Aleksey Navalny debating with Ksenya Sobchak on election night. Evgeny Feldman,

The Russian Liberal Opposition: ‘Nothing Has Worked’

‘Democratically oriented’ Russians had basically three strategies left to them in these elections. To vote for one of the two liberal candidates: Ksenya Sobchak or Grigori Yavlinsky. To boycott the elections. To rally around the main opposition candidate, the communist Pavel Grudinin. The results are in and Max Katz, a political organizer and consultant — known in Russia as a ‘politechnologist’ — has nailed it: ‘Nothing has worked’:

The opponents of Putin have put forward many strategies. And none of them has worked. The boycott hasn’t worked: the turnout is very high and — it seems — will not be artificially propped. The calls to spoil bulletins haven’t worked — there is few of them. Voting for Sobchak hasn’t worked: her score is very low. Voting for Grudinin hasn’t worked . . . his score is lower than Zyuganov’s [the leader of the Communist party] in the last presidential elections. And our calls to vote for Yavlinsky haven’t worked either.

Max Katz was supporting — and working for — Grigori Yavlinsky, from the ‘Yabloko’ party. Twice a presidential candidate — in 1996 and 2000 — the leader of Yabloko, Grigori Iavlinski, is a well-known figure in Russian politics — perhaps even too well known. With more than 99% votes counted, his result is disastrous:

For the record, he received 7.34% of the vote in 1996 — that’s more than 7 times more votes — and 5.8% in 2000 — more than 5 times more votes. In 2004 he called all Russian democrats to boycott the presidential elections, а ‘farce’, an ‘imitation of democratic procedures’ — something many Russian liberals were keen to remind him this time.


His main competitor for the ‘liberal electorate’, Ksenya Sobchak, fared only slightly ‘better’ — for lack of a more adequate word:

Ksenia Sobchak is the daughter of Vladimir Putin’s mentor — the late mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoli Sobchak — who started her career as a socialite and TV star before turning to opposition politics and journalism.

Aleksey Navalny ‘I won’t vote’

Aleksey Navalny was denied participation in the elections and decided to call for a boycott — or ‘Voters’ strike’. The result is equally disappointing. Participation is at quite high levels, even surpassing participation at the 2012 presidential elections (65%). As could be expected, there was many rows over the amount of ‘falsifications’. Graphs of elections results show the traditional ‘spikes’ indicating that the Putin vote and the turn-out were propped:

However, as the author of these graphs pointed:

These graphs should *NOT* be used to determine ‘non-falsificated results’. Such a precise determination can only be made through the accurate measurement region by region. As an approximation, we can say that the ‘real’ turnout and Putin vote is to be found around the mode [the value that appears most often] of this histogram, that is somewhere around 61–62% for the turnout, and 74–75% for the Putin vote. The official figures are: 68% for the turnout, and 77% for the Putin vote. Navalny’s team has estimated the ‘real’ turnout to be 55%, and this figure seems strongly underestimated to me.

Whatever the ‘real’ turnout and Putin vote will be, we should not lose sight of the big picture: the ‘integrity’ of the electoral process in Russia goes well beyond ‘electoral engineering’, and ‘falsifications’ in a narrow sense. All the system of political domination in Russia is in question.

It is unlikely that fraud worked to lower much the results of the ‘opposition candidates’. Navalny congratulated his ‘sociological office’ for somewhat accurately predicting the landslide:

Blue is for a poll conducted on 16–22 February, red for one conducted on 5–7 March, and 12–14 March. ‘1000 thousands Russian citizens over 18 were asked by telephone’. 80% of them indicated they would ‘possibly’ participate in the elections. Top-Below are: Putin, Grudinin, Jirinovsky, Sobchak, Yavlinsky, Titov, other. Again, the dismal results of the ‘opposition candidates’ must be explained by other factors than ‘electoral falsification’ in a narrow sense.

Last, the results in Moscow are equally disastrous. Max Katz entitled a blog post ‘Putinist Moscow’, which is accurate. The results are surprising because candidates from Yabloko and the ‘United Democrats’ fared well in September, at the Moscow Duma elections. These relatively good results have been wiped out:

Blue is 2012, orange, 2018.

From left to right: the Putin vote; the ‘liberal’ Prokhorov (‘liberal’ presidential candidate in 2012) vote vs the added scores of Sobchak and Yavlinsky; the turnout.

The turnout is even better this year, while it appears the Moscow vote has been relatively ‘clean’:

If there was ever one place where Navalny’s call for boycott should have been heard, it’s Moscow. The results speak for themselves. By the way, the ‘cleanness’ of the results in Moscow shows that the authorities have learned from their mistakes. One of the factors in the 2011–2012 protests was certainly the absurd results in the 2011 Duma elections in Moscow. Not a man to give up easily, Navalny struck an optimistic tone, saying in substance that ‘you’ should be happy that ‘you’ didn’t participate in this scam. Max Katz was more pessimistic and bitter. His pessimism appears to be warranted.

The liberal opposition is stuck with the same dilemma: to participate and be ridiculed — legitimizing the process in the meantime; or to boycott and not be heard — being drowned in the ‘apathetic minority’ in the meantime. The 2018 presidential elections show that a way out is nowhere to be found.

