Russia: The Opposition Coordinating Council's Great Debates, Day 1.0

What follows is the first installment in a series of paraphrased transcripts from the debates [ru] between candidates for the upcoming elections of the first Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition. Beginning on October 1 and ending on October 6, all 216 individuals running for seats on the CC will have the opportunity [ru] to participate in lightening-round debates aired live online [ru] by Dozhd Television. Viewers and CC-election-registered voters will then select 60 of the candidates to take part in a semifinal stage of debates, beginning on October 8 and ending on October 12. For the final stage, voters will select just 20 people, who will participate in the last debates beginning on October 15 and ending on October 19.

Each day at midnight, Dozhd TV airs roughly 90 minutes of debate coverage, spanning 6-8 groups, each containing four individual candidates. The debates are moderated by one of two hosts, either Yuri Saprykin or Demian Kudriavtsev. Candidates are given 30 seconds to introduce themselves, another 30 seconds to answer a group question, and a final 30 seconds to respond to a third question tailored to them specifically. Each debate lasts roughly 12 minutes.

Given those very strict time constraints, it's no surprise that very little debating actually occurs in this first “qualifying” stage. Candidates barely have enough time to introduce themselves, let alone interact on political issues. This dynamic will likely improve, as more debaters are eliminated from the competition.

Below, you will find paraphrased transcripts of the first four debates on October 1, Day 1 of the qualifying stage. In posts to follow, RuNet Echo will provide similar coverage of the remaining Coordinating Council debates.

Day 1, Group 1

Andrei Gavrilov, “lawyer, representative of the middle class”
Artem Loskutov, Novosibirsk artist, “monstrosity” organizer
Vladimir Mirzoev, film and theatre director
Liudmila Ulitskaia, writer and “public figure”

Gavrilov: joined the Coordinating Council (CC) race because it's a new institution that's capable of “shaking up” the political environment in Russia, and perhaps solving some of the “accumulated problems” that now worry Russians.

Loskutov: says he is running in response to widespread disappointment in civil society's leadership. If the “responsibilities” of leadership must be earned, he is prepared to battle for people's trust.

Mirzoev: says that he was not interested in politics in the 1990s or 2000s, and preferred instead to focus on art. He then says that circumstances have changed and artists must get involved in politics. “Maybe so that politicians don't commit certain mistakes, non-politicians need to be there alongside them,” he concludes.

Saprykin then intervenes to point out that distinctions between “politicians and non-politicians” have become “rather arbitrary,” given the plethora of “non-political candidates” in the CC race and the active participation of such individuals in last winter's protests.

Ulitskaia: says it was difficult to refuse participating, in light of Russia's “weak civil society,” which the CC can help grow by adding “extra meaning” and providing a space to take shape and produce “new, young politicians.”

Saprykin's first question is for everyone: if not Putin, then who?

Gavrilov: admits that there's no one currently to replace Putin because the electoral system is “rotten.” Before locating a replacement for Putin, the electoral system must be reformed. Only after this is completed can Russia hold new elections for the parliament and presidency. Dissolving these institutions before such reforms would result in “chaos.”

Loskutov: begins with the “to kot” joke response popular online [ru]. (The Russian, “esli ne Putin, to kto?” is jumbled to read “esli ne putin, to kot,” or “if not Putin, then a cat.”) He then says that Russia needs a “structure” where such questions about personal charisma don't exist. A proper decentralization of power would negate this question.

Mirzoev: echoes others that Russia needs “strong institutions,” and declares himself in favor of a “parliamentary republic.” Says a stronger parliament is necessary, in addition to a constitutional referendum to either constrain or eliminate the powers of the President.

Ulitskaia: says that she has no particular objections to Putin or anyone else. While she doesn't “like the structure,” she locates the “problem” in the authorities’ “amorality.” The people in those positions should at least display elementary “propriety,” she argues. Yes, officials should change regularly, but a certain degree of morality is essential. She finishes by saying that corruption is “top-down” and already beyond any possible or acceptable limits.

Saprykin's next question goes to Gavrilov: has he ever considered emigration? Purely hypothetically, what might force him to leave the country?

Gavrilov: says that, yes, he's considered it, particularly immediately after graduating from college, when he had trouble finding a decent-paying job. He did travel abroad as a student, however, and says that not all foreigners thrive, in his experience. That said, threats to his life, health, or family could still bring him to emigrate.

