Moscow's Dueling Shadow Governments

Can Russia's opposition overcome its differences and effectively challenge Putin?

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A man looks at an information sheet about candidates for the Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition movement, near a polling station in Moscow. (Maxim Shemtov/Reuters)

MOSCOW -- After it was alleged that Russia's December 2011 parliamentary election results were the product of massive, nation-wide fraud, Russians took to the streets to call for free elections. The rallies continued throughout 2012, but their numbers have begun to shrink and the goals of the various opposition factions have diverged. In an attempt to consolidate the opposition, to create a true alternative to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the leaders of several factions resolved to hold public, online elections to an overseeing body the opposition has named Koordinatsioniy Soviet -- or, in English, the Coordinating Council.

The Coordinating Council's purpose is to be a sort of shadow government, a means of organizing anti-Putin and anti-regime rallies, projects and activities. So to include as many factions and views as possible, 30 of those elected were chosen from a general citizens' list while five each were elected from lists of Leftists, Nationalists and Liberals.

The names of many of the 45 winners who were announced on Monday evening will be familiar to those who follow developments in Russia: Alexei Navalny, Yevgeniya Chirikova, Garry Kasparov, Ksenia Sobchak, and Ilya Yashin. But noticeably absent from the list of those who ran for positions in the new council are members of established liberal political parties Democratic Choice (Demokraticheskiy Vybor) and Yabloko. As organizations, both declined to participate in the elections, calling them a "game" and the Council a "toy." (A few members of Yabloko personally chose to run in the elections, but the party itself did not participate.)

The disagreement between the old guard and the new arises from the manner in which the two opposition camps hope to bring about change in Russia. For the leaders and members of Democratic Choice and Yabloko, it is important to work to change the political system in a legitimate and democratic manner. True political change, points out Kirill Goncharov, the head of Yabloko's youth wing, takes a long time; it is a marathon, not a sprint.

If the opposition cannot collaborate in its fight against Putin, how will it lead the country once he is gone?

But for many of the opposition-minded, the time for change is now. The past year saw a surge of support for Putin alternatives of all varieties, but the anger at the events and vote-falsifications that prompted mass protests in early 2012 has begun to fade into memory. So for many, a short-term strategy is a more appealing one. Modern Russians have seen long-term plans dashed many times: The fall of the USSR flipped people's dreams and expectations for their futures on their heads and 1998's ruble devaluation turned lives upside down yet again. During the past six months, there have been so many changes to laws governing speech, finance and gatherings that opposition and civic organizations can no longer be sure that they will be permitted to exist in the next month. More urgent action, then, seems the pragmatic choice for many.

But there are serious questions as to what will come after the elections to the Coordinating Council. When I met with Ilya Yashin, a popular 29-year old liberal political activist who received the fifth-highest vote total, before the elections, he admitted that it was still unclear when the council would meet and what concrete actions it would take.

The Democracy ReportIt is the perceived lack of a plan that irks the more established and systemic opposition. For its part, Democratic Choice has already begun to develop candidates for municipal elections scheduled to be held in 2013 and 2014. At a "municipal school" held this past Sunday in St. Petersburg, current political leaders and city deputies advised a group of about 40 people on the best means of becoming involved in politics at the local and city level. That, they feel, is where small changes that affect citizens' lives can begin to prove to their countrymen that it is indeed possible to stand up for themselves and their rights. They are willing to bet that their long-term strategy to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians will prove more effective than a council chosen by a miniscule proportion (.05%) of the Russian population.

While both branches of the opposition may have similar goals, their tactics differ drastically. Neither side shows any sign of backing down. The two are not actively working against each other, but in not cooperating with each other, they may be dong more harm to their cause than good. For Putin and the Kremlin, the opposition's disunity may prove more helpful than its activism is harmful -- at least when it comes to political optics: If the opposition can't collaborate in its fight against Putin, Russians might well conclude, how will it lead the country once he's gone?

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Hannah Thoburn is a Washington-based writer currently reporting from Moscow.

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