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Russia: Varlamov's Failure in Omsk

Ilya Varlamov, the Moscow photographer and popular blogger whom an online primary nominated last month to run for mayor of Omsk, has ended his election campaign. On May 2, Varlamov's campaign chief, fellow blogger Maksim Kats, announced the decision, claiming that it was impossible to collect the necessary 10,000 signatures to officially register Varlamov for the election. Kats lashed out at Omsk's other candidates, writing:

Мы закрыли кампанию. […] Совершенно ясно, что все подписи за всех остальных кандидатов рисованые — все платные сборщики, к которым мы сегодня обратились (к нам в штаб житель Омска принес 40,000 рублей и предложил заплатить волонтерам за сбор подписей), все платные сборщики сообщали, что “ну вы же понимаете как это делается? У нас тут база…”. Именно так собираются 10,000 подписей за 6 дней.

We have closed down the campaign. […] It's absolutely clear that all the signatures for all the other candidates are forged. All the paid collectors, whom we contacted today (an Omsk local came to our headquarters with 40,000 rubles [1,300 USD] and suggested that we pay volunteers to collect signatures), all these paid collectors told us, ‘Well, don't you understand how this is done? We have a base here [of forged signatures]….” And that is precisely how 10,000 signatures are collected in six days.

In his own blog, Varlamov defended the choice to quit the election, saying:

Начинать кампанию с жульничества – это первый шаг к грязной политике, к которой мы все привыкли. Потом нужно будет платить за компромат, нужно платить журналистам на правильные статьи, нужно платить судам, полиции и так далее. Эта не та игра, в которую мы хотим играть.

To begin a campaign with fraud is the first step toward the dirty politics that we're all used to. Next, we'd need to pay to dig up dirt on our opponents. Then, we'd need to pay journalists for favorable articles, and then pay the judges, and then the police, and so on. This isn't the game we want to play.

When Varlamov entered Omsk's mayoral race, he provoked a serious rift between the Russian opposition's supporters and opponents of ‘blogger politicians.’ Now that he's abandoned the race, the debate has only grown more heated.

Alexey Navalny wearing a Guy Fawkes mask during a protest march against Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg, Russia. (25 Feb 2012) Photo by ROMA YANDOLIN, copyright © Demotix.

Before Varlamov ended his campaign, a schism [ru] broke out between oppositionists when Vladislav Inozemtsev ignored his promise to stay out of the Omsk race, after failing to win the nomination in the online primary. Anti-Kremlin blogger and longtime primaries-supporter Aleksei Navalny sided with Varlamov. Vladimir Milov's group DemVybory, on the other hand, backed Inozemtsev, who belongs to the organization.

Varlamov's decision to cancel his campaign — particularly that he did so with still nearly a week left to collect signatures — has dealt a significant blow to Navalny and those who have championed the real-world political potential of bloggers and online activists. While Navalny has emphasized the campaign's success in drawing a new level of attention to primaries and political life, he criticized Varlamov for his apparent ignorance in beginning something he was unprepared to finish:

Сбор подписей – специальная процедура, которая придумана жуликами из Кремля и ЦИКа, чтобы не пускать на выборы неугодных. Собрать их правильно практически невозможно. Ну так мы все это и раньше знали. Вы же сами решили сыграть в эту игру.

Если в игру играть не хотите, то надо не на выборы мэра Омска идти, а на митинги “За честные выборы”. Потому и митингуем, чтобы отменили весь этот бред и допустили до выборов всех желающих, а ограничения были разумны.

The collection of signatures is a special procedure concocted by the cardsharps in the Kremlin and the Central Elections Commission to bar undesirables from elections. Collecting the necessary quantity truly is a practical impossibility. But we all already knew that. You're the ones who decided to play this game.

If you don't want to play the game, then you needn't enter Omsk's mayoral race. Instead, you belong at a ‘For Honest Elections’ rally. That's exactly why we protest: to end all this crap and all the unreasonable restrictions, and allow into elections anybody who wants to run.

Navalny went on to anticipate correctly that some traditional oppositionists would use Varlamov's half-baked campaign to advocate formal congresses instead of online primaries to nominate the movement's leaders. Finally, Navalny criticized the Omsk primary for a lack of debates, which he believes would have exposed Varlamov's untenable approach to collecting signatures.

Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov in Moscow. Photo by VITALIY RAGULIN, (04/08/11) CC BY-SA 3.0.

Vladimir Milov has also emphasized the need for public debates, ironically arguing roughly the same thing as Navalny, despite their opposite positions on Varlamov's Omsk candidacy:

Необходимо для того, чтобы отсечь “бумажных” (или “интернетных”) кандидатов, которые в интернете Рэмбо, а на публику их выпусти – так сплошная пустопорожняя болтовня и демагогия про “борьбу с коррупцией” и т.п., и шансы выиграть реальные выборы равны нулю. Нужны кандидаты, которые могут убедительно говорить, в том числе не только о жуликах и ворах, но и о том, какую политику проводить в сфере промышленности, сельского хозяйства, ОПК, медицины и т.п.

[Debates are] necessary in order to cut out the ‘paper’ (or ‘Internet’) candidates, who are Rambos online, but put them in public and all that empty blathering and demagoguery about ‘fighting corruption’ and what not, and their chances of winning real elections drop to exactly zero. We need candidates who can speak compellingly, and not only about cardsharps and thieves, but also about the kinds of policies they would introduce for industry, agriculture, the military, healthcare, and so on.

Milov then further explained why he has such little faith in the Internet:

Поэтому к голосовалкам в интернете я отношусь плохо даже не потому, что они вечно продуцируют конфузные результаты типа побед Тесака, Мавроди или Варламова (объяснение понятно – голосование по клику не предполагает никакой реальной ответственности “кликующего”), но скорее потому, что […] не позволяют определить наиболее сильного кандидата, способного в будущем реально выиграть выборы.

I take issue with online votes not because they always produce embarrassing results like the victories of Tesak, Mavrodi, or Varlamov (the explanation is understandable: voting by clicking [a computer mouse] does not involve any real responsibility on the part of the ‘clicker’), but rather because […] they prevent us from finding the strongest candidate, who could actually win a future election.

St. Petersburg city assemblyman and Yabloko member Boris Vishnevskii weighed in [ru] on Varlamov's abandoned mayoral run, calling it “an overwhelming defeat” that “once again shows that politics and clownery are fundamentally different.” Like oppositionist blogger Oleg Kozyrev [ru], he rejects Kats’ idea that it is impossible to collect 10,000 signatures honestly. Vishnevskii also laments that Yabloko's candidate in Omsk, Aleksandr Korotkov, has not generated more public interest, saying:

Но о Короткове ничего не сообщают популярные сайты и знаменитые блогеры – их внимание привлечено исключительно к пиар-акции Варламова-Каца и обсуждению причин ее провала. Впрочем, ничего удивительного: обсуждать клоунаду всегда было куда более занимательным занятием, чем обсуждать политические действия…

А у Александра Короткова, – о ужас!, – кажется, вообще нет блога. Но я уверен, что он будет очень хорошим мэром Омска.

Popular websites and famous bloggers aren't publicizing anything about Korotkov. Their attention is fixed on Varlamov's and Kats’ PR scheme, and discussions about why it collapsed. Admittedly, it's no surprise: discussing clownery has always been a far more entertaining experience than looking at political actions…

And, oh dear, it seems that Aleksandr Korotkov doesn't even have a blog! I'm confident, all the same, that he will be a very good mayor for Omsk.

Viktor Korb, one of the activists who founded Citizen Mayor [ru], the group that organized the Omsk virtual primary, penned a particularly shattering response to Navalny's blog post about Varlamov's exit from the mayoral race. As it turns out, Korb explains, the Omsk primary did feature public debates, however Varlamov (and Inozemtsev, for that matter) ignored them entirely. Korb writes:

Прочитал пост Алексея Навального Варламовокацное о “Казусах Иноземцева и Каца” и сначала даже опешил. Ну зачем, зачем честный Навальный так откровенно передергивает и извращает факты, а если говорить прямо, просто врет? Ведь ему не стоило никакого труда узнать фактические обстоятельства и изложить их максимально точно. Чтобы несколькими досадными “мелочами” не смазывать общий пафос своего, в целом, верного рассуждения об ответственности гражданских лидеров.