Saprykin's next question is to Loskutov: given his past support for Pussy Riot (which includes having designed a line of T-shirts that some say insults religious people), how might he convince an Orthodox activist that this form of protest isn't meant to offend Russians believers?

Loskutov: says that any activist would “calm down” after listening to his defense, which is that his T-shirts don't depict the Virgin Mary, and therefore (supposedly) do not insult any element of religious faith.

Saprykin's next question is to Mirzoev: says many believe that the country's political situation is now worse than it was last winter. With Pussy Riot now in prison and journalists getting fired (a likely reference to Masha Gessen and perhaps Filipp Dzyadko), what provides any hope that things will get better?

Mirzoev: says that this turn has been “entirely natural” for the authorities, who make no habit of dialogue with “society,” because it leads to uncomfortable questions and compromises. Concludes by saying that the authorities have lost touch with reality.

Saprykin's final question goes to Ulitskaia: should the state punish people who create extremist texts and films? Is there such a thing literary extremism?

Ulitskaia: says that Russia has a deep tradition dating back to Bolshevism of tolerating only one point of view, and considering all alternatives to be criminal, dangerous, and in need of destruction. The inability of today's authorities to adopt “wiser, calmer, and more tolerant” views on any problem is a consequence of such shortcomings.

Day 1, Group 2

Maria Baronova, cofounder of the “Party of December 5″ bloc [ru], and a protest and Krymsk humanitarian aid organizer
Dmitri Ivanov, video-blogger, social activist, and League of Voters cofounder
Nadezhda Mitiushkina, Solidarnost activist and winter protests organizer

Baronova: at 28-years-old, she says that she spent the last decade of her life trying to ignore politics and establish a career in business. Says that this lifestyle became unbearable last year, when she decided at last to take part in the protest movement and encourage others to get involved, too.

Ivanov: he is a member of the “Renewal Bloc,” which includes Ilya Yashin, Dmitri Gudkov, and Dmitri Nekrasov. He's been involved in online “video content” for nearly four years, and is alarmed by the lack of “civic control” over what happens in Russia, and wants to “pressure” the country's officials.

Mitiushkina: started protesting about four years ago. She works with special-needs children and it was the situation of families in today's Russia (as well as the state of the foster home system) that drove her to become an activist.

Sapyrkin's first question: can the opposition achieve anything this fall through mass rallies?

Baronova: says it's important to attend demonstrations, but it's even more vital that the opposition embrace the Coordinating Council as a “next step.”

Ivanov: says rallies are a necessary part of the opposition's repertoire because they are the only way to attract the attention of society and the media. That said, the movement needs more “real work,” to complement the gesture politics of rallies.

Mitiushkin: agrees with Baronova and Ivanov, and adds that anything to build up civil society is a good thing.

Saprykin's next question is to Baranova: what is the greatest achievement and the worst loss in her year as an oppositionist?

Baronova: names her own freedom as her biggest loss, explaining that a two-year prison sentence now threatens her (in connection with her actions at the May 6 “Million Man March”). Her greatest achievement is having learned about her own capabilities, namely that she is “capable of more than she used to be.”

Saprykin next asks of Ivanov: the Duma is currently trying to narrow free speech online, but should this freedom be restricted?

Ivanov: says that the Internet does a fine job policing itself, citing YouTube as a model. While certain restrictions are necessary, the Duma's concept of extremism is dangerously elastic.

Saprykin's final question is for Mitiushkina: asks if she would have done anything differently if she could go back in time and replay the winter protests.

Mitiushkina: says that the movement lacked a certain degree of organization and “mutual support.” Then conveys somewhat incoherently that the movement was dragged down by a lack of uniformity, before labeling the winter protest phenomenon “an incredible miracle.”

