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Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Democratic Spring in Russian Cities

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 might have given the world an over-optimistic notion of what political protest can engender in terms of “regime change.” A year later, the Egyptian military was still in control, which suggests that removing one particular dictator had constituted real change. In Myanmar, soldiers still dominated the parliament even after the opposition party won a landslide victory in by-elections in March 2012. Meanwhile, Assad in Syria was getting away with teaching the protesters in his country a bloody lesson while both the Arab League and the UN looked on. Meanwhile, Putin viewed his fraudulent presidential election victory as a mandate to deal more severely with the Russian protesters. The notion that a brave new world of democracy had somehow sprung to life in the Arab Spring suffered an cold snap of sorts from the cold winds of real politik. I suspect that real change happens more incrementally, and from the bottom up. This was evident in Russia in March of 2012.

Under the radar given all the attention being paid to Russia’s presidential election, 71 members of a coalition of independent and opposition activists won seats on Moscow’s 125 district legislative councils, where Putin’s United Russia Party lost ground, according to the Wall Street Journal. The newly elected deputies “will take up grievances closer to home, such as lack of parking space, spotty garbage collection and rundown neighborhood parks.” This laundry list is less exciting than planning a protest march, but according to one such newly-elected deputy, Vera Kichanova, it “can be a beginning for our generation, a way to train ourselves to run the country.”  The 20 year-old student is wise beyond her years. Although she planned to continue to join the protests, she realized that setting up a web-site by which her constituents could communicate with her would build not only grass-roots support, but tacitly convince United Russia supporters that there is another tangible alternative. Activity like cleaning up parks and increasing parking spots is only the tip of the iceberg.

                             Tamara Kornilyeva at a training session for activist candidates in Moscow WSJ

Additionally, independents including ruling-party defectors won several mayoral victories, including Yevgeny Urlashov, an anti-corruption candidate for mayor of Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000. He was supported by opposition leaders. He won a landslide victory with 70% of the vote over the Kremlin-backed opponent. “We have something to say to Mr. Putin,” he said. “Change is coming. Let democracy spring from the city of Yaroslavl.” It was not only in that city. Opposition candidates won in other large cities, including Toganrog and Togliatti. Independent candidates won 10 out of 15 mayoral elections held across Russia in March 2012, according to the Central Election Commission. Fueling the trend was increased grass-roots political activism triggered by the protesting of the parliamentary elections in December 2011. It remained to be seen just how high the opposition might get. If it does not get co-opted, the independents could eventually percolate up to give Putin’s United Russia Party a run for its money.

There are lessons for Americans. Rather than focusing exclusively on Congressional or U.S. Presidential races, Tea Party activists and candidates might concentrate foremost on the precinct level and go from there. Once they reach Congress, they would be firmly ensconced back at home and thus better able to withstand pressure even from the Republican House and Senate leadership.

There is plenty to do at the local level to open up democracy. Once mayor, Urlashov plans to fire corrupt officials and reform the electoral law to prevent mayors from serving more than two terms. In Moscow, some of the independents have been lobbying to shift the city’s power from the City Council and the unelected mayor to the 125 neighborhood councils. This reform would strengthen democracy because it is easier for new parties and independents to get elected at the neighborhood level where door-to-door campaigning can really pay off (this is also a good reason for the principle of subsidiarity). The local and regional levels are in principle most fertile for democracy because the electorates are smallest in size and the entry costs can be lower.

Furthermore, because Russia is itself a federal system, as is the E.U. and U.S., increasing the power of neighborhood councils could be part of an effort to “do federalism” all the way down. This is Althusius’s 1604 theory, where individuals are represented by their guilds and neighborhood councils, which in turn are represented at the City Council level. A provincial council is a federation of city councils, and a kingdom (or republic) is a federation of provincial councils. The imperium, or empire, is a federation of kingdoms or republics (e.g., the U.S., E.U. and Russia). Each level has the same form, and represents only the next lower level. It follows that a neighborhood council would not be a mere advisory body to a city council. All of the federation-levels are equally legitimate. In terms of modern democracy, viewing both the neighborhood and city levels as federations would strengthen democracy itself by making it easier for new faces to become politically active beyond the protest marches.

Richard Boudreaux, “Russian Protester Finds Another Path to Change,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2012.

Althusius, Political Digest (see Carney’s translation).

Michael Schwirtz, “Mayoral Votes Give Russia Opposition a Boost,” The New York Times, April 3, 2012.