A report from the conference of democratic forces of Russia in St. Petersburg By Grigory Pasko, journalist The weather in St. Petersburg on the morning of 5 April was glorious – a rare occurrence for this city. And already in the morning, access to St. Isaac’s Square was through police cordons. Since a blog is not officially considered a mass information media outlet in Russia, and I write for a blog, I had to show all the policemen my membership card in the journalistic organization «Reporters Without Borders» to prove I was a journalist. They let me onto the Square. It was teeming with joyful young people all waving blue flags inscribed «Samsung» or carrying red balloons inscribed «Coca-Cola». “What are you waiting here for?”, I asked. “They’re going to be carrying the Olympic flame of the Chinese Olympiad”, they jubilantly explained. “But why are you here? What have you got to do with it? What do Samsung and Coca-Cola have to do with it?”, I persisted. The young people fell silent, clearly at a loss – they hadn’t expected such a question. Someone finally shouted out: “For the heck of it!” The Olympic flame, brought to you by… (photo by Grigory Pasko)
I had heard exactly the same “For the heck of it!” when I asked Russians why they had voted for Zhirinovsky and Medvedev at the elections of the president.Then I went to the hotel «Angleterre», where people were gathering not “for the heck of it”: a conference of the democratic forces of Russia under the name «The new agenda of the democratic movement» was supposed to start in the small hall of the «Angleterre».The politicians who had come to discuss the new agenda were clearly old – some in terms of their age, some in terms of their fame on the political arena: Vladimir Bukovsky, Boris Nemtsov, Nikita Belykh, Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Milov, Ilya Yashin, Mikhail Amosov, Alexander Ryklin, Yuri Samodurov…The only one missing was the organizer of the conference – the leader of the St. Petersburg branch of the «Yabloko» party, Maxim Reznik – they had summoned him to the procuracy for interrogation for precisely this time. Maxim showed up later.At the entrance to the hotel I saw a multitude of police ranks. For some reason, they all turned away from the camera when I photographed them.The police busy defending democracy (photo by Grigory Pasko)Also at the entrance an hour before the start of the work of the conference I saw a TV camera of one of the Japanese television companies.Naturally, I registered as a representative of the press. Although on the eve of the conference, they were inviting me to be a participant, and already during the time of the conference itself, ecologist acquaintances invited me to speak. I refused, because I do not participate in politics as a matter of principle for a long time already: I had chosen the profession of journalist 25 years before the desire to engage in politics had come – and gone.Towards the end of the work of the conference, it is true, I did begin to regret that I did not have the right to speak. But more about that later.And so, the conference began. It was opened by Mikhail Amosov, who gave the floor to the first speaker – the writer Vladimir Bukovsky.Vladimir Bukovsky called for rejecting parties as subjects of political activity. The time of party politics has passed, said Bukovsky. He spoke out categorically against any form of opposition that was subject to registration on the part of the power. He associated the crisis of the parties with the change of electoral legislation and the de facto annihilation of the institution of elections. Bukovsky underlined that dividing into parties gives rise to conflicts and centralization. As a consequence, regional movements wane. The downfall of today’s regime, in the words of the author, can more likely be entailed by regional movements for greater independence than by “some analogue of an Orange Revolution”.Writer Vladimir Bukovsky thinks political parties aren’t the right way to oppose the power (photo by Grigory Pasko)Bukovsky also noted that he was prepared to participate in the establishment of a new democratic movement – a mass movement of resistance to today’s power. No small amount of effort will have to go into achieving this, because today’s power is cruel, fighting hard to hold on to its money.The writer likewise noted that this will be difficult financially as well, because not a single Russian businessman is going to resolve after the YUKOS affair to fund an opposition movement.Speaking next, SPS party leader Nikita Belykh did not support the idea of a full rejection of parties. “Essential for the restarting of democracy is the creation of a united democratic party”, said he. “If we do not create a united democratic party, we will never come to power”.Author’s aside: Over the past few years, the whole country has been hearing nothing else from the democrats but incessant mantras about the necessity of sometimes uniting, sometimes creating a united democratic party. But when it comes right down to it, such a uniting doesn’t take place. And nobody can understand – why? Maybe, indeed, it’s not about parties at all, but rather that a united people’s resistance movement can get rid of totalitarianism in a country without the need for a single party? After all, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine wasn’t victorious because there was a single united party there…Belykh likewise called for a “taboo on mutual recriminations” and proposed declaring a “truce at the watering hole” [the image comes from the Russian translation of Kipling’s The Jungle Book: the tigers never attack the deer when they’re at the watering hole—Trans.] for the whole period of activity of the democratic movement.Author’s aside: Here I agree with Belykh. If a person can’t accept criticism, then what’s the point of continuing to criticize him? If, for example, «Yabloko» leader Yavlinsky didn’t tell the whole truth about his meeting with Putin, even to the members of his own party, then what could possibly be gained from the members of other parties criticizing him?Participants in the conference (photo by Grigory Pasko)The speaker after Belykh, the economist Vladimir Milov, is for now not nearly as widely known in Russia as that same Belykh. However, his speech was, in my view, the most precise in its essence and the most constructive in its substance.Milov, in particular, noted that he is optimistic that a uniting of the democratic forces is going to take place after all. Because everybody understands already that the dismantling of the authoritarian system that has been built up in the country is just not going to happen without the creation of a broad democratic coalition. “We”, said Milov, “are standing against a strong consolidated system. It too has disagreements within itself. But they know how to draw together and defend their own. We haven’t learned this. To defeat a strong opponent in disjointed ways is impossible”.In Milov’s opinion, there are sufficiently many people in Russia who share European values and