Staunton, February 6 – Local referenda both where they can be held because opposition parties hold enough seats in local legislatures to authorize them and where people want them but are opposed by the power vertical can become an important means of challenging the regime by teaching people about the virtues of genuine democratic choice, Yuliya Galyamina says.
Indeed, the co-organizer of the School of Local Self-Administration says, they have the potential to become black swans, things that no one takes notice of until after they happen but then everyone realizes are among the most important developments that have occurred (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/02/05/75392-terapiya-apolitichnosti).
She begins her Novaya gazeta commentary by arguing that in 2011, “for many it was a discovery that [in Russia] the people do not decide anything. Now, in 2018, this knowledge has become a commonplace.” Aleksey Navalny hoped to exploit it by calling for a boycott: if the voters don’t have a choice, the only way they can send a message is by not voting.
Such an approach, of course, satisfied the current ruling circles because it eliminates any “institutional” challenges to their power. And against non-institutionalized forces they have the police and the Russian Guard. But as always happens, Galyamina says, “the black swan flies where no one is expecting it.”
The Putin regime has focused extremely carefully on Duma and presidential elections “lest there be a repetition of the history of six years ago.” But “about the municipal elections in Moscow, [it] naturally didn’t think. [It} in general doesn’t think much about such petty matters as self-administration because it doesn’t believe that the people can resolve things on its own.”
“As a result in Moscow, in about 20 districts, the opposition gained a majority in the local elections.” This is important because “these genuinely popular politicians have received real experience of administration and, what is most important, begins from within the foundations of sovereign democracy by trying to convert it into a real one.”
This has come to a head in decisions about local referenda. In two districts, the opposition won enough seats to displace the head while in the rest, it did not and so power is divided. But in principle at least, referenda can go ahead in the two districts despite official opposition, Galyamina says.
One might expect the powers that be to support such referenda because it would increase participation precisely in places where the opposition is greatest and thus would undermine Navalny’s call for a boycott. But in fact, the powers oppose it, demonstrating that “participation is important for the present-day heads but not participation by citizens opposed to the powers.”
What is much more important, the civic activist says, is that “the municipal opposition shows to its citizens much greater trust than does the ruling party.” It must be clear that its view is that citizens should be able to decide for themselves and that its elected representatives will do their best to work with them to those ends.
In this regard, “referenda have yet another therapeutic and educational meaning: to return or accustom our people to the lost habits of political participation. And this is extremely important not simply at the local level. It is also the Achilles’ heel of sovereign democracy,” she concludes.