Day 1, Group 3

Georgy Alburov, coordinator of RosVybory and DMP, aka “the Good Machine of Truth” (two Navalny-founded projects), and an organization committee member of the “People's Alliance” Party (“Navalny's Party without Navalny,” Stanislav Belkovsky once joked)
Vladimir Gluskin, a participant in the organizational committee of the Nationalists Bloc, and the director of the head of the National Committee for the nationalist group “Russkie”
Leonid Razvozzhaev, member of Left Front, and aide to Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev
Alexey Chuprov, “transhumanist,” globalist, and supporter of the peaceful dissolution of the Russian Federation

Alburov: lists his accomplishments with RosVybory and DMP, including the mobilization of thousands of election observers, the distribution of hundreds of thousands of leaflets, and many video clips and other visual agitprop materials. “The CC for me,” he explains, “is still another means to accomplishing real things.” He believes that the CC could potentially field united opposition candidates in real-world local elections, mobilize more election monitors, and contribute to the “mass educational work” currently pursued by his projects.

Gluskin: opens by saying that the army used to be “outside politics,” when he was in the service. He goes on to suggest that this is no longer the case with the military (“the law on many parties, the protests, and the CC elections have opened a window of possibilities for the most active part of society”). It turns out, however, that this “most active part” isn't soldiers but Russian nationalists, who make up 80% of the country's population, according to him.

Razvozzhaev: says he has lived in Moscow for the last 15 years as a small businessman and
“professional revolutionary.” Says that Russians are now seeing a “tough confrontation” between the opposition and the authorities, evidenced by the latter's post-election decision to “tighten the screws.” Offers himself and Left Front as the right individual and institution to “carry on the fight in harsh conditions.”

Chuprov: says that Moscow has betrayed the regions by stealing their wealth and exporting it abroad. As a result, Russians no longer see their future in the Russian Federation. Says that the Kremlin will never allow the opposition to gain a majority in the federal parliament or alter the constitution, so the CC would be wisest to focus on aiding local opposition candidates in regional elections.

Saprykin's first question to the group: is there any cause so just that they would consider working with Dmitri Medvedev's government in order to achieve it?

Alburov: says that cooperation would be possible, if Medvedev decided to fight corruption for real, or institute real judicial reform, or real police reform, and so on. Laments, however, that Medvedev's ostensibly reformist efforts in the past have proved to be “fake.”

Gluskin: advocates “some kind of global project to unite all of society,” adding cautiously that such a project should accommodate everyone (to which he then adds less cautiously: “including the ethnic nation state”).

Razvozzhaev: says he hopes for a dialogue with the authorities, and is prepared to participate in “real democratic reforms.” He also offers his support in the unlikely event that Medvedev's government breaks with the Kremlin and somehow turns the judicial system against Putin and his allies.

Chuprov: thinks that Russians living in the regions need their own local authorities to be capable of defending their interests, which might involve threatening to assert regional sovereignty and seceede from the Russian Federation. “Only the tectonic forces of separatism can force the Kremlin into a dialogue with the opposition,” he declares.

Saprykin next recites Alburov's many agitprop accolades and asks him which are more effective: posts on Facebook or traditional leaflets in elevators?

Alburov: says that he views two Internets — a “small” Web and a “big” one. The former encompasses political blogs and the limited number of people interested in reading material like Navalny's LiveJournal or Vedomosti newspaper. The “big” Internet, meanwhile, is where entertainment content resides (mainly on social networks). Getting agitprop materials to the apolitical, larger Internet is important, just as offline leafleting is a useful way to get the message out to otherwise-uninformed citizens.

Saprykin's next question is for Gluskin: who is the main enemy of the Russian people today?

Gluskin: says, “The greatest enemy dwells within the very Russian people.” [Saprykin then asks him to identify the enemy more specifically.] He explains, “All defects. Laziness.”

Saprykin repeats Gluskin's answer and quips, “What a wise response.” His next question is for Razzvozzhaev: asks him what the ideal socialist/communist Russia would look like in his dreams. Sweden or North Korea? Maybe China or Cuba?

Razzvozzhaev: describes his and Left Front's communist vision as one compatible with “social-democratic mechanisms” like a multi-party system and “civil organizations.”

Saprykin's final question goes to Chuprov: asks what would be good about the dissolution of the Russian Federation, and whom would it benefit.

Chuprov: suggests that pieces of Russia might be able to join the European Union or NATO, if the country was broken up. Regions opposed to the idea would be free to form their own blocs or go it alone. “Why try to live together,” he asks, “if nothing unites us?”

