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A non-united Russia. Why demanding consolidation from the Russian opposition is a moot point

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Lately, social media have once again been rife with debate on the lack of unity in the Russian opposition. At this point, the idea may sound strange: by historical standards, the level of interaction and cooperation across various opposition groups is considerably high. True, there are scandals, but they don't lead to schisms in any major groups or wars of attrition between groups seeking mutual destruction. Though there are habitual skirmishes on a range of issues, they never come close to the total obstructionism we once witnessed. The current activities of various opposition groups have pronounced practical value in more or less the same areas: political broadcasting to the Russian masses, international diplomacy, help to Russians abroad, and shaping the image of a post-Putin Russia. None of these areas harbor unbridgeable contradictions. By contrast, a bird’s-eye view of my colleagues’ efforts suggests continuity and hard work, often in close collaboration with each other.

A bird’s-eye view of my colleagues’ efforts suggests continuity and hard work, often in close collaboration with each other

So where does this set of stereotypes about endless fighting and the inability to unite come from? It has two primary causes, but before I name them, there are a few things to consider.

Online squabbles are an exaggerated issue

First and foremost, the very idea of a serious scandal implies the collapse of a major project, a rift in an organization, a political war of mutual destruction (when one focuses one's activities on damaging a political opponent), and active torpedoing of each other's events and platforms. At the moment, we can see none of the above. What is happening could be described as an occasional exchange of criticism.

Is it really that dangerous? The answer is no. Abject criticism only becomes problematic if the object of said criticism takes offense and becomes driven by the urge to exact revenge. If all they do is mutter “What a jerk!” under their breath and go on about their business, nothing will happen, and mutual criticism, as hurtful as it may be, will go without any tragic ramifications. Indeed, we’ve heard opposition politicians say a lot of things about each other lately. But has any of it hindered specific efforts or projects?

In a company of free-spirited individuals, mutual criticism is business as usual, even if it gets amplified to vocal public debate. It could turn into a nasty experience, but hardly fatal. We're all human and sometimes have very different perspectives on current affairs and the world at large. It's not always easy to accept someone else’s opinion, especially in such dire circumstances as today. People get emotional. It's their right.

In a company of free-spirited individuals, mutual criticism is business as usual, even if it gets amplified to vocal public debate

It’s much more dangerous when rash words become inflated to a conflict of planetary scale. An illustrative case: In 1989, the Soviet democratic opposition achieved its first milestone in the fight against Communist dictatorship, securing the election of democratic deputies at the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR and forming an interregional deputy group. However, there was considerable tension between two potential opposition leaders, Boris Yeltsin and Andrey Sakharov. In theory, it may have led to a serious conflict, splitting the opposition. Admittedly, one of the reasons why things played out differently was Andrey Sakharov's death in December 1989, but many old-school dissidents remained skeptical about Yeltsin. Despite these differences, no major schism occurred, and the Democrats defeated the Communist Party. The situation was different from today in two ways.

Most importantly, there were no social media. Frankly, had there been any, Yeltsin and Democratic Russia may well have failed, and the Soviet Union may never have collapsed. There was no major platform for the general public to ruminate over political differences (and rumor has it there were plenty) every day, so advocates of change never got the impression that the opposition was deficient or unworthy of support because “oh, they keep fighting all the time”. I cannot stress this enough: back in the day, they quarreled just as much as today. But common citizens like us judged opposition politicians by what they did, not the words they threw at each other. There was no platform for squabbles – and thank god for that!

Today, we can clearly see that any event, as unpleasant as it may be, does not damage the opposition quite as much as its subsequent dissemination and discussion on social media. Thousands of angry exposés get penned, to be followed by even more emotional responses, and the spiral of confrontation gets out of control.

