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Russia: #OccupySeliger?

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

Earlier this week, popular blogger and photographer Dmitri Ternovsky starred in the latest Nashi controversy, announcing on his LiveJournal that he has agreed to lead the “Politics and Civic Society” section [ru] of pro-Kremlin group Nashi's 2012 summer festival at Lake Seliger [en]. Dubbing the initiative “#OccupySeliger,” Ternovsky says that he hopes to expand the opposition's message to a new audience, promising that the event's organizers have agreed to welcome anyone from the protest movement. Well aware that his decision to cooperate with the Nashi-pioneered Seliger forum would provoke a strong backlash, Ternovsky offered the following defense:

У Селигера за последние годы сложился не лучший имидж, и большинство тех, кто не идентифицирует себя со сторонниками правящей власти, стараются избегать любых контактов с его организаторами и участниками. Но для себя эту проблему я давно решил – если эти контакты способны принести пользу, я готов пострадать своим имиджем в глазах тех, кто совершенно не приемлем подобное сотрудничество. Для меня важнее всего достижение цели. […] я был и остаюсь прав в том, что без диалога с властью у нас ничего не получится.

In recent years, Seliger hasn't earned the best of images, and most of those who don't self-identify as supporters of the state have tried to avoid any kind of contact with its organizers and participants. But I made my mind up about this problem a long time ago: if such contact can be put to some use, then I'm ready for my own image to suffer in the eyes of those who are absolutely opposed to such collaboration. For me, achieving goals is more important than anything. […] I was and I remain right that we can achieve nothing without a dialogue with the authorities.

The logo of the "All-Russia Youth Education Forum" Seliger, CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.

Appearing on the web-based television station “Rain” (Dozhd), Ternovsky repeated [ru] his commitment to ‘results’ at the expense of reputation, telling viewers that opposition leaders “need to forget a bit about themselves, about their own ambitions, and think somehow about the larger picture, and how [#OccupySeliger] could benefit everyone.”

The Movers & Shakers Respond

Among RuNet figures and in the Russian media, initial tweets, blog posts, and headlines addressing the Seliger controversy focused on Ternovsky's invitations to activists from RosPil and RosYama (two citizen initiatives created by Aleksei Navalny). Many observers erroneously interpreted Ternovsky's LJ post and Dozhd appearance to indicate that Navalny himself would attend the festival. Contributing to the confusion, Navalny and Ternovsky exchanged several friendly tweets [ru] on the subject of #OccupySeliger. In typical form, Navalny appeared to tease Ternovsky, asking him how much the Seliger sponsors were paying him, remarking, “You're probably not organizing this for free?” (Navalny perhaps only skimmed Ternovsky's text, as Ternovsky makes it clear that he will be paid for his Seliger work.) By the afternoon, Navalny's press representative, Anna Veduta, finally clarified over Twitter that neither Navalny nor any of his projects’ coordinators would be accepting Ternovsky's invitations to Seliger. “There were no agreements of any kind,” she announced plainly.

Several other bloggers and activists have since weighed in on Ternovsky's initiative. Earlier in May, Oleg Kashin quite vociferously denounced [ru] Ilya Varlamov, another popular photographer-blogger, for being in the pocket of the authorities. In his response [ru] to the Ternovsky story, Kashin appears to be growing exhausted with what he characterizes to be ‘Nashi schemes.’ Dismissing #OccupySeliger, Kashin writes:

Когда Россия беременна революцией, Россию, мне кажется, не ебет судьба очередного смешного волосатика. […] Глупости, в общем. Итак, не думайте о Терновском, не думайте о Якеменко. Их нет.

When Russia is on the brink of revolution, Russia, it seems to me, doesn't give a fuck about the fate of just another funny-haired guy. ["Volosatik" is how Varlamov is often mocked, in reference to his large and very curly head of hair, GV note.] […] It's stupid — all of it. So don't think about Ternovsky. Don't think about Yakemenko [Nashi's founder]. They don't exist.

Anton Nossik was less critical than some, highlighting [ru] the noble principles behind Ternovsky's Seliger effort, but he too rested cynically on the impossibility of productive cooperation with the authorities:

Теперь можно, конечно, подождать и посмотреть, как быстро его оттуда выпрут, или доходчиво объяснят, что политика – это искусство реального, и нужно учиться разумным компромиссам (таким, например, Якеменко вместо Навального и Хинштейн вместо Кашина). Но сам он верит пока, что люди, которые его позвали, всерьёз хотят перемен.