Day 1, Group 4

Igor Artemov, creator of the movement “Russian All-National Union,” and a believer in “realpolitik”
Maksim Gongalskii, scholar at MGU, activist for “Za Ramenskii Park,” election monitor, and volunteer for Krymsk
Dmitri Demushkin, Russian politician, public figure, nationalist, and one of the founding organizers and regular participants of the “Russian March” nationalist demonstrations
Andrei Kuznetsov, head of the organizational committee of the National Democratic Party in St. Petersburg, and a participant in the “Khvatit kormit’ Kavkaz” movement

Artemov: says that he approaches everything he does in life with a great deal of seriousness, which he now applies to his work “defending the ethnic interests of Russians.” He then recites his experience as a local legislator, and his work against drug mafias, as well as efforts to lower housing taxes. This activism, he claims, resulted in the government banning the Russian All-National Union as an extremist organization.

Gongalskii: says he joined the protest movement with most newcomers last December. Argues that the CC's main purpose should be increasing pressure on the authorities by attracting new people to the movement, and increasing the activity of people already in the movement. He concludes that the opposition is in need of some kind of “serious victory,” such as winning Moscow's upcoming city or mayoral elections.

Demushkin: says he is running for the CC to represent Russian nationalism. He wants ethnic Russians to receive nation-state status, which the Chechens of the Chechen Republic have already obtained, he argues.

Kuznetsov: says he supports radically reducing the flow of migrants into Russia, as well as reforming the judicial and police systems — none of which is possible without a legitimate parliament. In order to construct such a body, the opposition must form an alternative system, which be believes the CC represents.

Saprykin's first question is: what should the next Duma adopt as its first new law?

Artemov: says the first law should enforce “responsibility” for the results of state officials’ actions. Says he's tried to raise this issue in the past unsuccessfully. Letting corruption go unpunished and excellence unrewarded obstructs the nation's prosperity, he argues.

Gongalskii: says legal reform should be primary, as it's the cornerstone of any national modernization agenda.

Demushkin: regrets that no single law would be enough to fix the system. Necessary moral initiatives include: fighting alcoholism, drunkenness, and the “extinction of the [Russian] ethnicity.” Demographics — specifically death rates and birth rates — are the primary concern for any politician, he concludes.

Kuznetsov: signals agreement with Demushkin about there being no silver bullet, but also sides with Gongalskii that reforms must start with the court system. If the courts malfunction and the public has no faith in the law, then a national “legal collapse” awaits Russia, he argues.

Saprykin's next question is for Artemov: asks if he approves or disapproves of the Pussy Riot verdict.

Artemov: says he disapproves of the verdict, but acknowledges that there are “problems on both sides.” The behavior of the band members, he says, “wasn't very good.” Then again, he continues, others (like Marat Gelman) regularly produce anti-Orthodox artwork and are not imprisoned. He concludes that the band was ultimately punished not for its religious content but its direct attacks on Putin in its lyrics, and would otherwise have avoided such a harsh sentence.

Saprykin next turns to Gongalskii: asks if going to demonstrations or helping the poor is more important. (Saprykin then adds, “You do both, but which is more important?”)

Gongalskii: says that helping the poor is more important, but then explains that some of the May 6 “political prisoners” also live in poverty. From here, he segues rather incoherently to calls for election monitors to migrate to courtrooms and perform oversight there, as well.

Saprykin then compliments Gongalskii's response, saying, “That's a very good suggestion — and not just for courts, but also for those people who wait for their trials, like the May 6 prisoners do now.” He then turns to Demushkin, asking him about his trip to Chechnya in the summer of 2011, when he and fellow nationalist Aleksandr Belov reported approvingly of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. “What do you like in Kadyrov's Chechnya?” Saprykin asks.

Demushkin: says he'd rather talk about why they visited Chechnya in the first place, which was because “Russian nationalists defend the rights and freedoms of indigenous populations.” He then implies that he went there to defend the rights of ethnic Russians living in Chechnya (though Saprykin was obviously asking about statements like Belov's [ru], “In Chechnya, there are no traces of war, and that’s cool”).

Saprykin's final question goes to Kuznetsov: does Russia have any friends?

Kuznetsov: says the question is complicated, because Russia's friends are different at any moment in history. Concludes by saying that “distinct friendly relations” do exist with some countries (though he doesn't say which).

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