How to be in opposition in Russia
Moscow, Russia - When Russians head to the polls this Sunday to elect a new parliament, they will have a lot on their minds. Well, at least those who have decided not to vote for the ruling party, United Russia. And, judging by the latest opinion polls, that could be at least 60 per cent of voters, as only about 30 to 40 per cent of people are ready to cast their ballots in favour for the party of power.
Critics also say this seeming plurality does not actually translate into a real debate in parliament or diversity of legislative initiatives. And that's because, even combined, the four parties that made it to the previous Duma were no match for the dominant United Russia. In the previous Duma, the party of power held 315 of 450 seats, a two-thirds majority, which allowed it to pass any bill proposed by the Kremlin. In fact, the previous Duma was so obedient that it passed more bills that came from the executive branch of the government than those the lawmakers proposed themselves.
This dominance of United Russia and its readiness to toe the Kremlin line has also allowed the Duma to shoot down any initiatives that came from the opposition and did not sit well with Russia's rulers. For example, the bill on progressive taxation, pushed by the social-democratic A Just Russia. The country's oligarchs, the party said, must pay more than the flat 13 per cent rate currently required of all income-earners in Russia. "The bill failed though," says party member and Duma deputy Aleksandr Burkov, because "the 'trade union' of oligarchs and bureaucrats - United Russia - voted against it".
"If we fragment our parliament, it will not be able to make the necessary decisions in the necessary time ... At some point this will drag us to the line behind which our friends and partners in Europe now find themselves," he said.
And the flamboyant leader of the nationalist LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, does not mince his words either. "Your faction in the Duma - is made up half of criminal businessmen and half of former KGB agents," he yelled at a United Russia member during a recent televised debate, dangling a pair of handcuffs. "You've been fleecing this country for 12 years. You’ve been lying for 12 years and breaking all the promises you've given to improve the people's lives."
And as if to support these assertions, just three days before the vote, a high-ranking election official told the English-language daily The Moscow Timesthat United Russia had struck a deal under which the other three parliamentary parties (the Communists, the LDPR, and A Just Russia) are "pretending to play the opposition" in exchange for guarantees that they will secure seats in the next State Duma. "They want to preserve the status quo," he said. "And to achieve that they have agreed to play the roles the Kremlin has given them in this farce." The offical asked for anonymity in fear of reprisal.
No 'none of the above'
On one hand, there is Alexei Navalny, a Yale-educated lawyer, famous blogger, whistleblower and anti-corruption activist who coined the phrase "The Party of Swindlers and Thieves" to describe United Russia. His motto is "Anyone But United Russia."
"The correct strategy," he said - back in September during the opposition's debates on election strategy - "would be to create a united political space and to act against United Russia together, all of us, systemic and non-systemic opposition."
Just three days before the vote, Navaln has written a detailed blog entry urging civic-minded Russians to call on at least five people they know to vote against United Russia. "Talk to your grandma and talk to your auntie," he writes. "Print out flyers, send out text messages, even providing links to a collection of anti-United Russia posters. "Don't campaign for any specific party. Only urge to vote against the Party of Swindlers and Thieves and its political monopoly".
He has even created a group, with other fellow opposition-minded liberals - such as political satirist Viktor Shenderovich - named Nakh-Nakh. It makes a reference to a popular fairtale about three little piglets, one of whom was called "Naf-Naf". It is also a play on a strong Russian expletive for refusal. The Cyrilic "KH" corresponds to the Latin "X" - a symbol with which they want voters to void their ballots.
Another shows the piglet trying to get on a merry-go-round - with faces of the same Russian politicans, leaders of parliamentary parties, who simply change places, as Putin sits atop the fairground ride.