Lev Ponomarev: Can we repeat it?

14 May 2020

By Lev Ponomarev, head of For Human Rights and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]

On 16 May 1990, the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic] opened. This was an extremely important event in Russia’s history. At the Congress, as a result of the change in the state order, a new democratic state was born. And this happened not by means of a violent overthrow but as a result of the victory of democracy’s supporters in the elections. Exactly 30 years have passed. Authoritarian rule with real markers of totalitarianism has been revived in the country.

What does this experience offer us today and can we repeat it?

We have Gorbachev to thank for the fact that the elections then were held freely, without arousing citizens’ distrust. And for the democrats’ victory, we have to thank Soviet rule, which over the course of decades had not solved our economic problems and had deprived people of elementary rights and freedoms. The people were tired of it.

How were we able to win?

Of course, we had the wind at our back, but events might have developed differently. Soviet rule felt quite confident and had no intention of standing on ceremony with its opponents if the protest turned radical.

Throughout the years 1988-89, people eagerly took to the street, supporting the election of people’s deputies of the USSR – perestroika’s leaders. This was the breeding ground where the demand for changes was consolidated and the active support of democrats was born. The same shift was under way all over the country, and in Moscow especially.

The task faced was the maximal unification of people within the framework of peaceful protest and, after that, victory in the elections for People’s Deputies of the RSFSR scheduled for 4 March 1990. This required making a series of unerring steps. And we made them.

There were many potential allies, but they were splintered into a number of small groups, most of which formed before the elections for USSR deputies in 1989. Some supported Yeltsin, others Afanasiev, still others Gdlyan and Ivanov; there were activists from Memorial and the Moscow People’s Front, and the Club of Voters of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and so on, who played a large role. The list of these groups would take up more than a page. They had to be united. We understood that Moscow had to provide the impulse, and six months before the USSR Deputies’ elections the Moscow Voters’ Association was created, comprising dozens of democratically oriented protest groups.

At the same time we bore in mind that the Association had to tread lightly and not make strict demands on these heterogeneous groups. It became clear that the main instrument for their consolidation would be a common programme that the democrats could take into the elections. In January 1990, the Moscow Voters’ Association created an editorial group, primarily of humanities scholars, which wrote a draft of the democratic candidates’ programme.

The basic theses:
– The state for the people, not the people for the state.
– A multiparty system, the repeal of Article 6 of the RSFSR Constitution (on the guiding role of the CPSU).
– The market as the main regulator of the economy.
– Diversity of and legal equality for various forms of property: state, joint-stock, cooperative, collective, and private.
– A set of measures alleviating the transition to the market for the population, especially for low income groups.
– Transfer of land to permanent possession or to private ownership for those engaged in agricultural labour or intending to be so engaged.
– Freedom of conscience.
– Oversight by state electoral agencies over the KGB [Committee of State Security], Defence Ministry, and Interior Ministry.
– The unconditional right to unite in parties, organizations, and unions. A declarative rather than authorization-based registration procedure for public organizations.
– Freedom of speech and the press.
– The democratic resolution of nationalities problems.

Several important steps were taken immediately before the elections.

We decided to create a democratic electoral bloc. For this purpose, we held an interregional conference on 20-21 January, inviting candidates for deputy known to us who shared the basic provisions of our programme. Conference participants discussed its theses, edited them, and then approved them by a vote of the whole. They approved the bloc’s name: Democratic Russia. As a result, a democratic bloc of candidates for deputy was instituted that went into the elections with their own programme and name. The programme was published in the February issue of Ogonyok and was read throughout the country.

A unique situation arose. The Democratic Russia electoral bloc was created before the political organization itself. The Democratic Russia political movement was instituted only eight months later, in October 1990. By that time, many democratic protoparties had appeared: Social Democratic Party of Russia (SDRP), Republican Party of the Russian Federation (RPR), Free Democratic Party of Russia (SvDPR), Russian Christian Democratic Movement (RKhDD), Party of Constitutional Democrats (PKD), Constitutional Democratic Party – Party of Popular Freedom (KDP-PNS), Party of Free Labour (PST). They joined “DemRossiya” (Democratic Russia) together with nonparty public-political associations such as Memorial, the April writers’ association, and others. But all this happened after the Congress.

But on the eve of the elections in Moscow, we were faced with one important task — in order to secure maximum public support, we needed to get as many people as possible to join the demonstrations. And that we were able to do.

About 300,000 people came out to the first pre-election demonstration on 4 February on Manezh Square. This scared the authorities, and they forbade the next demonstration, scheduled to be held next to the Kremlin on 25 February. Of course, many were in the mood not to cave into the authorities and to go to Manezh Square.  If such a decision had been taken, the authorities would, in all probability, not have shrunk from shedding blood, and all perestroika would have ended with that.

But we did not go to Manezh Square.

It does not end up in the history books when you are able to prevent a catastrophe. But I am convinced that the coordination council of the Moscow Voters’ Association prevented a catastrophe by its decision. It was a difficult decision, but we finally took it.  The organizational committee for the demonstration submitted to the ban, summoned people to the Garden Ring Road, and did not miscalculate — up to a million people came.

The results of the March 1990 elections for People’s Deputies of the RSFSR gave the Democratic Russia electoral bloc an impressive contingent in the parliament. 

The Congress lasted from 16 May through 22 June. They went to the Kremlin like going to work, and every working day there were heated discussions with opponents who were trying to preserve the system of the Soviet state. On key questions, as a rule, our side hеld sway, although statistically 86,3% of the 1.059 delegates were members of the CPSU.  This paradox can be explained by the fact that many communists voted with the democrats. And Democratic Russia, for all the pitched battles with the Communists, accepted people into its ranks not just according to their “passport.”  The heated political battles lasted all six weeks the Congress was in session. Influential allies of Gorbachev came to the session.  Gorbachev himself, who at that moment was our opponent on many issues, showed up twice.

The main results of the Congress that the democrats were able to achieve were the election of B. N. Yeltsin as Chair of the Supreme Soviet and the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the RSFSR. For Yeltsin it was the first step in his political career.  If he had not been elected Chair of the Supreme Soviet, he would not have later become President of Russia. And the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the RSFSR removed the fetters on the legislative activity of the new Russian parliament.  It helped push forward liberal democratic reforms.

The chief achievement of the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR was laying the foundation for a democratic state. Those propositions that were formulated in the programme of the democratic candidates were in the future realized in the laws passed by the parliament. 

The key role in this was played by Democratic Russia. It had arisen according to all the rules of how a parliamentary political opposition appears. Beginning its history with the unification of grass roots civic organizations,  winning a competitive battle with a strong opponent in free elections, and then putting forward its candidate for Chair of the Supreme Soviet and achieving his election, Democratic Russia in fact became the governing bloc.

This was how a power able to peacefully change the government was established in this country.  The experience is very important for today.
Can we repeat it?  Two conditions are necessary.

First, we need to have the wind at our backs.  I already feel it at my back. The authorities are making ever more mistakes that are causing social dissatisfaction.

Second, democrats have to be represented by one broad opposition and not by separate leaders or parties with differences that could be disregarded at the first stage. It is time to create such a coalition on the threshold of the 2021 elections.  It should include not only parties and political organizations but also civic protest groups, which are increasing in numbers throughout the country. It is time to start building it now. In the regions, such coalitions are already being formed and they plan to test their strength in the local elections to be held in September of this year.  In Moscow so far, nothing is working out.  It’s not that the leaders cannot come to an agreement, they do not even want to. 

Translated by Marian Schwartz and John Tokolish

Leave a Reply