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Ekaterina Schulmann: Those in power are offering a choice of several "Navalnys in miniature" instead of the original

A considerate listener sent me a personal message recommending to add tea to milk, not vice versa. This issue was in the center of attention of many British authors for quite a while. It is yet another real-life counterpart of Jonathan Swift's dispute over which end a boiled egg should be broken, just like yearly Russian debates about ingredients of Russian salad – an integral New Year dish. Isn't it similar to the election campaign as well? It is not quite the same, but I can draw at least a few parallels. In fact, the election campaign resembles Russian salad most of all. I wanted to say a few words about it because something interesting is in the works now.

What is the fundamental issue of our election campaign? The fundamental issue lies in the fact that no one is interested: the outcome is premeditated and everyone is equal parts understanding and bored. Citizens do not see the reason why they should participate in something that works just fine without their input.

Naturally, the state apparatus wants to show itself in the best light because the election campaign is a vanity fair for government officials. However, they cannot help thinking about tomorrow and the transition of powers, trying to keep what is theirs and gain new ground at the new political stage. As a result, no one is particularly willing to run for the post; even the so-called «alternative» candidates were lured into registering through complex ways. On the one hand, the entire process had to be given at least an illusion of dynamics.

On the other hand, if you add too much dynamics, the entire mirage of predictability may be blown away to reveal the truth. So the basic scenario «Putin and the Elders» – that is, the president in office and regular candidates from the so-called mainstream, or parliamentary, parties – has admittedly become obsolete because no one would ever turn their head to look at it, let alone vote for any of the candidates. In addition, the «Elders» have become utterly reluctant to run for presidency.

As a result, what is there for us to see? We see a noteworthy new Communist Party candidate – Pavel Grudinin, director of V.I. Lenin State-Owned Farm in the Moscow Region, known for its strawberries and apples. Admittedly, it was an unexpected move on the part of the Communist Party in view of its current condition. The Communist Party suffers from the same predicament as other artificially formed political parties: it features a leader who has retained his position for 25 years on end, guarding his «plot of land» and preventing it from expansion or shrinking. For his service, the leader enjoys multiple administrative privileges and gets assistance in the struggle against any internal competitors that may emerge in his party. This is how they have lived for decades and everything has been fine.

However, the people who occupy the key posts have grown old. What if Gennady Zyuganov were to run for president?  He is indeed of senior age and is not likely to win many votes. If he ended up third, ceding the second place to Zhirinovsky, his own party would eat him alive for his failure. Alternatively, he could decide to outmaneuver his competitors by suggesting a new candidate without strong affiliations inside the party (and all party members play by the rules of a fearsome system that is ready to crush them any moment, in spite of them having created it themselves – the same goes for the supreme power). This alternative candidate is a bit of a stranger – Pavel Grudinin is not even a party member; he is a Communist sympathizer, a «red director,» «red chairman.» If he wins few votes, it will not be Zyuganov's fault; the party will chalk it up on Grudinin's own lack of experience. However, should he secure a victory, it will undoubtedly be regarded as Zyuganov's achievement, enabling him to fulfill the dream of any leader who has occupied his or her post for an unnaturally long time – to transfer the power on his own terms.

He has children and grandchildren; he has his own clientèle and needs to provide for everyone in the complex transitional period. Essentially, this process replicates the current state of affairs on the federal level. As a result, we have a new Communist candidate – which has not happened for quite a while. Something new, at least.

We also have candidate Ksenia Sobchak, who has secured a steady presence on state-owned television channels – a sure sign of conspiracy in the eyes of the general public. Be it as it may, broadcasts have become much more lively thanks to her participation.

Another candidate is Boris Titov; it is clear why he is standing, but he claims to represent business circles. Titov is Russia's business ombudsman, for those of you who don't know. One cannot but feel that all the above-mentioned candidates are «Navalnys in miniature,» with each of them representing a part of the real figure in a tame, disinfected way.

One cannot but feel that all the above-mentioned candidates are «Navalnys in miniature,» with each of them representing a part of the real figure in a tame, disinfected way

The Communist candidate is a «Navalny for socially-oriented voters,» that is, for those interested in the leftist agenda, which, by the way, appeals to a great number of people. One of the most acute shortages in our political market is a lack of a satisfactory left-wing party. In fact, why is the Communist Party of Russia so intent on guarding its «plot of land»?  Because their place should have been taken by a real left-wing party which would be getting much more support.

