best chance of beating the people from United Russia, and it’s not always going to be someone we like. In other words, the Mayor’s Office worked so hard on the candidates’ list, keeping out everyone, that it means it’s almost always someone we don’t like. But so what? This is tactical voting. 

Consider 2011. After mass fraud in the State Duma elections, members of Just Russia marched in protests with white ribbons, until they were scared silent, bought off, or turned. This happened when United Russia controlled the majority. The essence of the fraud in 2011, I’ll remind you, was that United Russia stretched its 35–36 percent (according to Shpilkin’s estimates) to 49 percent, giving itself a majority in parliament, with the final distribution of seats. With 35–36 percent, United Russia still would have had the biggest faction and almost a majority, but the authorities nevertheless opted for incredible falsifications, even though it provoked the now well-known mass protests in the winter between 2011 and 2012.

Why did they do this? Because they understand perfectly well that the moment Russia’s pathetic, insignificant opposition parties (LDPR, Just Russia, and the Communists) feel a bit of power and get the majority, they’ll instantly gain a certain political agency. And it will be impossible to buy them off. Right now, how do they buy the loyalty of some inconvenient small-town deputy who happens to win a State Duma seat, riding the protest vote? They buy him a three-bedroom apartment in Moscow. If he doesn’t go for it, they launch a criminal investigation. These deputies sell their votes for three-bedroom apartments because they know that they can’t be sold for any more. They’re not all that valuable, when United Russia has the majority. As soon as United Russia loses its majority — and we’ve seen this in many regional and municipal cases — these people from the so-called opposition suddenly remember that they’re the opposition. Why should they sell out so cheaply, if they have huge leverage and can twist United Russia’s arm, dictating their own terms, from a position of strength. That is why the authorities opted for mass fraud in 2011.

We want to model the same situation for the Moscow City Duma elections. Since there’s nobody really to choose from, we’ll vote in a completely rag-tag group. There will be a couple of decent people, but mostly it will be riff-raff. And this is going to spoil the whole game that’s being played by United Russia, Putin, and Sobyanin. It will also mean that United Russia unexpectedly finds itself in the opposition, making it very hard for them to manage the situation. If Smart Voter’s candidates end up in the City Duma, even randomly, they’ll gain political power. It will energize competitive politics. And any change will be better than the swamp we’ve got now.

So the project is based on the belief that the candidates you’ve selected are secretly sympathetic to the opposition and hostile to United Russia?

You know, nobody’s really sympathetic to United Russia. The party’s regional members aren’t sympathetic to United Russia, either. People who really like the party are one in a million. I’ve talked to a lot of regional officials and deputies, and even the ones nominally from United Russia hate it and would welcome the chance to dance on its grave. Because it doesn’t give them anything but problems and unpopularity. The opposition mood within the government is far stronger than it seems.

Thanks to its monopoly on power, United Russia is now cementing this situation. But the situation can still be broken, the moment nominal oppositionists realize that they can take up opposition politics again.

I often give the example of East Germany in the 1980s. Unlike the Soviet Union, East Germany technically had a multiparty system, where there were technically independent parties, like CDU [the Christian Democratic Union of Germany], working alongside SED [the Socialist Unity Party of Germany]. The other parties always agreed with SED, and they always voted like they were supposed to. But as soon as the political situation got a little shaky — as soon as the Soviet Bloc weakened, and the Berlin Wall fell — in the very next elections, these parties said, “Screw it. Now we want a leadership role!” And nobody faults Angela Merkel, who was a member of this East German CDU, even though she was essentially a member of a puppet political party. After all, she never belonged to SED itself, she took up real opposition politics at the first opportunity, and nobody considers it some terrible stain on her biography. 

Because nature abhors a vacuum, the mechanisms of political competition get rolling amazingly fast, as soon as the minimum opportunity arises. We want to create that opportunity.

Will you choose Smart Vote’s candidates by looking at past election results and current polling? And you’ll have candidates in every district?


And when do you plan to announce who these candidates are?

Very soon.

You’re not worried that they’ll be removed from the race?

Legally, you can remove candidates up to five days before the elections. In vital, truly competitive districts, we might delay the release of the information. We’re determining our lists now. Publicly, the list of candidates will be absolutely clear after September 1.

What’s stopping the authorities from using your methodology to figure out whom you’ll endorse, and then remove them from the race?

Then we’ll pick whoever’s left. If they remove the most dangerous rival, and then the next, and in the end it’s just two candidates, the United Russia candidate will lose 40 to 60 percent. Pulling candidates to fight “Smart Vote” would be a decidedly bad idea for the authorities. 

Are you reaching agreements with the candidates you’ll endorse?

No. They have no idea, and it’s not for them to support or reject our endorsements. We’re not asking them. Even if someone asks us to remove their name from “Smart Vote,” we’ll refuse. Right now, there are a lot of candidates and advocacy groups running around and begging, “I’m such and such candidate, I support you, I’ll do everything you say, and I’ll promote your initiatives. Please, just add me to ‘Smart Vote.’” And we say, “Dude, sorry. The whole thing is purely technical. We calculate who has the best chance of winning, and we support that person.”

As I said, we’re doing this not just in Moscow. We’re working on another 27 elections for legislative assemblies at the sub-federal level and municipal elections in several capitals. The situation isn’t as ossified everywhere as it is in Moscow. There are regions where quite a few independent or semi-independent candidates have been allowed onto the ballot. More than a few times, people have come to our regional coordinators and said, “Listen, man. I’m so-and-so and, yes, I’m from Just Russia, but you know I’ve always really supported you. How much would it cost to come to a little understanding, to get onto your ‘Smart Vote.’”

Our coordinators have told me about this. I hope none of them took the money. Because of course you can’t influence who is selected by “Smart Vote” like that. But the fact that there’s this kind of demand is a good indicator. Regional politicians — even the quasi-establishment politicians — realize why they need this, which is why they’re pursuing it so actively.

Is anyone helping you with this project? How does FBK manage at all under the present conditions, when part of its staff is in jail, and the police are raiding other employees’ homes?

Lately, we’ve been hearing from all kinds of IT volunteers, and a lot of people are helping. We’re running out of resources now, because so much of our hardware has been confiscated and money has been frozen. We’re not having an easy time, but then again it’s never been easy for us. Right now is one of the most challenging moments of our political history.

Alexey Navalny wrote, “Destroy [United Russia’s monopoly], and we’ll be able to nominate decent candidates.” How do you see this happening?

It’s a strategy, certainly. We’re a political force that’s fighting for power in Russia, for coming to power. Our goal is to come to power and build the brave Russia of tomorrow. Naturally, we’re not going to get there in a single leap. We’re realistically planning what steps will get us there. The destruction of United Russia’s monopoly and the creation of political competition would be an important step toward a breakthrough.

Interview by Kristina Safonova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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