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Russia: Protest Movement Struggles with Keeping Itself Democratic

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

RuNet Echo has recently commented on the cyclical and insular nature of Russia’s online political tusovka, noting the return of the “tomato terrorist” [GV] Andrei Morozov to the protest scene. Now another blast-from-the-past has briefly captured the attention of Russia’s bloggers.

The similarities are striking. Like Morozov, Maksim Martsinkevich, who goes by the nickname Tesak (Machete), gained notoriety on the RuNet between 2005 and 2007 for actions that can be described as trolling. Like Morozov, he recently returned from a stint in prison. And, remarkably, both men had also harassed liberal journalist Yulia Latynina.

Nevertheless, compared to Morozov’s rather innocent tomato antics, Tesak is a much more odious figure. A white-supremacist skinhead, he served three-and-a-half years in prison on two counts of inciting racial and religious hatred, convicted under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code.

Tesak addressing Navalny. September 14, 2012. Screenshot from YouTube video.

The first incident occurred at a debate between popular blogger Maskim Kononenko (formerly Mr. Parker) and Latynina. The debates were organized and moderated by Aleksey Navalny, who filed a complaint [ru] against Tesak and his friends for continuously shouting “Sieg Heil” [ru] and raising their hands in a Nazi salute [ru]. At the time, some conjectured [ru] (and others outright claimed [ru]) that Navalny had invited Tesak to liven up the scene and cause a controversy. Navalny's complaint [ru], at any rate, led to Tesak’s arrest and conviction.

While serving time for this offense, Tesak was tried and convicted of recording and distributing a video in which he and several other skinheads pretended to kill a Tajikistani drug dealer, while dressed in KKK uniforms. The video, along with other racist and snuff-like footage, was distributed through a website founded by Tesak’s skinhead group “Format 18.” The website was shut down in 2007, however Internet Archive has some captures of the front page [ru], containing sales offers for its own instructional videos, along with copies of Leni Riefenstahl's fascist classic Triumph of the Will. After his release, Tesak has mainly stayed off the political radar, using his YouTube know-how to start an amateur Russian version of To Catch a Predator, posting the resulting videos on his blog [ru], and a VKontakte page [ru]. He also runs self-help seminars [ru] and distributes odd videos [YouTube] explaining that theft from grocery stores is okay because it is factored into the price.

One of Tesak's self-help videos. September 14, 2012. Screenshot from YouTube video.

Given this history, it is probably not surprising that members of the Russian political opposition in charge of organizing the coming elections of its Coordinating Council refused to register Tesak [ru] to stand as a candidate in these elections, on the basis of the following:

[O]н неоднократно публично высказывался о своем категорическом несогласии с целями и ценностями протестного движения, выраженными в декларациях митингов декабря 2011 – июня 2012 года, и, следовательно, представляя регистрационную форму и указывая в ней о своем согласии с целями и ценностями протестного движения представил заведомо недостоверные сведения.

[H]e has repeatedly expressed his disagreement with the aims and values of the protest movement, as stated in the declarations of from demonstrations between December 2011 and June 2012, and, therefore, while submitting the registration form and indicating his agreement with the aims and values of the protest movement, he knowingly presented false information.

One of the committee members disagreed with this formulation, pointing out that Tesak fulfilled all the formal requirements for registration, and furthermore, that it is impossible to conclusively prove whether he agreed or disagreed with the movement’s “aims and values.”

The bizarre decision, which is akin to the Republican Party refusing Mitt Romney a spot in the primaries on the basis of his prior statements about health care, immediately attracted criticism [ru]. For example, some point out [ru] that Boris Stomakhin [ru], a pro-Chechen journalist who spent several years in prison for inciting hatred under the same Article 282 as Tesak, was registered with no problems.

More importantly, a movement that espouses free and fair elections looks odd when it refuses to register someone on the basis of their assumed beliefs. After all, if Tesak’s ideology and persona are abhorrent, or if he lied about his political views, then presumably no one will vote for him. This, in a word, is democracy.

This point was made by DemVybor’s Vladimir Milov in his blog [ru]. Even though Milov believes that the whole conflict could be a provocation from the Kremlin, he argues:

[Е]сли уж ввязался бы в такую историю, то спокойно допустил бы Тесака, потому что нельзя его бояться — если уж не можете выиграть у Тесака, то тогда вообще туши свет сливай воду, куда там в большую политику собрались.

[I]f I got involved with something like this, I would readily let Tesak through, because you can’t be afraid of him — if you can’t win running against Tesak, then it's all over anyway. Never mind “big politics.”

Of course, after this statement, Navalny and Garry Kasparov accused [ru] Milov of supporting Tesak and being a Kremlin project. (Accusations like this are common in the internecine world of Russian opposition parties, which the Coordinating Council could potentially unite.)

Leonid Volkov, one of the protest movement's committee members and the developer of the Coordinating Council's voting platform, wrote a long post [ru] trying to explain the decision against Tesak. In it, he claims that Tesak’s registration fees were paid by a NASHI functionary, and therefore it is clear that he only submitted his candidacy to discredit the movement.

Nationalist blogger nomina_obscura has a different account of Tesak’s motivation, attributing it to desire for revenge [ru]:

[Г]лавный двигатель Тесака в кампании по избранию в КС – это, конечно же, никакие не нашисты и кто там еще, а желание добраться до дрожащей от ужаса глотки посадившего его на три года Навального

Tesak’s main motivation in his campaign to get elected to the Coordinating Council, is, of course, not NASHists or anything else, but the desire to get close to the trembling-with-fear throat of Navalny, who sent him to prison for three years.

Indeed, while Tesak remains marginalized, Navalny (also a self-professed nationalist, and at the time of Tesak’s arrest a member of the National Russian Freedom Movement [ru]) is now the unofficial leader of the liberal opposition. For many, Navalny’s brand of nationalism increasingly seems to be either palatable or immaterial, while Tesak’s remains frightening. Perhaps now Martsinkevich wants to contest his perpetual role as bogeyman?

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

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