who want changes and want to see a force that will be able to overcome disagreements.As one of the organizers of the conference, Milov reported that the conducting of a congress of the democratic forces of Russia is slated for the autumn of this year.United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov began his presentation with a declaration about how “the power hasn’t forgotten about us”. He had in mind the employees of the police, who were surrounding the hotel «Angleterre».Further, Kasparov declared that in his opinion, the various democratic movements do not have any fundamental divergences now in their assessments of the situation in Russia. He compared today’s situation with the years 1988-89, when “Democratic Russia” was struggling for the repeal of the sixth article of the Constitution about the leadership role of the CPSU in the state. He likewise called upon the participants not to concentrate attention on the economy, inasmuch as in any case, the democratic opposition doesn’t have the levers to influence it, and to focus on politics instead. Kasparov called for not limiting cooperation to the liberal-democratic camp, but to also find ways of interaction with the left forces.Independent politician, former member of the political council of the SPS Boris Nemtsov called for engaging in “enlightenment and clarificational work”. In his opinion, democrats must clarify to citizens the crimes of the current power, in particular crimes against humanity (Beslan, «Nord-Ost», the North Caucasus), as well as tell about the scales of corruption: “Corruption must become a topic of public discussion”.Author’s aside: Several years ago, «Committee – 2008» was founded in Moscow. Joining it were journalists Alexander Ryklin, Yulia Latynina, Sergey Parkhomenko, «Open Russia» head Irina Yasina, Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov… I recall that among the declared tasks of this formation were “enlightenment and clarificational work”. The Committee, to the best of my knowledge, has ceased its existence. Its tasks, as I understand, remained unachieved.Of other phrases of Nemtsov, such a one stuck in the memory: “If we begin to elect a leader, on that will end our talk about the future of Russia”. The phrase, in my view, is nothing more than pretty words. Because in the Russian context it is devoid of concrete meaning. The people absolutely have to know the answer to the question: “And who’ve they got in charge over there?” This is merely an acknowledgement of the mentality of the Russians. Not to take this into account is not to know one’s own people. I think it’s about time for Boris Nemtsov to understand this already.On the other hand, Nemtsov’s idea that it’s necessary to clarify the criminal and corrupt essence of today’s power to the people is something I understand. What remains to be understood is just how the leaders of the democratic movement intend to do this.On the presidium – Mikhail Amosov, Maxim Reznik, Olga Kurnosova (photo by Grigory Pasko)The leader of the youth «Yabloko», Ilya Yashin, declared that the principal task of the opposition is – “to explain to the power that we are not clerks in their corporation, while they are not managers, but hired workers”. He likewise called for “cauterizing glamorous snobbism with red-hot steel and eliminating the word ‘bydlo’ [An offensive collective term for people-who-are-no-better-than-cattle, often used disparagingly by members of various Russian elites who consider themselves somehow better than the rest—Trans.] from the vocabulary of the democrats. Yashin called for introducing primaries, which must become the mechanism for renewing the democratic movement. Author’s aside. Of the many words uttered by Yashin that were incomprehensible to the majority of the people (“primaries”, “glamorous snobbism”, and others), the word “bydlo” was probably the most understood. I agree that you can’t call ALL the people “bydlo”. But a PART of our fervently beloved people, in my view – the view of a journalist who has often travelled throughout Russia – fits this unpleasant definition completely. Even if this part of the people and Mr. Yashin personally don’t want this to be so. And this needs to be understood soberly and clearly, otherwise it will be difficult to conduct “enlightenment and clarificational work” among the people. And speaking of the people – the narod… It wasn’t space aliens who recently elected the complete unknown Medvedev to be president, after all. And it isn’t space aliens who are throwing chessboards at Kasparov and rotten eggs at Kasyanov as they’re conducting “enlightenment and clarificational work” among the people.On the basis of the results of the conference was adopted a resolution, the main thought of which was – to strive for the carrying out in Russia of an all-encompassing political reform with the aims of a cardinal democratization of the socio-political situation in the country. Already in May is planned the conducting of the first session of an alternative parliament, called by the “new” democrats the National Assembly. Into it will enter the whole spectrum of political and civic forces not represented in the State Duma – from the left to the right. The alternative parliament, in the opinion, for example, of Garry Kasparov, must become a new civic institution, where a constant substantive discussion will take place, as well as the working out of a new agenda for the country.View from the presidium. Can you spot the author? (photo of Grigory Pasko)And now I’ll finally tell you about why I regretted that I couldn’t speak, not being a participant in the conference: There isn’t a single mention in the resolution of the word “ecology”. There is such a line: “We intend to actively support the Russian human rights movement….” Was it that hard to add “and environmental”? Of course not! And they would have instantly acquired thousands of supporters from among the ecologically inclined people in the country. But for some reason, the conference participants forgot about the ecologists.….Heading towards eight o’clock in the evening, when the conference was already coming to a close, I noticed that I remained the sole journalist who had stayed around until the resolution had been confirmed.Well, actually, that’s not true. There was one more person – with a video camera. This was a Japanese. That same one who had started filming way back in the early morning, long before the conference had begun.And I’d like to note one last thing. At the conference, I saw one person I personally respect very deeply – the stage and screen actor Oleg Basilashvili. This person always has his own point of view on what’s going on in the country. He is not afraid of having his own judgement, one that doesn’t fit in with the mindless kowtowing approval of everything that Putin and his “team” do. He signs letters in defense of those whom today’s power is persecuting. He openly criticizes the power. Unfortunately, there are few people like Basilashvili in Russia today. But they do exist. And that’s a good thing.