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Russia: Political Ambitions for Most Influential Blogger?

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

Earlier this week, on August 1, members of Aleksei Navalny's inner circle announced [ru] that they are forming a new political party called “People's Alliance.” For the time being, Russia's most influential blogger — a man many are now calling the leader of the anti-Kremlin opposition — will not be joining the party, but this has not stopped wide speculation that it could become an important vehicle for Navalny in the future.

The minds behind People's Alliance include Vladimir Ashurkov (executive director of Navalny's anti-corruption fund), Georgii Alburov (coordinator of Navalny's elections-monitoring project), and Leonid Volkov (an Yekaterinburg politician and e-Government prophet), among others. In an interview [ru] on the Web-television station Dozhd, Ashurkov explained that the time is not yet right for Navalny, who (in Ashurkov's words) “wants to save himself political maneuvering room.”

Much of the philosophical basis for People's Alliance seems to belong to Volkov, who is already known in the eGov community for coauthoring a short book titled “Cloud Democracy” [ru] — a treatise on how Internet technologies can and should reshape the nature of representative political systems. The new party will adopt important aspects of Volkov's theories — particularly his enthusiasm for decentralized power. Now that the documents have been submitted [ru] to the Justice Ministry, People's Alliance has six months to convene a founding congress, and another six months afterwards to establish 42 regional branches, in order to fulfill the requirements for official party registration.

Aleksei Navalny talks to the media outside questioning, Moscow (30 July 2012), photo by Anton Belitskiy, copyright © Demotix.

Following Navalny's success with crowdsourcing, the party hopes to be financed primarily by member fees: 500 rubles (16 USD) to join, and 200 rubles (6 USD) every month thereafter. The income would remain in the coffers of local regional branches, not flowing back to Moscow or any central hub. This, Volkov and Navalny have both argued, will prevent the ossification of the party behind any one office or personality, which is what they say has happened with LDPR under Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Yabloko under Grigory Yavlinksy.

For all his starry-eyed Democracy 2.0 visions, Volkov is a self-described pragmatist. This literally [ru] was his affiliation in the organization committee that voted to found People's Alliance. Ironically, Volkov and other ‘pragmatists’ disbanded the original orgkomitet that gathered to debate creating a formal party, when it deadlocked thanks to opposition [ru] from a handful of ‘romantics’ who were more skeptical about fielding candidates in today's “Putin regime.” One of those dissenters, Roman Miskov, later complained [ru] in a fit of anger that Volkov is a “card sharp” no better than Vladimir Churov, Russia's widely hated Central Election Commission Chairman.

In addition to his work with People's Alliance, Volkov has also committed himself to overseeing a nationwide election for a “proto-parliament” [ru] to represent the entire opposition movement. Scheduled for October 7, Volkov touts the election as the first genuine political campaign in more than 15 years. The proto-parliament will consist [ru] of regional bodies and a central “Coordinating Council” composed of 45 deputies. The Council will have 30 general seats and another 15 allocated to candidates representing three specific idealogical groups: leftists, liberals, and nationalists. (Each group gets 5 of the 15 “ideological” seats.) To finance the voting (which will occur both at physical polling stations and online), candidates will have to pay 10,000 rubles (310 USD) in order to register. Volkov expects at least 100 candidates, amounting to a 1-million-ruble (31,000 USD) budget.

On August 2, in the midst of criminal charges from federal investigators, Navalny dedicated an entire LiveJournal post [ru] to the proto-parliament, arguing that elections are the only way to silence doubts about protest leaders’ legitimacy, and a way to close the “gap” between demonstration organizers and their audience. Resurrecting a common theme of his politics, Navalny also described primaries (particularly those with online voting components) as a means to unseating the opposition movement's Old Guard — namely in this case, Boris Nemtsov. In his blog post, Navalny criticized a statement [ru] by the leaders of PARNAS (another fledgling political party, which Nemtsov coleads), which rejected the decision to hold elections for a protest Coordinating Council. Navalny went on to denounce those who oppose internal elections, writing:

И выглядит наша оппозиция так убого, потому что конкуренции нет. Половина народу сидит со времён демплатформы КПСС и выкурить их невозможно.
[...]
Не хочешь на выборы – до свиданья, мы сбрасываем тебя с парохода современности.

Our opposition [movement] looks so miserable because there's no competition. Half of the people have been here since the times when the Communist Party first democratized, and it's been impossible to drive them out.
[…]
If you don't want elections, then fine. Say goodbye, and we'll throw you from the steamship of modernity.

“Cloud Democracy” is intended to impose new levels of transparency on politics, thereby supposedly stamping out backdoor intrigue and center-periphery imbalances. (Both Navalny [ru] and Alburov [ru] have explicitly highlighted the ‘reduced intrigue’ factor.) If these are the cornerstones of next-generation democracy, however, Volkov and Navalny have a long way to go, as rows with Internet-skeptics and eGov-idealists have been a major feature of both People's Alliance and the Coordinating Council — all before either has even formed. Moreover, both projects remain based in Moscow (and to some degree in Yekaterinburg, thanks to Volkov), though organizers have made a point of saying they will prioritize expanding into the regions.

Despite the great expectations of “Cloud Democracy,” it perhaps suffers from the elitism that perennially cripples Russia's democratic reformists. In Volkov's book, for instance, he advocates introducing a voter eligibility “filter” to deny the franchise to any citizens incapable of passing a test on constitutional rights. He writes openly about recruiting “active citizens” into “the elite of a new society.” Describing the “masses” as “passive and docile,” Volkov believes that a movement of 100,000 Internet users (the same number of people Navalny expects to participate in the proto-parliamentary elections) would be ‘impossible to ignore.’

In the months ahead, as the Coordinating Council and People's Alliance take shape, “Cloud Democracy” and its appeal (as well as its real-world political potency) will be put to the test. Navalny, for his part, implies that he will run for the former, but abstain from joining the latter — for now.

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

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