12 March 2020
Sergei Davidis is director of the Programme for Supporting Political Prisoners at the Memorial Human Rights Centre
Although I, along with many distinguished individuals, was an initiator of the protest “No!” [“Nyet!“], written almost immediately after the announcement of the idea of adding nonsensical amendments to the Constitution, even before the execution of the cheap combination with the participation of Tereshkova [Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, now a Duma Deputy and a member of the United Russia party – trans.] it was obvious that the mobilizing strength of the appeal to oppose the amendments was not great. Not because the amendments are so pleasing to the public, but because most people are indifferent to this collection of turgid nonsense, since it doesn’t touch upon their immediate vital interests or feelings.
After that the combination with Tereshkova was played out, the fraudulent nature of the turgid nonsense became clear, and the fact that it does directly encroach upon people’s interests and feelings. “Putin until 2036” means the destruction of our hopes for a better future for our country and for the individual, and it is simply a spit in the face to many millions of Russians. That’s why the potential for mobilizing counteraction to this constitutional coup has now appeared. (There is every reason to call what’s happening a constitutional coup, from the standpoint of formal legal considerations and not just political ones. There are also grounds for doing so because manifold amendments have been bundled into a single law, and because they contain the notorious “nullification of term limits.” The problem, however, does not lie in labels.)
However, potential is only possibility, not action. Things are less clear when it comes to action. Offhand, the most obvious action would appear to be voting against the amendments on 22 April or whenever it takes place. But upon a slightly more careful examination the value of such action is considerably reduced by the egregious illegality of the procedure. And the issue is not that the law makes no provision for such voting, not that voting is proposed for amendments that have already been passed and signed by the president, and not that they are proposed as a package. The worst is that no monitoring is being proposed for this voting, neither by civil society organizations (and we’re not going to regard as “monitoring” anything done by government-run “public chambers” for the sake of appearances) nor by foreign observers, that the procedure itself contains a huge number of holes, directly intended to allow fraud, and that the commission conducting the polling is authorized to campaign for the amendments on the day of voting in the polling stations. The deliberately fraudulent and insulting procedure corresponds to the deliberately fraudulent content of the amendments.
It is perfectly clear that opponents of participation in any bogus voting procedures whatsoever are particularly convincing in this situation, with their “moral” arguments about legitimation of the regime and its special operations. The thought of participation in this sham disgusts me personally.
Of course, everyone is free to be guided by these considerations and to seek peace of mind by refusing to play any part in these nefarious goings-on. But it all becomes irrelevant if we adopt a position of wanting to influence the situation and leverage people’s outrage about this arrogant coup. Voting looks like a much better option if you view it as a way of bringing about change and using the available potential. A call to action is much more likely to interest and mobilise people than a call to inaction, and people are much more likely to protest at electoral fraud and manipulation if they have actually voted themselves. After all, you can “vote” by simply spoiling your ballot paper and scribbling on it an essay about Putin’s faults and his arrogant plans to rule forever. No matter how dishonest and unsupervised the voting process might be, there ultimately has to be some kind of correlation between what voters have said at the polls and the results that are announced – fraud requires practice, will and coordinated action by the members of the electoral committees, and these things are not always available or possible. What is more, these hundreds of thousands of committee members are people too, some of whom object to the idea of an eternal Putin, and some of whom might be so overwhelmed by the scale of the protest vote and the fraud that they refuse to be quiet about what really went on behind the scenes.
Of course, it is nowhere near enough simply to take part in a game played by someone else’s rules. Picket lines are being manned in many cities, and rallies have been announced in many others in protest at the attempted coup. We absolutely should attend and take part, but this alone will not be enough to get the message across to the discontented but poorly informed section of the population, and this is what really matters – no longer just preaching to the choir, but reaching out beyond the well-informed minority that believes in what we are doing. Russia-wide measures such as “Metropicket” are a particularly good idea since they speak to such a large audience.
Yet even these traditional measures are wholly insufficient, and will furthermore be limited by the fight against coronavirus. We must exercise our imaginations and use all the channels possible to call on our fellow citizens to refuse to support the amendments. Stickers on cars, badges on bags and clothes, flyers posted into the mailboxes in your apartment block’s entrance hall, posters stuck up in the street – all of these are very obvious tools, but they may well be what makes the majority of citizens (most of whom lack confidence in their own powers) think twice and change their conformist mindset, and they will help us in our attempts to use every last drop of the potential for protest that currently exists. At the same time, however, it is important for those who are willing to step up to the plate to be as creative as possible and to think up less obvious channels and tools. Let us do so together.
There is of course no guarantee that we will succeed, and it is not yet possible to determine just how successful we might be. But there is one thing of which we can be quite sure – if we do nothing, there will be no positive outcomes. It is just possible that Putin and his cronies might be lulled into a false sense of security because of the general degradation of government and their disdain for the Russian people, meaning that they reveal rather more than they intended of their true nature and the real future they have planned for the country (or rather the lack of any such future). This might be the grain of sand that tips a set of metaphorical scales that was in any case slowly moving in our direction, and it would be a sin not to make the most of this opportunity for the sake of Russia’s future.