Why is participation in municipal elections especially important in the face of increasing political repression? How are urban politics and the struggle for democratic change connected? Municipal deputy Alexander Zamyatin answers questions by “Posle”
— Alexander, only recently a detention report was drawn up against you for a two-year-old facebook post that included a link to a Navalny video. Why do you think it happened at this particular time?
— For me, it’s pretty obvious. This is a sure-fire way to disqualify incumbent deputies who have decided to run for re-election [to municipal legislation councils]. Previously, a criminal case or some other serious story was needed to do this, but now they have a run-off-the-mill way to keep candidates out of the election by accusing them of distributing extremist materials.
So far, it looks like there is some kind of a list, prepared, apparently, by the Moscow mayor’s office, and they are working according to it. The date when officers from the Center for Combating Extremism began to read our social network profiles can be clearly identified from the case files [note: Center for Combating Extremism is part of the Interior Ministry. It deals primarily with monitoring activists and harassing opposition members]. The investigation [against Zamyatin and other campaign members] began on the same day, a few days after we presented the Vydvizheniye municipal platform (in Russian the coinage has two meanings: “you are the movement” and “nomination”). This is how the mayor’s office responded to our launch — they decided to take all of us off the ballot. For two years these posts had been all over social media, no one was interested in them, and now, in one day, they have decided to check if there were any links to Navalny’s videos. To me, everything looks pretty straightforward.
— So you can be disqualified from the election for an administrative offense?
— There is a category of administrative offenses under which a citizen loses her passive suffrage. In my case it is article 20.3 part 1 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation [note: propaganda or public demonstration of Nazi, extremist and other attributes or insignia prohibited by the Russian federal law]. According to this article, a citizen’s right to run for any office is suspended for a year. For instance, a recent article by the Golos movement, election monitoring NGO, provides some information about how many people in Russia have lost their right to passive suffrage. There are millions of such people.
— Mikhail Lobanov and Ilya Yashin were recently jailed for 15 days. Mikhail has already been released, while Ilya is to remain in pre-trial detention till september. Along with you, Mikhail is one of the Vydvizheniye founders. Aren’t you afraid that now, having lost its leaders, the platform will be demoralized and any internal opposition in Russia will be decapitated?
— I want to point out that we are dealing with three different stories in the three cases, those of Mikhail Lobanov, Ilya Yashin and myself. It is clear that all of these cases are political, but the way they are handled and their prospects are different. With Lobanov the focus is on discrediting the army and criticizing the war. Yashin’s situation is quite strange, because he was arrested under Article 19.3 of the Administrative Code for disobeying the police and now they’ve filed a criminal case on misinformation against him.
Now to the Vidvizheniye platform and its leaders. First of all, the platform has been stripped of its leaders. With the arrest of Mikhail [Lobanov], not a single process stalled, because the platform cannot be broken by a single arrest. I would say we have a blockchain, not a hierarchical elite-led organization. This is how the people in power think — if you remove Putin everything will fall apart.That is not the case with us; we are a democratic organization.
After Mikhail’s arrest we became stronger, and he himself agrees with this. We became more visible. I give interviews every day, and there have been some short mentions in the media. For example, I was waiting a long time for Meduza to publish an article about the municipal elections campaign, yet the articles only began to appear following Lobanov’s arrest. We started getting more donations because people didn’t like the fact that we were persecuted. It took us a long time to raise funds, but now we have collected all we need.
I contend that the arrest of public leaders breaks nothing. No one gets disempowered in any way. Our candidates demonstrate in chats and in person that they are not afraid. None of them said that they would refuse to cooperate with the platform because everyone was being detained. On the contrary, people have only become more convinced that we are doing the right thing.
— And when did the idea of creating a platform for municipal elections arise? Has the “special military operation” caused any changes in this initiative? Did the situation in Ukraine affect people’s willingness to participate in the municipal campaign?
— The evolution of this project went through three stages. First, after the parliamentary elections in September 2021, there were many people in Lobanov’s team who wanted to participate in the municipal campaign. Some wanted to become candidates; others wanted to help. People in the team were very enthusiastic, despite the fact that Mikhail Lobanov was not given a parliamentary seat. Everyone understood that we had actually beaten Putin’s United Russia nominee Popov, and everyone wanted to keep working [note: to learn more about a new socialist, grass-roots movement in Russia read this article in Jacobin].
“I would say we have a blockchain, not a hierarchical elite-led organization. This is how the people in power think — if you remove Putin everything will fall apart.That is not the case with us; we are a democratic organization”
The second stage took place in the winter when we opened a school for candidates. The project involved people who could share their experience and prepare candidates for the local elections. At first, we wanted to train our team members. Then we started recruiting people publicly. It turned out that there were a lot of people in Moscow who wanted to take part in the elections. Dozens of people came to train with us. Naturally we had ambitious plans. We saw that there was demand, there were candidates, there were resources and opportunities.