I read Aleksei Navalny's post about the ‘Inozemtsev and Kats Cases,’ and at first I was actually taken aback. Why oh why is Honest Navalny so openly distorting and misrepresenting the facts — or, put more directly, why is he simply lying? It's not as though it would have cost him any great effort to learn all the factual circumstances and represent them as accurately as possible, so that the general pathos of his fundamentally correct assessment of civic leaders’ responsibility wasn't smeared with a few embarrassing ‘trifles.’

Firmly planting his tongue in his cheek, Korb then explained how he nearly forgave Navalny for the misrepresentation of the Omsk primary:

Алексей Навальный совсем не случайно стал одним из самых популярных лидеров мнений. И дело вовсе не только в очевидных качествах: честности, неангажированности, решительности и т.п. Лидер, владеющий умами миллионов, обязан владеть особым навыком – формулировать мифологические представления, простые и яркие образы, выстроенные по особенной логике, логике мифа. В этой логике “реальность” обеспечивается не фактическими обстоятельствами, а “очевидностью”, доказательства заменяются “убедительностью” и т.п.

It is no accident that Aleksei Navalny has become one of the most popular opinion leaders. And it's not just a matter of his obvious qualities: decisiveness, honesty, a lack of partisan bias, and so on. A leader of millions must be especially skilled at forming mythological conceptions — simple and vivid images — built on a particular logic — the logic of myths. In this logic, ‘reality’ is established not by factual circumstances but ‘obviousness.’ Actual proof is replaced by ‘force of conviction’ and so on.

Korb concludes with a warning about the dangers of ill-gotten success, complaining that too many oppositionists seem to share Navalny's defects:

Яркие и убедительные образы вполне можно строить на основе фактов, а не домыслов или откровенного вранья. И это необходимо делать, если есть интерес не в локальном, а в стратегическом и устойчивом успехе. Потому что успех, основанный на лжи, даже кажущейся “незначительной” и “оправданной”, таит в себе серьезную угрозу разрушения главной опоры любой общественной конструкции – доверия. Похоже, Алексей Навальный, как и другие “вожди”, этого пока не понимает. И советы соратников слушать не научился.

Vivid and compelling images can also be built on facts, rather than speculation and open lies. And that's what is necessary, if one is interested in not just an isolated but a strategic and sustainable victory. Because success built on lies — even when they seem innocent and justified — poses the serious threat of destroying the backbone of any public project: trust. It seems that Aleksei Navalny, like other ‘leaders,’ still does not understand this, and neither has he learned to listen to the advice of his comrades.

The collapse of ‘Mayor Varlamov’ is a black-eye for individuals like Navalny, who rely heavily on the Internet to generate publicity and public support for their political careers and various civic initiatives. That a prominent blogger was nominated in an online primary, but then failed so miserably to run an effective campaign, is undeniably a setback for Russia's digital activists. While the stigma of Varlamov's candidacy can only be temporary, one wonders what effect it will have at this stage in Russian history, as Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin, and the country prepares for subtle but significant expansions of democratic rights brought about by recent electoral reforms.

  • Mark Sleboda

    Just maybe they have learned a valuable lesson, if inconvenient truth, about electoral politics in liberal democratic – capitalist societies – elections are first and foremost about money. Selling yourself to the special interests necessary to fund your campaign – to hire the staff, to get the signatures, to run the ads, to do the registration legwork etc. Money is the black lifeblood of electoral campaigns, the entry threshold, and what allows you to break from the pack and finish the race.

    • According to Vishnevskii, Varlamov and Kats are only imagining the need to “pay” for signatures. He claims that having volunteers stationed at dozens of points around the city (what Varlamov and Kats claim they managed for free) would have been more than enough to collect ten thousand signatures.

      As for lessons learned, Varlamov seems interpret his failure as the locals’ rejection of his candidacy:

      It’s a shame that we weren’t able to collect the signatures. We didn’t get an invitation from Omsk’s residents and that’s okay. I’m sure that Omsk will elect a deserving mayor to govern the city.

      Perhaps if more of Omsk’s residents had donated their time and “black lifeblood,” the campaign might have continued.

      For my part, I don’t understand why paying professionals to collect so many signatures would have also necessitated the need to buy kompromat and all the rest that Varlamov lists. The slippery slope sounds avoidable, and looks more like an excuse to quit.

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