Now we can, of course, wait and see how quickly [Nashi] hustles him out of there, or how they pause to explain that politics is really an art, and that one has to learn sensible compromises (such as [inviting] Yakemenko instead of Navalny, and Khinstein [a notably anti-oppositionist United Russia deputy] instead of Kashin). But [Ternovsky] himself believes for now that the people who called him up [the Seliger organizers] seriously want a change.

Liuba Sobol, a member of RosPil, expressed [ru] her relief that Navalny had refused Ternovsky's invitation to Seliger. She quoted a recent Kommersant article [ru] by Gazeta.ru reporter Ekaterina Vinokurova, which cited anonymous Kremlin insiders claiming that recent reformist signals from the government are intended to be nothing but insignificant compromises devised to divide and conquer the opposition. Sobol also recounted the failures of RosPil's past interactions with Medvedev's “Big Government” initiative, which was supposed to create a big tent coalition to serve modernization, anti-corruption, and the various other watchwords of Medvedev's brief presidency.

Ternovsky, on the other hand, has encouraged direct contact with Medvedev. In November 2011, he attended a special forum [ru] with the then-President, where Ternovsky discussed “A Country Without Nonsense” [ru], the civic organization he and Varlamov created in 2010 to defend Russian civil rights (particularly the right to photograph public spaces). Indeed, the regime-friendly online tabloid LifeNews recently reported [ru] that prominent oppositionists former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov and leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov would be willing to debate Medvedev publicly at Seliger, if granted the opportunity.

Sobchak, Azar, & Adagamov Tangle

Two days after Ternovsky published his #OccupySeliger appeal, Lenta.ru ran an Ilya Azar story [ru], where he collected reactions from oppositionists for and against the idea. Ksenia Sobchak, television-diva-turned-activist, is quoted as having expressed conditional support for attending Seliger, provided her “program” was accepted. “I can give a lecture on the subject of censorship on the national TV channels and in the mass media,” she offered. That same day, however, Sobchak criticized Azar on Twitter, denying that she would attend Seliger under any circumstances:

Для всех заинтересованных лиц.я НЕ планирую ехать на селигер.хватит пиарить за мой счет ваш собантуй! Учитесь понимать иронию.

For all those interested, I DO NOT plan on going to Seliger. Enough publicizing your own raving at my expense! Learn to understand irony.

Azar also came under attack from Roustem Adagamov, who tweeted a link to the Lenta.ru piece, commenting, “Ilya Azar is a tiny nitwit just like Ternovsky, incidentally. :-).” Though Adagamov later apologized for his remark, Azar went on to debate Omsk activist Victor Korb on his Facebook page [ru], defending the quality and accuracy of his work. “All told,” Azar concluded, “Sobchak and Adagamov have made fools of themselves, but oh well, it was fun for everyone!”

Conclusions

Though some bloggers and activists have expressed their support for Ternovsky's Seliger campaign (Nossik hosted a poll [ru] on his LJ, where 58% of readers sided with Ternovsky), there seems to be a general perception that he is either being naive (because the authorities will never engage in substantive collaboration) or conniving (because he is secretly a paid Kremlin provocateur). Is #OccupySeliger a true opportunity for the opposition to ‘speak truth to power’ and reach a new audience among the Nashists? Or do Ternovsky's ties to suspected ‘murzilki’ (RuNet slang for fake oppositionist bloggers) like Varlamov and his habit of discouraging protesters’ “personal political ambitions” demonstrate that #OccupySeliger is merely the latest attempt to drive a wedge between dissidents and distract the political class with another meaningless Nashist diversion?

Activists of the Nashi pro-government youth movement during a concert (4 Dec 2011), photo by MARIA PLESHKOVA, copyright © Demotix.

Discord about Seliger 2012 might be seen as a measure of the protest movement's tenuousness. Conversely, perhaps it is a testament to the group's open, transparent politics. However one evaluates the reactions to #OccupySeliger, Nashi-sympathetic bloggers have been quick to accommodate figures like Sobchak in their enthusiasm for “irony.” LiveJournal user a_oslpoff, for instance, has highlighted [ru] another amusing incongruity: Navalny refuses to attend Seliger, but he gladly marches alongside Russian nationalists (including neo-Nazis) every November on Unity Day. “It's really quite strange,” Oslpoff explains, “Navalny himself, after all, declared that there are no Putin supporters, but only people whom he's yet to reach. So what's the problem?”

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

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