Take Garry Kasparov's infamous interview with Yury Dud, in which he said many unpleasant things about other members of the Russian opposition. Neither my colleagues nor I watched the interview because, having known Kasparov for a while, we have a good idea of what he has to say. We aren’t too concerned because we don’t assign a lot of importance to his words – while recognizing that Kasparov, as a free man, has the right to say whatever he pleases. Still, two weeks after the interview, the gory battle on social media continues. This saddens me a lot, considering that the news hook doesn't even come close to deserving such heated arguments.

Garry Kasparov (left)
Garry Kasparov (left)

Try an experiment: avoid social media for a week – or at least avoid Twitter. On Facebook, mute the authors who specialize in loud accusations. And you’ll notice that the scale of “quarrels and scandals in the opposition” isn’t nearly as big as they paint it to be. Many opposition members continue to write analytiсal pieces about the current situation, make suggestions about Russia’s future, present at international fora, hold events for Russian activists abroad, and do so much more. What you’ll hardly see are the fabled “scandals”.

I’m not saying social media are pure evil or that we must get rid of them. But the experiment shows that “scandals” are the product of the confrontation spiral, rather than a feature of reality. Try spending a month away from your annoying grandma who keeps nagging you: “My darling, it's high time you got married, or you’ll get too old and no one will want you!” You’ll take a good look around and figure out for yourself if marriage is indeed what you want and whether staying single is a problem. The recipe is simple: as Tayor Swift's song goes, “You need to calm down, you're being too loud.” Before scolding opposition politicians for “scandals”, take a deep breath and make a rule for yourself to resist inflating online conflicts.

Are journalists to blame?

The second problem – someone has to say it, even though it's a bit of a taboo – is the attitude opposition gets from independent Russian media. Despite a general trend for lenience in the face of common struggles faced in exile, it’s still a far cry from the democratic press of the 1980s. Oppositionists, including Yeltsin, were sometimes criticized, and yet everyone who dared speak up against the Communist Party was perceived as a hero, and criticism was secondary to recognition.

The culture of modern Russian journalism, which took shape in the affluent, relatively liberal 2000s, is drastically different. It's filled with disdain and arrogance toward opposition members, who are subjected to humiliating public scrutiny all the time. Journalists pick poorly phrased (often misinterpreted) statements and hype them up, while completely dismissing major political achievements. Lately, Alexei Navalny has become the only exception to this rule, receiving due credit (though with reservations) for shaping a truly massive resistance movement and his personal courage, but others, who are inevitably compared to him, have been getting even less recognition for their “subpar” efforts.

Journalists are filled with disdain and arrogance toward opposition members

This attitude is highly detrimental. It also explains the tendency to advertise scandals while downplaying achievements. Everyone and their mother have written about Kasparov badmouthing others, but what about the important work he’s been doing to create a different, more humane international image of Russia (which he certainly deserves credit for)? These efforts are completely overlooked by independent Russian media.

Such an attitude is unacceptable and is in many parts the root cause of our problems. Take Navalny's economic program before the 2018 elections. It was criticized at length, and while many reproaches may indeed have been valid, it was still a viable, decent document, superior to many government plans. How many independent publications characterized it as such? Exactly zero: the feedback was largely negative, with critics of the program getting far too much air time. As a result, despite the program being perfectly actionable, many came to doubt it eventually.

We have to admit: the image of a “constantly quarreling” opposition is first of all the result of social media and independent press hyping up every disagreement. You may refer to my latest interviews for proof: as hard as you try to explain to the interviewer that you’re unwilling to comment on someone's outrageous statements, you’ll keep getting such requests anyway.

The image of a “constantly quarreling” opposition is the result of social media and independent press hyping up every disagreement

As it appears, de-escalating conflicts is more relevant for the audience than the political arena. Tensions among politicians are far from critical. Controversy cannot be eliminated. We are within our rights to disagree occasionally. Debates and criticism do not cause fatal damage to our work. Damage occurs when differences that are well within “natural radioactivity levels” get amped to the “story of the century”. We should learn from the democratic press of the 1980s, which eventually helped get rid of the Communist Party dictatorship instead of getting in the way.

