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© RIA Novosti. Vladimir Astapkovich

Politics – from scratch

by Anna Arutunyan at 01/10/2012 15:10

Russia’s protest movement is getting ready for an election – its own. And like in any political campaign, public feuds between candidates are already overshadowing the issues at hand.

With less than three weeks to go until the Oct. 21 election and debates kicking off on Dozhd TV this week, 216 candidates have registered to run for a 45-member Coordination Council, an elected body with a two-fold mission – organizing protest events and establishing some form of dialogue with the government, something that has yet to happen since protests broke out last winter ahead of Vladimir Putin’s presidential election.

The aim is to bring new people into the opposition movement, its organizers say. With candidates bringing everyone from socialite Ksenia Sobchak to oppositionist parliamentarians Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov to writer Dmitry Bykov together for political debates, the council, at its least, will act as a tutorial for a time in the future when some of its more ambitious contenders – like the charismatic blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny – go into politics for real.

So far, there’s even a central election committee – headed by a businessman named Leonid Volkov.

Of its 45 members, 30 will hold direct mandates, while 15 spots will be allotted to three ideological platforms: liberal, nationalist, and the left.

But for some of the candidates, its status as something of a dress rehearsal holds some of its main challenges.

“I don’t think things will radically change – the council will still consist of the kind of people who led the Sept. 15 [March of Millions] protest,” Oleg Kashin, a journalist and a candidate for the council, told The Moscow News. “What’s key is that they will be learning once they are elected.”

Kashin noted that a similar effort had sprouted in 2007, but ultimately failed – either because it didn’t get enough support, or not enough people chose to take part. “It will be interesting to see if this time things will be different – and the key indicator is the number of people voting.”

Even before the campaign kicked off, election talk for the council was dominated by a spat between Ksenia Sobchak and fellow candidate Ilya Ponomaryov.

Last week, Sobchak paid Ponomaryov’s registration fee for the Coordination Council, writing on LiveJournal that “this is the first time I’ve paid for a man (the stripper Daniel from Krasnaya Shapochka [strip club] doesn’t count).”

Ponomaryov, who says he couldn’t pay because his accounts are blocked, refused the help, blogging back that Sobchak was doing a disservice to the campaign by turning it into a version of “Dom-2” – a reality show that Sobchak used to host before joining the opposition.

Nor does Ponomaryov believe such publicity would be any good for the movement – citing a recent poll by the All Russian Center for Public Opinion that suggested the negative rating for protest leaders like Alexei Navalny increased in direct proportion to his notoriety.

In other words, the more Russians knew about Navalny the more negative their attitudes became. The so-called negative rating, Ponomaryov said, played a major role in turning people away from the protest movement.  

Earlier this summer, Ponomaryov criticized Sobchak when he suggested she leave the protest movement after 1 million euros were found in her apartment during a police raid in June.

“Traveling around the country, I haven’t been in a single meeting where people wouldn’t ask about Ksenia Sobchak,” Ponomaryov told The Moscow News. “In 99 percent of cases, [people’s views of her] were negative. As in, how can you stand alongside people like that?”

For Ponomaryov, the elections and then the council itself will be a chance to legitimize potentially new political leaders – even if nation-wide recognition is a long ways away.

Ponomaryov is also skeptical about a dialogue with the Kremlin. “I don’t think this council will influence dialogue with the government,” he said. “I don’t think people who will be voting for council members see their vote as a mandate for this dialogue.”

But Oleg Kashin sees little other alternative. “Who else will hold this dialogue?” he asked. “There’s a vacuum there, and someone has to fill it.  If there’s an actual body, then it at least says that the political landscape has changed.”

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