Local democracy and the anti-war narrative in Russia: insights for the present, lessons for the future?
By Guzel Garifullina
When a member of the Moscow city council, Alexey Gorinov, stood up during a council meeting in March 2022 and suggested a moment of silence for the victims of the invasion in Ukraine, he may have realized the seriousness of the gesture. Few anticipated the severity of the punishment. Now serving a seven-year prison sentence, it illustrates two phenomena in contemporary Russian politics: an increasingly repressive regime that punishes any public dissent, and the existence of a class of elected politicians who voice their opposition to war in such an environment. repressive. While the former is often discussed, the latter is almost completely overlooked.
This splinter group of local politicians owes its existence primarily to a major resurgence in local politics that took place in Russia after 2017, as public policy at the national level became increasingly sterilized. This renaissance was most evident in municipal elections, where thousands of inexperienced freshmen ran for elective council seats. Some newcomers who eventually won were opposition activists, but many were not. Now this group of popularly elected local leaders, each of whom was supported by several hundred or thousands of ordinary citizens, constantly produces public opposition to the war. We’re still talking about a small minority among the tens of thousands of local politicians, but no other type or group of state-sanctioned public actors comes close to that. Despite their small and dwindling numbers, the lack of expert attention to their actions is unwarranted. Their electoral legitimacy and close ties to the local population mean they may hold the key to answering one of the pressing questions on everyone’s mind: Which anti-war narrative is most likely to find broad support within Russia?
A few examples illustrate how diverse and nuanced anti-war messages can be, particularly when they try to gain ground within the country rather than consolidate opposition outside its borders. Very early after the start of the war, several dozen of the local council members, mainly from Moscow and St. Petersburg, wrote and signed a petition calling for Putin’s resignation. The petition said that the president’s actions damaged the future of Russia and its citizens. The aforementioned municipal councilor Alexei Gorinov spoke about the victims of the invasion, in particular the children, during a municipal council meeting. He ended up being the first to receive a lengthy prison term for anti-war speech. As part of a more institutionalized response, a former local politician, Yuliya Galyamina, co-founded a feminist anti-war movement, “Soft Power”. The movement’s message is that the reason behind the devastating war is the reliance on violence in the Russian state and society. Their documents call for adopting non-violence and a deliberative approach to democracy. “Soft Power” started an anti-mobilization petition signed by more than 450,000 people, led public actions against the mobilization, provided legal support to people, and has a large decentralized network of activists within the country.
Broad popular support for local democracy provides additional weight to these messages from local politicians. The centralization of the last few decades was often met with resentment, not only by local elites but also by citizens. Most of Russia’s largest towns and cities no longer elect their mayors, but are instead governed by appointed city managers. However, polling data shows that 65% of the population prefers popularly elected local executives, and in several cities right now, local legislators are leading the fight for the return of popular mayoral elections. Another ongoing institutional development that is challenged locally is the abolition of the lowest level (settlement) of self-government. When the opposition to this reform is strong, it is often led by the members of the local municipal council and has the support of the population. To further illustrate the demand for local democracy, the guerrilla-style election of new local politicians may even be part of local citizen protest. In May, citizens of a town in the Republic of Bashkortostan, protesting against a nearby industrial development and frustrated by the response of municipal officials, organized a face-to-face meeting, during which they elected the local activist as their new delegate. de facto head of the municipality. The authorities quickly challenged that measure, but the conflict continues.
In an astonishing twist, being elected by the people and maintaining a close connection to them turned certain Russian politicians into advocates of peace, making powerful contributions to the anti-war discussion in an increasingly repressive country. The content of his posts illustrates potential ways to make this discussion relevant to the Russian population at large. Concern for one’s own country, personalized empathy, non-violence: if there’s anything surprising about these messages, it’s that they’re not more prominent in our discussions of the anti-war narrative in Russia. The benefit of directing our attention to the messages chosen by local politicians is that such messages can be much more feasible and realistic when we consider current and future public support for the war.
From a broader perspective, if we want to discuss future political reforms and democratic development in Russia, perhaps we need to stop lamenting what is missing, be it a coordinated opposition or widespread anti-authoritarian sentiment. Instead, we should focus on the behaviors and institutions that are present.
About the Author
Guzel Garifullina is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law (Stanford University) and will begin as an Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond in the fall of 2023. Her work focuses on Russian subnational studies . Politics, Governance and Comparative Political Behavior and was published in post soviet affairs and Comparative Political Studies. His recent PONARS policy memo deals with the way the Russian state selects and motivates its agents and the consequences for their behavior in a crisis.
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