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‘We have no politics, so we have no politicians’ Leading journalist Ilya Azar offers an inside look at how media involvement and leaderless organizing drove Moscow's summer of protest

Source: Meduza
Alexander Vislotsky for Meduza

Ilya Azar is a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta and a former special correspondent for Meduza. He also serves as a municipal deputy in Moscow. In early June, he helped organize a march against fabricated criminal cases following the arrest of Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov. That proved to be only the beginning of a highly eventful summer for Azar. He went on to take part in organizing several demonstrations demanding fair elections for the Moscow City Duma, including the August 10 protest that brought more than 60,000 Muscovites into the streets for the first time since 2012. Meduza correspondent Vladislav Gorin spoke with Azar about the line between journalism and politics and about the shift within Russia’s opposition movements toward spontaneous, democratic organizing tactics.

Beginning with the march for Ivan Golunov and ending with September 2, when you were arrested in your home, how would you describe this summer? It’s obvious that there’s been a public transformation: You’ve turned from a journalist into something else.

People have been asking me that a lot, and I’ve been reflecting on that question, but I don’t know if I’ll ever finish. That said, I’m not about to agree with you and say I’ve turned into something new. I’m still a journalist, I still work on Novaya Gazeta’s staff, and I don’t plan to stop doing journalism. I don’t even have plans to switch to publishing or editing in the foreseeable future.

If your question is about professional ethics, about the fact that you can’t mix journalistic work with activism, then that question hasn’t just come up for me this year. It first arose when I became a municipal deputy in 2017.

Here’s how I solve that problem: Ever since then [2017], I haven’t written about Moscow because I see that as an obvious conflict of interest. And this summer, as a matter of principle, I didn’t write journalism about the protests. The most I did was interview [protest organizer and Libertarian Party chair] Mikhail Svetov and [leading human rights advocate] Pavel Chikov. I also wrote a column about Golunov, but I found it important at the time to describe what happened at the march to support Ivan that was forcefully dispersed.

But I know that avoiding conflicts of interest entirely is hard. Even when I’m interviewed, I have this urge to give two different answers—one from a journalist’s perspective and one from an active participant’s perspective. And one of those answers is probably less honest than the other. But alas, such are the laws of politics.

Speaking of politics — not too long ago, you said that “there is no politics in Russia, so I don’t call myself a politician.” What do you call yourself?

Before, in the Bolotnaya era, I had a negative view of the journalists, my colleagues, who helped organize protests or just took part in that whole uprising more generally. But over time, my opinion has changed. Journalists are people and citizens too, and when unjust events happen that involve human rights violations — including violations of the right to free elections, free speech, freedom of assembly — I believe journalists shouldn’t necessarily step back and act as though it has nothing to do with them.

As for politics, it’s been obvious for a long time that we have an authoritarian government, and we don’t have free political activity. Sure, you can go work as a bureaucrat or join United Russia and get elected as a deputy. But all of our opposition politics comes in the form of parties within the system like the Communist Party or A Just Russia that aren’t much different from United Russia. [Leading opposition politician Alexey] Navalny’s party hasn’t been allowed to register, and the same pretty much goes for [opposition activist Dmitry] Gudkov’s party, too.

Unlike in Europe or America, here you can’t come off a wave of protests, build a new party,and turn from a well-known journalist into an opposition legislator. All we have is action in the streets that, as we now see at the end of this summer, doesn’t go anywhere. I’m talking about the protest leaders who were involved — they didn’t end up getting on the ballot. We have no politics, so we have no politicians.

Alexander Vislotsky for Meduza

Let’s go back a little to the question of journalists who become activists. Why start taking part in current events directly if you have journalistic methods available to you? When there’s a problem, journalists write about it, and then society either gets angry, or it doesn’t. What difference does it make if those journalists then go on to organize protests about the same problems?

There hasn’t been a news article yet that’s brought Russian society into the streets, but when society does get angry and protest, journalists write about it.

This summer, people got angry. Which, of course, was very odd. I’ve been working in journalism in Moscow for a pretty long time, and I don’t remember the Moscow City Duma ever attracting this much attention, especially from people who don’t work in the media. The Moscow City Duma had always been like a little government agency nobody understood, kind of like another department in the mayor’s office: You’ve got the transport department, and then you’ve got the voting department.