At the third stage, a war broke out which cut off a large group of those willing to participate in the elections. People had different reasons: some were intimidated, some were disoriented, and some lost motivation altogether because they saw no point in municipal elections while the war was going on. In the winter, we expected that there would be at least 1,000 independent opposition candidates in Moscow, and now there are about 200 of them. We took two months to decide whether or not to take part in the municipal elections. We had to choose to either give up on the platform or adapt to the circumstances and run for the municipal elections. We discussed and considered a lot of things, and finally decided that we needed to launch the platform. It was launched late, as we should have started the campaign in the spring, but then there was no time for it.
— That is, the idea was first based on the relative success of opposition candidates in the 2017 municipal elections. That was when you became a municipal council deputy. That success showed that municipal elections mattered, that it was possible to win them, and that a significant number of victories could change the political landscape in the city. Do you think it’s possible to repeat that success in the September 2022 elections?
— Now it’s obvious that quantitatively we can’t do it again, because in 2017 there were about 1,000 independent candidates and about 300 of them got a mandate. To repeat that success, we need about 1,000 candidates again, but we don’t have that many people.
If you look qualitatively, we’re at a completely different stage now. In 2017 we lived in a different country. And it’s not just the war — even prior to it, there had been a few rounds when the regime and the conditions in which you could engage in politics were tightened. In 2021 Navalny was jailed and there was a crackdown on mass protests; in 2020 covid restrictions and constitutional amendments were introduced. Everything is different now. It would be strange to try to play things out following the same scenario as in 2017 given the new conditions. You must have absolutely no idea of what’s going on to do that.
On the surface it looks the same: there are many independent candidates in municipal elections, there is an aggregator platform which helps them. But this view of things is very superficial. It is impossible to compare the results of the 2017 elections with the projected outcomes of this year’s elections. Most likely, the main outcome (poorly quantifiable, ephemeral, but very important) in the 2022 election will be that people who hold democratic views will see each other, realize that there are many of them and that they are capable of consolidated political action. Supporting candidates in municipal elections is this kind of consolidated political action. We do not know any other way to act together right now.
— Can we say that the war has prompted criticism of participation in municipal elections? Some people might say that one should engage in anti-war resistance rather than in such seemingly unimportant matters as local elections. What is the position of the Vydvizheniye platform on this issue?
— This is a false dichotomy, because there is a huge part of society that wants to engage in politics to criticize the existing political regime and to oppose it. Within this part of society there are people who are ready to participate in political processes to varying degrees. There is a minority that is prepared to take the most radical actions. There is another minority, slightly larger than the first, that is ready to protest. It is very important for the country that there are such people who still come out to picket. That’s fine. But there is a huge layer of people who are not ready to do it. For them, “What is to be done?” can be answered in two ways. The first answer is given by people criticizing others for failing to act. We as a platform provide the other solution. We are trying to create an infrastructure of participation for these people. Maybe they are not willing to take radical action, not ready to go on pickets, but they are eager to campaign for candidates in municipal elections. Maybe they are ready to donate money for such projects and to spread information about independent candidates. It is absolutely wrong to exclude these people from politics and to offer them nothing. They want to act politically. Our job is to create the infrastructure to involve as many like-minded people as possible. I believe that those who criticize our participation in municipal elections are simply mistaken, because they severely limit the space for possible action.
— Why didn’t Vydvizheniye team up with other political parties and initiatives that have long provided support for candidates in municipal elections?
— Before the war, we had diplomatic relations with the KPRF [the Communist Party of the Russian Federation] and Yabloko [the liberal party]. More so with the KPRF, because Mikhail [Lobanov] has personal contacts there. We did not expect to create an alliance, since Yabloko and the KPRF are not politically close to us, but we hoped to build a coalition and establish diplomatic relations, which were good for everyone, except for the mayor’s office in Moscow. However, since the start of the war, the KPRF has taken a pro-war stance. Now they are pressing their candidates to leave our platform and refuse our support. We know this from personal conversations with people who were told to choose between the platform and the KPRF. Some made a choice in favor of the platform and left the KPRF, while others made a choice in favor of the Communist Party and left the platform. Yabloko has traditionally taken a sectarian position. They do not have a strict ban on cooperation with us, that’s what they say, but within the party, cooperation with the platform is not encouraged. Apparently, these parties do not want to have strong candidates and pursue a different goal. We do not lose much from this lack of cooperation, though it is a pity.
“Almost all people are spontaneous democrats because almost everyone has an opinion about politics. People want to have their own say in politics, their voice, and democracy provides them with this voice”
As for other projects, there are none. To be more precise, the second most powerful project in Moscow next to ours is Society. Future run by Roman Yuneman. We won’t cooperate with them because they are nationalists and for us their position is beyond the red line. We can work together with some supporters of Yabloko and the KPRF, but we will never cooperate with the nationalists from Yuneman’s team.