Consolidation is not a fix-it-all

Now onto the process of consolidation. As I’ve underlined, the current level of coordination is high by historical standards. We get on reasonably well with each other; I met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Berlin late in April and arranged to meet him again soon. Early in June, a large conference will take place in Brussels, with participation from EU officials and a wide range of Russian independent democratic politicians, journalists, and experts.

Most importantly, different groups are on the same page about what we’re doing. We make similar statements to international audiences. We help Ukraine and Russian activists. We have set up unprecedented public broadcasting to Russian audiences. Our impact on public opinion is an uncontested fact. Jokes about politicians “turning into YouTube bloggers” are off the mark: it's a historical fact that Western broadcasting across the Soviet Union during the Cold War was a highly successful endeavor, and our outreach in today's Russia is much wider, not to mention the fact that we have Russian broadcasters, not foreigners, appealing to the Russian masses.

We have set up unprecedented public broadcasting to Russian audiences

The messages we broadcast to Russians are similar. We all advocate a decentralized state, a parliamentary system, federalism, and the need to eliminate the omnipotence of public officials and special services... Our ideas about the economy and social policy also converge. We share the same solidarity with Ukraine and have similar views on bringing Putin's war criminals to justice, helping Ukraine, and building a Russia that can put its imperialistic ambitions aside. Where's the divide?

Some insist on setting up a democratic “Communist Party”, a single organization with a single bureau that would bring together a democratic Brezhnev, a democratic Suslov, and so on. As I pay attention to those who promote this kind of path, I can see it transform into an obsession, a fetish of sorts. They seem to share a weird hope that building a “democratic Communist Party” would magically end the war, make Putin disappear, and bring back the good old days.

The idea of a “magic wand” that can change everything and make the nightmare stop varies in shape but remains remarkably persistent. A little over a year ago, online activists were all over the place, setting up numerous petitions to disconnect Russia from SWIFT – almost every other question I got in my interviews dealt with this issue. There was a common misconception that disconnecting Russia from SWIFT would immediately turn Putin into a pumpkin and make him surrender. When they finally pulled the plug on SWIFT but nothing of the sort happened, everyone turned to the oil embargo. When the oil embargo was introduced but Putin still refused to give up, everyone started damning Olaf Scholz to hell and back, demanding supplies of Leopards to Ukraine. As of today, Russia has been (largely) cut off from SWIFT, the oil embargo is in effect, and Ukraine is getting the Leopards, but we're yet to see a miracle. The most recent “cure-all” is the demands that the Russian opposition consolidate.

But there is no magic wand. Putin is waging an extremely complex hybrid war against the civilized world, attacking across a multitude of sectors and armed with immense resources. You can only defeat him through continuous, persistent engagement across all of the sectors. With my experience and knowledge of Russia, I realize that the words “continuous, persistent engagement” inspire gloom and depression, causing many to look for a magic wand again, listening to [political scientist Valery] Solovey or chanting the mantra about “consolidating the opposition”. Even if the opposition were indeed to consolidate tomorrow and set up a “democratic Communist Party” that votes unanimously on every issue like United Russia, Putin would still be there and the war would go on. Nothing at all would change, so we’d still have to accept the necessity of continuous, persistent engagement.

“Parts are worth more than the whole”: why consolidating the Russian opposition isn't a great idea

As for past cases of consolidation, we’ve had a few – even before Navalny emerged. Committee 2008, the Consolidated Civil Front, the Other Russia, Solidarity, the Party of People's Freedom, and the pinnacle of them all: the Opposition Coordination Council, which collided with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, never reaching its destination. Unfortunately, that decade was mostly wasted, with immense resources spent on consolidation conferences and conventions that never yielded any breakthroughs. The memory is painful: we would indeed spend twenty-four hours (or even several days) coordinating some trivial joint statement on a relevant issue, with every co-author proposing edits they believed to be crucial.

