Russia: Ksenia Sobchak's Civil Platform Candidacy

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

Earlier today, the Central Elections Committee officially registered [ru] a bevy of candidates for the coming elections of the first Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition. Among today's new entries to the General Civil category was socialite and opposition activist Ksenia Sobchak [ru].

Sobchak's Squad

No sooner than this became news, Sobchak posted to her LiveJournal the text [ru] of a grand pact called “The Civil Platform,” signed by her and ten others. And Sobchak's allies are no lightweights.

There's Dmitri Bykov [ru], one of Russia's most recognizable living poets, whose political satire series “Citizen Poet” made him a star of last winter's protests. Next is Liudmila Ulitskaia, a critically acclaimed novelist and a member of the “League of Voters” — an artists and intellectuals collective also formed last winter. Bykov, too, is a member of the Voters League. In fact, Sobchak's bloc boasts another three of the League's literati: professional blogger Rustem Adagamov [ru], television host Tatiana Lazareva, and journalist Sergei Parkhomenko.

Russian socialite and TV host Ksenia Sobchak joins the protest in Chistye Prudy area of Moscow, 8 May 2012, photo by Maria Pleshkova, copyright © Demotix.

The Platform's remaining signatories include a famous film director (Vladimir Mirzoev [ru]), the former chief editor of the oppositionist biweekly journal “Bolshoi Gorod” (Filipp Dziadko [ru]), a noted economist and human rights activist (Irina Yasina [ru]), a popular television humorist (Mikhail Shats, Lazareva's husband), and a renowned geneticist (Mikhail Gelfand [ru]). Lazareva, Shats, Ulitskaia, and Parkhomenko have yet to be formally registered as candidates, though there is no reason to assume they won't also be added to the list.

Election Commissioner Leonid Volkov announced [ru] on September 16 that he was working through a backlog of more applications (many from “very famous people”), and hoped to publish the final list of approved candidates by Friday, September 21.

A Lack of Transparency

One of the results of Sobchak's late entry into the Coordinating Council election has been to highlight the tenebrous procedures governing the approval of candidates. For instance, though the deadline for new entries passed two days ago, the Commission still expects to register another 80 candidates [ru] — a full third of the expected total pool.

For the next four days, the Commission will work out who does and doesn't qualify for a spot on the ballot in October. This process will happen “behind closed doors,” as it has since August 20, when the first applications came rolling in.

While it's nothing but a conspiracy theory to posit that Sobchak's candidacy is a post-deadline invention, it is strange that she never before publicized any plans to join the Coordinating Council race. Moreover, the Commission's refusal to be fully transparent about who has applied to register (and when) is conducive to uncomfortable questions about the internal workings of the election.

In a press release [ru] on September 15, Volkov addressed concerns about the obscurity of the the registration process (specifically for the Council's three “ideological” wings). His answers demonstrate to what extent the Coordinating Council remains a still frail hodgepodge of independent forces. Several times, Volkov insists that the Commission must protect its apolitical standing, and subsequently defer all registration decisions to the three wings’ appointed representatives [ru]. (Aleksandr Ivanov heads the Lefist wing, Denis Yudin the Liberals, and Elena Denezhkina the Nationalists.)

In a particularly revealing passage, Volkov writes:

Для самого ЦВК и для внешнего мира все выглядит так, как будто решение о допуске кандидата в тот или иной идеологический список принимается единолично членом ЦВК от той или иной курии. На самом же деле, курии выстроили внутри себя некую сложную систему принятия решений, результаты которой доводят до остальных членов ЦВК представители курий. Детали этой процедуры ЦВК не известны.

To both the Central Elections Commission and the outside world, it looks as if the decision to admit a candidate to this or that ideological list is adopted solely by the Commission representative from that wing. In fact, the wings have constructed their own complex decision-making systems, the results of which the wing's representative delivers to Commission. The Commission itself knows nothing about the details of these [internal] procedures.

The situation is ironic, given the fact that a lack of government transparency is precisely what the opposition is ostensibly battling against. Such abuses of power were on regular display last winter. For example, closed procedures may have enabled Mikhail Prokhorov to skirt the rules [ru] for registering as a presidential candidate last December, when he (or his handlers) apparently overlooked a paperwork requirement in the registration process. (As soon as the federal Elections Commission noticed the mistake, it miraculously discovered the necessary documents in its archives.)

While the elections process implemented by Volkov and his team is undeniably impressive, questions about certain inconvenient features persist.

Sobchak's Platform

The Civil Platform is the first non-party coalition to emerge among the Coordinating Council's candidates. (Other hopefuls have promised to form blocs, such as Leftist Aleksandra Volkova [ru], but no one has yet delivered, to this author's knowledge.) Volkov wasted no time in praising the group's emergence, writing [ru] enthusiastically:

Очень хочется теперь увидеть “Региональную платформу”, “Список московских гражданских активистов” и т.п. – вместе со сложившимися уже партийными списками, это даст нам крайне интересную конкурентную картину.

Now one strongly hopes we'll see a “Regional Platform,” a “List of Moscow Civil Activists,” and so on. Together with the already-established party lists, this offers us a very interesting competition.

Responding to Sobchak's manifesto, film director Valery Otstavykh pointed out [ru] on that the theses of the “media candidates” bloc are actually quite strange.

Indeed, the eleven signatories — all presumably running for office in the new Coordinating Council — announce definitively that they “are not politicians” and do not seek “the battle for power.” They go on to state that their priority will be “implementing workable demands” and not “populist gestures” (leaving it ambiguous if the latter is meant to describe how they view the protest movement's official goals). Finally, the group registers its disapproval of the Council's very structure, calling the idealogical wings “contrary to democratic principles,” and vowing to eradicate them from the organization, if elected.

In a tongue-in-cheek response [ru], Aleksandr Ryklin (chief editor of and a Coordinating Council candidate [ru] in the Liberal wing) took Sobchak to task for apparently failing to appreciate the ideological wings as a necessary compromise that safeguards the prospects of political unknowns.

Writing on Facebook, Ryklin compared the opposition's vote to electing the members of a livestock co-op. If Sobchak (who, throughout the RuNet, is often accused of bearing a certain resemblance to a horse) entered that race, her television stardom would undoubtedly bring her victory, Ryklin reasons. “That's why [ideological] quotas are necessary,” he explains, “so that elections don't leave our livestock in the hands of TV hosts, journalists, and show business representatives.”

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

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