Besides, another reason why Zyuganov refrained from running for election is that the electoral request of «I want nothing but a peaceful death» is already being met by the incumbent president. Those who yearn for stability are more likely to vote for Putin than the Communist Party. At the same time, he is unable to satisfy the new demand for leftists because he has been in the spotlight for too long; there is a good English saying for this: "You can’t teach an old dog new tricks."

And now we seem to have gotten a «new dog,» Grudinin, who is a «Navalny for the leftists.» Sobchak is a «Navalny for those against all,» for those dissatisfed with everything. Look, now you have a candidate who is offering you an opportunity of expressing your universal frustration with everything by voting for her. The same goes for Titov, who the smallest «Navalny» of the three, the one against administrative barriers and bureaucracy that holds back entrepreneurs and businesses. Naturally, his agenda has secured support of those interested in free enterprise and the removal of administrative barriers. It is not much, but it is something.

That is, the bigger agenda, Navalny's bigger agenda, has been split into many «bear cubs,» and each cub may run for office and even speak his or her mind on national television.

We are yet to see Grudinin's presentation; I will repeat myself by saying it is noteworthy. Admittedly, he lacks experience, but I think he has made a few speeches, and the public appreciated his ingenuousness and bluntness. He belongs to a specific type of running candidates – those favoring simple truths: «I'm a simple man, so I'm going to be frank with you...» This role takes a lot of cunning and skill to pull off, but there are politicians capable of it. They enjoy great popularity. (Besides, Trump chose this mode for some of his presentations as well: «I'm no politician, I'm just a simple guy» – although it is not clear what makes him so simple – «and I'm going to tell you the truth as it is.»)

What conclusions can we draw from all of the above? In the meantime, Navalny holds a meeting and submits his documents to the Central Election Commission; 20 regions have conducted their own meetings as well, and their documents are coming too. <The Insider's note: The column had been recorded before Navalny submitted his documents and was denied registration.> It is a cunning move from the legal perspective. In essence, the Commission would have to deny registration to each group individually (if my understanding of the procedure is correct). However, for now, his documents have been accepted and are being verified. The legal situation is ambiguous, even through the lens of our existing legislation: Navalny's first sentence was overturned by the ECHR, but the Russian court has resentenced him; at the same time, the Supreme Court has clarified that a candidate is not obliged to report his or her criminal conviction if it no longer applies. In Navalny's case, however, it is unclear if it applies or not because one sentence has been overturned, but another one is still valid, in spite of replicating the first one. Whether it is a new sentence or the same one, it is a good opportunity to «keep the public in suspense,» as anonymous Telegram channels put it. That is, I still find it hard to believe that he will be registered – it is too big a risk for the system, one they would never take. They are prepared to take small risks, not big ones. So it is highly unlikely that we will get an exciting election campaign this time.

Nevertheless, what is remarkable about the process? What makes it worthy of attention? What we see is young sprouts – I'd even say swollen buds – of future political scenarios. Even in its current state, the system has to respond to the society's demand as the it sees it. That is, the system has a vague notion of what people need, and it is trying up to come up with at least something new. For now, it is nothing but an illusion, an imitation of novelty, but this imitation follows the lines that will generally determine free political development.

Once again, left-wing politicians are in demand. The demand for representation of the urban population, which Sobchak is trying to meet, albeit mockingly, is in place too. The anti-bureaucracy agenda – for freedom of enterprise, removal of barriers, and deregulation – requires something similar to  Trump's «One in, Two out» policy, which implies that the introduction of a regulation should be followed by an abolition of two old ones. Among his promises to build a wall and other extremities, there were less radical suggestions that appealed to the American business community, as far as I understand.

All of the above are relevant needs that remain unsatisfied. Naturally, the incumbent president is supposed to satisfy everyone's needs and tell the people exactly what they want to hear. However, what he offers is stability with scarce elements of development.

Besides, the balance between the demand for elements of development and the demand for stability has started to shift in favor of the former, which is proved, among other things, by the demeanor of the main candidate: arriving to the convention of United Russia, he started with a brief, conservative address but added something, I dare say, more progressivist on second thought.

Even a system that is deaf, blind, hopelessly bureaucratic, and isolated from the rest of the world cannot remain oblivious to the needs of the society.

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