What was problematic about this approach? With highly limited resources, you end up spending 95% of them on bridging internal differences (which are always there because opposition politicians are freedom-loving people who appreciate the plurality of opinions). When you drop these efforts and join forces with your like-minded colleagues to do what you do best, the efficiency of your work surges manifold. This is what happened when Navalny entered the scene, putting an end to the consolidation hoopla with its kaleidoscope of committees-for-a-day. The efficiency and credibility of the Russian opposition skyrocketed. Did it come as a surprise? Hardly. When Julia Roberts’ Vivian in Pretty Woman asks Richard Gere’s character what he does, he answers: “I buy companies...I don't sell the whole company. I break it up into pieces, and then I sell that off. It's worth more than the whole.” Watch closely: parts are worth more than the whole!

When Navalny entered the scene, the efficiency and credibility of the Russian opposition skyrocketed

I find it strange to ignore our negative consolidation experience, which was negative for a reason. “Just find it in your heart to overcome your differences” is a careless and naive approach. Differences are natural and unavoidable. Some believe we should focus exclusively on supporting Ukraine, while others prioritize antiwar Russians and changing the public consensus within Russia. Some want to elaborate on the image of a future Russia (which is an essential endeavor), while others perceive it as building castles in the air and insist on concentrating on purely practical, current issues. Some place economy at the top, while others are more preoccupied with LGBTQ+ rights. The list could go on. This complex, multifaceted range of perspectives cannot be fused into one with a simple “make an effort and coordinate your positions”. It's utterly naive. Developing a single position on every matter will take up all of our energy. There will be none left to fight Putin. We’ve been there before.

It's much more efficient to coordinate the efforts of established, credible groups that unite kindred spirits who don’t need to waste time on getting on the same page. In electoral systems, it's called a “voting bloc”. It wasn't by coincidence that Putin and Surkov banned voting blocs in Russia as early as in 2005: they wanted democratic politicians to respond to the straightforward request of their voters to “just bridge their differences and unite” so that all of their resources would be used up on doomed attempts at building a single organization. This is exactly what came to pass.

We should aim at providing a comprehensive assessment of the situation instead of grasping at the very first, rather primitive idea as the non-existent “magic wand”. In a Soviet adaptation of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel, Sherlock Holmes, amazed to learn that it was the Earth that revolved around the sun, exclaims: “But my eyes are telling me that it's the sun that revolves around us... Be that as it may, he still could be right, that Copernicus of yours.” Another take on the situation is the joke about an ape and an FSB colonel. The ape was clever enough to grab a stick and knock a banana off the nearby tree, while the colonel kept pushing: “No time for thinking, just shake it real well!”

Don't shake it. Consolidating the opposition is a delicate process. Our experience is mainly negative – for objective reasons. Trying to squeeze us all into a single “democratic Communist Party” that votes unanimously on everything leads to a dead end. Such parties are galore. Our value is the diversity of ideas and priorities we bring to the table while sharing a common vector in shaping a future vision. We have the right to avail ourselves of flexible organizational formats, disagree, and even fight. Give us a chance to choose the most fitting vehicle to get us where we want to go. After all, we have some achievements under our belt: a multi-million audience in Russia, international recognition and support, and a shared vision of the future. All that despite the attempts of Putin's huge, wealthy, and heavily armed mafia to take us down and crush us. Although far from perfect, the Russian opposition deserves not only criticism but also praise. It’s worthy of support.

Consolidating the opposition is a delicate process

Do we really want to defeat Putin? If so, stop picking at the opposition, inflating minor disagreements in mass media and online beyond their true significance, and making naive, unrealistic demands for the creation of a “democratic Communist Party” in line with your personal ideas on how to run things. Instead, we should each focus on our work – and choose what we do best. Understandably, gossiping over scandals is fun, while work is boring and depressing. But we have our work cut out for us. So take a leaf from our book and lend us a hand.

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