It seems extremely difficult to believe that Sobchak has built any legitimacy in these elections. She does believe so, and has announced that she will be teaming with Dmitri Gudkov to form a new party: the ‘Party of Changes’. Since the history of Russian liberalism is a cemetery of failed parties — or, rather, groupuscules — this attempt can only be regarded with a good measure of scepticism.

Navalny appears less scathed. Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station made an interesting point:

As I understand, Navalny’s tactic didn’t have an anti-Putin goal. He needed to destroy [razbit’] his potential opponents [in the liberal wing], to show their insignificance without him. And he has succeeded. He won. The first winner is Putin . . . The second winner is Navalny who has achieved its goals, but not in the sense of a boycott of Putin. On the contrary, Putin’s results have soared . . . Yavlinsky and Sobchak . . . have received, if I remember well, around 250,000 votes in Moscow, whereas Prokhorov received 800,000, and Navalny, 600,000.

Navalny has rejected this kind of analysis bombarding that he considers himself in a completely different league than his ‘liberal competitors’:

Some are writing that a secondary result of [our boycott] the elections is the low results of Yavlinsky and Sobchak. Like, we kept their voters at home. But, my friends, they don’t have voters, and this is why they were allowed to participate . . . Under no circumstance would Sobchak, Yavlinsky, Titov would have received more than what they got. They don’t have a substantial amount of supporters. If a couple of months ago, I called to vote for them, the result would have been the same, but a couple of million people would have thought that ‘Navalny is an idiot’. [emphasis mine.]

Incidently, the ‘couple of million’ figure may be just a way of saying, or it could be a slip, indicating the number of supporters Navalny believes he has across the country. He has anyway been definite in his answer to the question: ‘has the boycott been successful?’: YES.

What allows him to believe that? According to him, the main success of the boycott lies in the fact that the campaign revolved around him — which is partly true:

It was a forced step. We wanted to participate in the elections, we got prepared, and we were the only ones — apart from Putin — who participated in the campaign.
Everything is simple about the strike. Why was it successful?
We said: if you don’t let us participate in the elections, we will call for a boycott, and discredit the turn-out so much that you’ll have to do again mass falsifications, like in 2011. And everybody will see: Putin was elected in fraudulent elections.
And Putin answered: I don’t care, I will chase people with administrative ressources so much, that the turnout will be higher than in 2012.
That’s it. From that moment, all these ‘elections’ turned into a confrontation between the strike’s headquarters and the Kremlin headquarters to chase turnout. It was a political process. We relied on honest and brave people. They relied on administrative and security resources.

Navalny then went on with a very strange argument, one that was practically unheard before: that the authorities decreased the number of registered voters in order to boost the turnout: ‘2012: about 110 million registered voters. The reunification of Crimea added 1,8 million registered voters. According to documents by the Internal Affairs Ministry, 600,000 immigrants were given citizenship.’ According to Navalny we should add to this the demographic growth ‘about which Putin speaks in all his big speeches’. But, it turns out, only 109 million people were registered to vote in the 2018 presidential elections. If you add the falsifications to this ‘registration fraud’, then turnout in 2018 is lower than in 2012.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that Navalny — in good faith or not, we don’t know — is confusing the growth of the population with the growth of the population over 18. As pointed by a statistician — and an avowed supporter of Navalny:

Between 2012 and 2018, according to the demographic data, 7,8 million Russian citizens have turned 18. In the same time, 11,4 people have died. Which makes: 7,8–11,4 = -3,6 That is, exactly the number Navalny has found.
He talks about the growth of the population, and there is really a growth of the population, but in the meantime, the number of registered voters is decreasing, because of the collapse in natality in the 90’s. This collapse explains why on the 2012–2018 period, the number of people turning 18 is decreasing. Judging by the age pyramid, the number of registered voters will continue to decrease in the next 10 years.

It’s therefore difficult to argue that boycott wasn’t a failure, if only in terms of turnout in big cities. They could aslso be impossible to assess altogether, as argued by Oleg Kashin, or, by the way, as shown involuntarily by the very convoluted arguments some of his supporters are making.

But what if he had participated? One of his allies, Ilya Yashin, tried to reassure his supporters, arguing that when real opposition candidates are allowed on the ballot, they can indeed get good results, citing Navalny’s 27% in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, Evgueny Royzman’s victory in Ekaterinburg, and less impressive ‘victories’. But will these candidates be ever allowed on the ballot again? A partial answer came in a day after this question was raised. Kommersant Ural announced that the Ural regional legislature will consider a bill replacing the direct election of the mayor of Ekaterinburg with an indirect election.

Judging from last night debates, Navalny’s next moves are unknown. He is navigating relentlessly between anti-corruption whistleblowing, electoral politics in the traditional sense, and the politics of elections: election monitoring and attempts at delegitimizing them altogether in the eyes of the Russian public. His ubiquity his one of his main forces — but without results, how long can it last? He has flatly rejected any alliance with Sobchak and Gudkov, so the holy grail of Russian liberals — unity — is nowhere in sight, for good or for ill. The future of Russian liberalism is obscure indeed.