I’m not saying anything new here, but this time, the government made a series of mistakes: It decided to have its candidates collect signatures so they could run as independents, not United Russia candidates. Then, people saw that the opposition candidates who actually collected signatures weren’t being registered, and City Hall’s candidates, who weren’t out there [collecting signatures], were being registered. Naturally, that got a lot of people upset, so a lot of people came to the July 14 protest because they weren’t happy with voters being deprived of their freedom of choice. After that, the government kept making mistakes, this time in law enforcement. The way they dispersed and arrested the protesters got people mad even if they didn’t care about the Moscow elections.

And when did you get angry? When did you decide you had to do something and become a protest organizer?

Well, I’m a municipal deputy for the Khamovniki district. There’s also this element of — I don’t want to say “schizophrenia” — it’s a complication in how you react to what’s going on. If your perspective is “journalists are people, too,” you can still justify staying home and just thinking through the situation, but if you’re a legislator, it’s different. To us, to the municipal deputies — since we’re in a very rare position of at least some kind of power in Moscow that doesn’t come directly from City Hall — it seemed important to us to defend the city’s right to have elections, including the rights of our own constituents. So we decided to picket the Moscow City Election Commission, which added some fuel to the fire as well.

But isn’t it politics when you organize political protests, support political slogans, and act in the interests of a particular group of politicians?

The pickets weren’t in the interests of politicians, they were in the interests of Moscow residents because — I repeat — we have to defend the right that Muscovites and Russians in general have to political competition. When all you have in an election is pro-regime candidates and spoiler candidates, that’s not an election, that’s a desecration [of the concept of elections]. And you have to do something to affect that situation.

Is it good or bad that the protests didn’t bring about new formal opposition organizations? Maybe you’ve got fewer conflicts, but that seems like a more mature form of civic collaboration.

Personally, I’m satisfied with how we organized. I’d consider the formation of some kind of organization to be political activity. I wouldn’t want to participate in something like that. I don’t have any reason to get myself a seat at the same table as Gennady Gudkov or, I don’t know, Alexey Navalny.

This summer happened spontaneously, and a lot of analysts and journalists have written about that, including at Meduza. People self-organized. And that’s something new and important that happened in the protests this summer. It’s a good thing.

I think having yet another opposition committee might only have pushed people away from the protests.

Alexander Vislotsky for Meduza

The Golunov march was an interesting experience — the organizers essentially found each other spontaneously, almost randomly. One of them messaged a big journalists’ group chat and invited anyone who was interested to join a smaller, new one. Then, we used that smaller chat to set up a meeting. Whoever saw the message fast enough was able to join the chat, and whoever was free for the meeting came along. In the end, what was essentially a group of 15 random people became the organizers of the march. All of our decisions were made democratically, by voting.

Now, everyone’s afraid of me because I was always suggesting in the chats that we vote. It’s what I’m used to: I’m a municipal deputy, after all. Now, whenever there’s any kind of argument — about what bar to meet at, for example — everyone’s horrified at the possibility that I might ask for yet another vote. But I really liked that chaotic, democratic structure. It was great, and we were able to handle all our logistical issues well that way.

At just about any demonstration in Russia, you hear people saying that this isn’t a political protest, it’s some other kind of protest. It’s as though people are afraid to admit that they’re aiming for some kind of power. Why is “politics” a toxic word for you?

I’m not denying that the protests were political. For me, the word itself isn’t toxic. But what I do as an individual isn’t politics: I’m not working toward getting into power. And what happened this summer didn’t put the people who participated in the protests into power either. The people who were allowed to register as candidates got away from the protest movement fast even if they did take part in it at first. Except for [Moscow City Duma candidate] Sergey Tsukasov — he went to the protests even though he was a registered candidate, and that cost him not only his registration, which they canceled, but an electoral victory as well. Judging by the polls, he was leading in his district, and he definitely would have won.

I participate in the protests for a different reason: To change our election laws so that the country as a whole can become more democratic. That’s what the [2011 – 2012] led to last time — the government reinstated gubernatorial elections. Though even that choice was later annulled through structural measures like the municipal filter.

As a result of this protest campaign, independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma were excluded from the election, and they got administrative penalties. Meanwhile, a number of the protesters have faced criminal charges, and some of them have already gotten prison sentences. Was this worth it?

It was worth it. Because Muscovites showed [the government] that you can’t just openly bully them like that, that they have the willpower to insist on their own point of view. They showed that they’re true citizens, and they’re not afraid, not even of repressions. The government thought after the Bolotnaya protests that you can smother any protest using criminal cases. But after they brought criminal charges for mass rioting at the end of July, the protests kept going.

Interview by Vladislav Gorin

Abridged translation by Hilah Kohen

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