Next come various micro-projects, which claim that there are some candidates they support. Some platforms have 30, some have 40 candidates, but they are all anonymous. I assume that these micro-projects do not exist. If you go to our site, you can see that there are actual people there who run their campaigns and whose activities can be followed on the Internet. Projects that say they have 30 candidates but refuse to show them are more like PR. Thus, there is no one we could team up with. Before the war, there was Maxim Katz, a popular liberal blogger, but he withdrew from the public scene. Now there is no one else.
— Together with Denis Prokurnov, you now run a podcast “This is the Base” [note: in Marx’s lexicon, base, or substructure, is a constitutive part of the production process]. At times, you discuss everyday issues, touching upon political theory. In the episode “Isn’t our country in need of democracy?”, you touched upon the problems we are discussing. We encourage everyone to listen to this episode, but we find it problematic in one respect: there were only democrats participating in this discussion, and they all were arguing on how democracy should be built and what was its meaning. The very value of democracy was not put to question. Why is democracy so significant for us? Why should we strive for democracy in the absence of direct demand for it?
— I have two responses. When I say that democracy is good, I refer to a normative ideal according to which all people are politically equal. One can identify with this ideal or not. It is like the ten Christian commandments, according to which people shall not kill each other and shall not do violence. Is it necessary to defend this claim? It seems unnecessary: a person either shares it, or not. If someone disagrees that it is wrong to kill people, then I have nothing more to say to him or her — there is an unsurpassable gap between us. If someone disagrees that people are politically equal, it is very unlikely that I will be able to clear things up in this respect.
However, if everything is obvious about the attitudes to murder — a person either thinks it is wrong or does not think so — when it comes to democracy, the situation is different. If someone declares that (s)he neither needs democracy, nor treats all people as politically equal, thinking, instead, that it is necessary to find the most powerful person of the tribe and hand over political power and authority to him or her, in this case the person is inconsistent. His or her stance implies that (s)he has a right for political statement. (S)he has to either abandon his or her political demand so it loses its force, or to reserve the right for a certain point of view and eventually vote for political equality.
Almost all people are spontaneous democrats because almost everyone has an opinion about politics. People want to have their own say in politics, their voice, and democracy provides them with this voice. When those who are against democracy say that it is necessary to repose power in the hands of one person or that power should be kept in the hands of elites, they lie to themselves (if they do not belong to this elite at that particular moment). The only social strata that can be consistently non-democratic is the elite.
— This is a logical argument for democracy. What about pragmatic justification behind practical issues and challenges that people face? For instance, the war started and no one was asked their opinion.
— I tried to elaborate on this in our podcast. Now I will try to do it briefly once again. The logic I described before should be sustained by practical action. Democracy is not only a normative ideal but also a political system, which requires a struggle. Almost everything we do in a current situation is a struggle for democracy. When we ask ourselves why such a mad and far-reaching decision has been taken, the decision that derailed our lives literally or figuratively, this is a question of democracy to the utmost, the question of struggle for democracy. In terms of pragmatic thinking, we need democracy because it is essentially a way of advocating ourselves in politics. And we need not only to put forth democracy as a logical construction but to create such a political movement (which we are doing now), which will literally fight for public space for democracy, stand against authoritarian forces and reclaim the power from them. Democrats have to reclaim power because democracy is a struggle.
— But what if someone wins in this struggle, comes into power and sinks into corrupt schemes? Such a trajectory often leads to democracy turning into a non-democratic regime, in which everything is reduced to distribution of seats, while regular people are excluded from the political process.
— This is what happens [often], there are historical examples of it. It reminds me of the way people dismiss communism. If we proceed from this logic, the history of the USSR [allegedly] proves the impossibility of communism. Just the same way all examples of democracy in the twentieth century prove the impossibility of democracy. I repeat once again that democracy is a complex normative ideal, which is hard to reach. If this ideal failed to come to life somewhere, this does not mean anything. In its limit, democracy is incompatible with a nation state. As long as the globe is built by such territorial units as nation states, there will be no democracy in the world.
“I am trying to restore the essence of democracy, because democracy is political equality, that is the equal distribution of participation in the “our common life” enterprise”
At the same time, I am not aware of any fundamental constraints, which could prove that democracy is impossible. I see challenges and obstacles. One of them I have already mentioned — the existence of the nation states. The second one is capitalism, which inevitably produces economic inequality. These are challenges and obstacles but not fundamental constraints. We need to fight the challenges. Traveling to the moon presents certain difficulties but this does not mean that it is impossible to reach it. It is about building the spacecraft which could cross the distance as required. Democracy is similarly hard to reach but not impossible. Therefore, we need to build a spacecraft which will make it to democracy.
