Just Russia has always been a conflicted political entity. Nominally, it's a social-justice-oriented opposition party with members in the Russian parliament. In reality, these MPs vote along with the Kremlin's United Russia as often as other “official” opposition parties do (i.e. very often). Nevertheless, during the past year, Just Russia has gained a reputation for rebelliousness, after several of its high profile members began moonlighting as leaders of the unofficial, “non-systemic” opposition.
After the disputed 2011 Duma elections, three Just Russia MPs (Ilya Ponomarev and the father-son duo, Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov) became prominent in organizing protest marches and rallies in Moscow. Their participation imparted a certain legitimacy on the movement, although some argued that speaking out against unfair elections and remaining Duma deputies was hypocritical. (This sentiment is captured by the “Surrender Your Mandate!” (Сдай мандат!) taunt, which hecklers often scream at Ponomarev and the Gudkovs during speeches at demonstrations.)
Later, the Gudkovs—along with Ponomarev and Oleg Shein, a regional party functionary famous for launching a hunger strike in Astrakhan last spring [GV]—entered the online elections for seats on the Coordinating Council of the Opposition. Although Ponomarev withdrew from the eDemocracy initiative just prior to the September election, his Just Russia colleagues were elected to the 45-strong council. Ponomarev himself remained a member of the Left Front, an umbrella organization of radical leftist activists led by Sergei Udaltsov.
Since then, Gudkov-elder has lost his Duma seat, ostensibly because of conflicting business interests. Now it seems that time is up for the others, as well. All four are faced with an ultimatum [ru] from their party's Central Committee:
Бюро Президиума [...] решило предложить членам Партии Гудкову Г.В., Гудкову Д.Г., Шеину О.В., входящим в Координационный совет оппозиции и Пономареву И.В., входящему в руководство Левого фронта в месячный срок принять решение о личном выборе своего дальнейшего участия либо в работе органов партии СПРАВЕДЛИВАЯ РОССИЯ, либо в деятельности данных общественных организаций [...]
The Presidium Bureau [...] has decided to offer Party members Gudkov G.V., Gudkov D.G., Shein O.V., also members of the Coordinating council of the opposition, and Ponomarev I.V., also part of Left front leadership, a month to make a personal choice whether to continue participating in the work of the Just Russia party, or in the work of the above organizations [...]
Expulsion from Just Russia would not necessarily cost Ponomarev and Gudkov-junior their parliament seats. Bloggers point [ru] to the example of Alexey Mitrofanov, who was kicked out of Just Russia last year, but has remained a deputy. Nevertheless, the threat appears to be real enough for Oleg Shein and Ilya Ponomarev, who have already announced their compliance. Shein outlined [ru] the main reasons for his leaving the Coordinating Council in his blog:
Программа СР в части трудовых и жилищных прав написана мной. [...] Это моя партия. По взглядам. В Астраханской области и особенно в Астрахани сложилась уже целая традиция голосования за Справедливую Россию.
The Just Russia program in the spheres of labor and housing policy was written by me. [...] This is my party. In terms of my views. In the Astrakhan region and in Astrakhan specifically, there is already a tradition of voting for Just Russia.
Although Shein noted that he will likely continue to work with the Coordinating Council on social campaigns, his resignation comes as a blow to an organization where regional politicians are already underrepresented.
Ponomarev's reasoning [ru] in his blog was similar to Shein's:
Я считаю себя обязанным исполнять решение партии. Мне никто не запрещает участвовать в работе Левого Фронта, понятие членства в нем отсутствует, а руководящие органы вполне могут обойтись и без меня.
I feel obliged to go along with the party decision. No one is prohibiting me from working with the Left Front, there is no concept of membership there, and its governing body can survive without me perfectly well.
Ponomarev also addressed the issue of his parliamentary seat, saying that he would rather give it up than live a lie by holding onto a seat without a party. Coordinating Council member and professional opposition leader Ilya Yashin responded on Twitter, somewhat bitterly quipping [ru]:
“Я остаюсь честным человеком”, – прокомментировал Илья Пономарев выход из Левого фронта. “Я остаюсь девственницей”, – добавила Саша Грей.
“I remain an honest man”, – said Ilya Ponomarev about his withdrawal from the Left front. “I remain a virgin”, – added [famous pornography star] Sasha Grey.
Meanwhile, the Gudkovs seem prepared to take advantage of the month before the ultimatum runs out to make their decision. Dmitry Gudkov tweeted [ru]:
Мы остаемся в протестном движении и КС. Будем убеждать партийцев не совершать ошибку!
We will remain in the protest movement and the [Coordinating Council]. We will try to convince our party comrades not to make this mistake!
Whatever the final decision, the ultimatum has already shaped up to be a successful attack on the Coordinating Council. Given its impact, similar assaults are sure to follow.