— It follows that democracy is related to certain apparatuses and institutions, which could potentially prompt creation of such a “democratic spacecraft”?
— There is a certain danger in such a statement. On the one hand, that is it. Quite a compelling way of thinking, which was described by the Founding Fathers of the US. For example, there is a need for democratic institutions, which will prevent the power from concentrating in a single pair of hands. On the other hand, I find it dangerous to reduce democracy to institutions. Reducing democracy to a certain set of institutions — free and competitive elections, independent judiciary, market economy, etc. — depletes it. I am trying to restore the essence of democracy, because democracy is political equality, that is the equal distribution of participation in the “our common life” enterprise. Of course, it is impossible to disregard institutions; it is necessary to continuously improve and develop them. But the essence of democracy is not in the institutions. On the contrary, democracy is a principle that underlies our thinking about institutional logic.
— What role does municipal power and municipal elections play in democracy?
— I am currently writing a dissertation on local and municipal governance in The Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences. Before our conversation I was sitting over the chapter, in which I analyzed a discussion taking place in the 50s on whether democracy is compatible with local governance. For quite a while, there was a popular idea that democracy implies strong local governance. But then some researchers started to argue against this view, saying that democracy and local governance contradict each other. Why? The answer could be as follows: local governance underwent its reduction to institutions. To the end of the twentieth century, the key argument for local governance as an important democratic element was based on identification of governance with local elections. Local self-government is there, if local authorities, the mayor, the office and the members of the local council are all elected; and if they are not a product of elections, there is no local self-government. Such a reduction significantly depletes local governance, which, in fact, is quite a rich concept.
“There are those who left but continue helping us with our platform. I do not treat them as “those who left”. They are on board, and we have our solidarity”
A Canadian political theorist Warren Magnusson, who had quite an influence on me, once assumed that local governance is something bigger than what we think of it. At first, this idea spontaneously came to my mind, through my practice, and afterwards I found it in Magnusson. I think that local governance is the main alternative to the nation state. If we try to imagine the political order after the nation state, local governance would be at its core.
This is a very abstract idea. But if we put it in practice, which I am, as a deputy, engaged in, everything becomes clear. There is a yard, a common area of several houses, and its inhabitants, who always want to take part in management of this space because they live there and they are interested in it being operative. But there are things that put obstacles for them in terms of managing this space. These things could be centralized power, officials and authorities, the city government of Moscow. In effect, there is an opposition between the sovereign state represented by the city administration, which literally comes and starts digging up the ground in the yard, and spontaneous local governance of the house tenants who are annoyed by the fact that nobody asked them before starting the digging works and nobody told them what is going to be done there. They call me as a deputy, and I try to find out what is going on. Together we think of how we can factor into the ongoing process. These are things happening here and now. Such opposition could lead to the city administration completely ignoring and even cracking down on activists, so that people just go home feeling low and down. Alternatively, something different could happen: a centralized system would collapse, and local governance would take its place, providing people with a real opportunity to take part in decision making.
— Many activists and people who made a public [anti-war] statement have recently left Russia in fear of prosecution or just because speaking out has become impossible. You, as well as Mikhail Lobanov and many other people, made a choice to stay in the country in order to make a change. What do you think of people who made an opposite choice? What would you say to those who left and those who stayed?
— I do not think that I can tell them what they should do. Everyone made his or her choice in different circumstances. I will never be judgmental towards people who left or stayed here. Of course, I find the stance of particular immigrants annoying. The most notable example is Garry Kasparov. I would say one thing to those who left: please, do not turn into Garry. Unfortunately, this metamorphosis is quite easy. I understand those who left and cannot judge them. My only hope is that the circumstances will allow them to return and they will return.
— Do you think that this division (between those who left and those who stayed) could hamper any attempts to build solidarity, which seems so much needed now?
— Of course, we would love everyone to be friends and experience solidarity but I do not understand what we could offer to those who left. Solidarity about what? About a manifesto of sorts? There are those who left but continue helping us with our platform. I do not treat them as “those who left”. They are on board, and we have our solidarity. If there are initiatives, in which you continue to work with each other despite turning out on different sides of the border, and these initiatives are ongoing, then real solidarity is possible. But if there is a decay of ideas and no common project is possible, in this case solidarity is out of the question. I remember the previous, “Georgian” wave of immigration, which took place in 2021 after the protests against Navalny’s imprisonment. Back then I spoke to people who left and who came back, and I saw quite a sad picture. People [in immigration] got drunk in the evening and fantasized about themselves as a government in exile, and their fate should have somehow rewarded them for their suffering by making them return to Russia tall in the saddle. What for? For drinking wine every evening? I cannot understand it and find it decadent. The only thing that could save the situation is taking part in common initiatives in Russia.
This text was first published in posle.media