Alexander Zamyatin: Three and a Half Theses on the Elections

Three and a Half Theses on the Elections
Alexander Zamyatin
Anticapitalist.ru
July 24, 2016

Thesis No. 0: The Obvious
The parliament in Russia has been reduced to such a condition there is no point in talking about a hypothetical leftist faction or a group of MPs from single-mandate electoral districts tabling or blocking law bills independently of the presidential administration. If there has been anything consistent about the political reforms of the past fifteen years, it is that legislative bodies, the Duma foremost among them, have been stripped of the power to influence the government’s social and economic policies, even despite their formally voting budgets up or down.

The elections to the Seventh State Duma are not a chance to transform the political regime or even have an impact on it.

The entire campaign is controlled to a lesser or greater extent by the presidential administration’s Office for Domestic Policy. The leaders of the current Duma factions have long ago left no doubt as to the complete absence of conflict within parliament. Even such a harmless identity as “systemic opposition” has taken a backseat to rallying round the president by way of combatting the “fifth column.”

рост
Boris Titov

This stricture applies as well as to the Growth Party (Partiya Rosta) and its leader Boris Titov, the federal commissioner for the rights of entrepreneurs. The handiwork of spin doctors, the party’s emergence has marked the utter degeneration of the idea of founding an independent right-wing party, a project that has dragged on since the late nineties in shape of parties such as Boris Nemtsov and Nikita Belykh’s Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Leonid Gozman and Mikhail Prokhorov’s Right Cause (Pravoe delo). The fortunes of the Growth Party’s forerunners have been telling: they immediately fell apart, absorbed by the so-called Crimean consensus.

Despite the transparency of the schemes involved, any conversation about parties and elections has to begin with these textbook truths, not only because they are not obvious to many people but also because certain actors in this process, including people comfortable with leftist ideas, call them into question by the way they behave.

Thesis No. 1: The Possible
A considerable number of the Kremlin’s actions in domestic and foreign policy over the past five years has been aimed at preventing the recurrence of the events surrounding the 2011 parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that, in retrospect, the White Ribbon rallies and Marches of the Millions seem harmless, they were an unprecedented challenge to the Putin regime, a challenge that, moreover, meshes perfectly with the ruling elite’s view of the world.

The ouster of spin doctor extraordinaire Vladislav Surkov and his projects for building “sovereign” democracy and preventing the “orange threat” by establishing quasi-fascist youth movements, and his replacement by the hard and taciturn Vyacheslav Volodin as domestic policy chief were obvious reshuffles meant to be read literally. During Putin’s third term, not even the pretense of political liberalism must remain.

This would seemingly contradict the preservation of certain liberal gains in the realm of electoral law made during Dmitry Medvedev’s single term as president: reduction of the electoral threshold for parties hoping to enter the Duma from 7% to 5%; the return of the mixed voting system, with 225 seats (out of a total of 450) up for grabs in single-mandate districts; and a reduction of the number of members required to officially register a party (from 50,000 to 500). But attempts by the independent right-wing liberal opposition to run in “warm-up” regional elections in 2013-2015 have shown that everything remains under the Kremlin’s total control.

Moving the date of the Duma elections from November to September reveals one of the regime’s main wagers: the election campaign should be as inconspicuous and cushy as possible for all vetted candidates, and the turnout on voting day must be minimal. Previously, parliamentary elections immediately preceded the presidential election, but now, finally, the figure of the president has been detached from the bureaucratic and political body of the country with all its shortcomings.

Should we expect independent candidates in the single-mandate districts who are capable of taking advantage of the simplified electoral procedures, as described above? Hardly. To get his or her name on the ball0t, an independent candidate has to collect the signatures of at least 3% of voters in the district. (Until 2003, they were required to collect the signatures of 1% of all voters and put up a cash surety.) In reality, this amounts to collecting the signatures of 5-6% of all voters in the district [because local electoral commissions make a habit of invalidating large numbers of signatures—TRR], meaning tens of thousands of signatures.

The only legal loophole for independent candidates is to run in single-mandate districts as the nominees of parties, which are not required to collect signatures. This applies to parties that hold seats in the Duma or one of the regional legislatures. All other parties must collect around 200,000 signatures to be registered in the elections. There are only fourteen such parties among the seventy-seven parties registered in the country.

Thesis No. 2: The Unlikely
The right-wing liberal opposition’s march to the elections using the slain Boris Nemtsov’s mandate as an MP in the Yaroslavl Regional Parliament was frustrated after the Democratic Coalition’s primaries proved a failure, with only a tenth of the planned 100,000 participants registering to vote.  The infighting that ensued ended with the dubious, to put it mildly, ex-PM Mikhail Kasyanov being joined on the PARNAS list by the extreme right-wing populist blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev, who is totally at odds with the party’s moderate electorate, and Professor Andrei Zubov, famously sacked from MGIMO (Moscow State Institute for International Relations) for his anti-regime remarks about Crimea, but a man who is otherwise given to alternately spouting liberal truisms or utter monarchist nonsense. That is all you need to know about the Democratic Coalition at present.

яблоко
Grigory Yavlinsky

The only source of intrigue in these elections has, perhaps, been the good old Yabloko Party. For the first time, the party has supported independent politicians from outside the party’s central apparatus, thus benefiting from the collapse of the Democratic Coalition. Yabloko’s willingness to blur its identity both on the right (there are members of Democratic Choice of Russia among Yabloko’s single-mandate candidates) and the left, has given hope to many opposition castaways. At the same time, Yabloko has proposed a strategic deal to everyone who has asked the party’s help in getting access to state campaign financing. Grigory Yavlinsky will need broad support in the 2018 presidential election.

Basically, the intrigue boils down to how honest Yavlinsky and Co. are in their intentions to give the regime a fight and compete with Putin in the presidential election. The first answer that comes to mind would question their independence. The party has been perfectly integrated into the system since 1999 (or even 1996). Party functionaries are kept on a short lease by state financing, and access to national media leaves no doubt as to the existence of an agreement between Yavlinsky and the presidential administration or the president himself.

Yet a more cunning answer is possible as well. Yablokov’s moderateness gives it a tactical advantage over opposition politicians who held the bar high for radicalism in 2012 and are now political outsiders driven to the verge of legality. We will be able to clarify which of these hypotheses is closer to the truth after the elections.

Be that as it may, these parties have been talking seriously about overcoming the five percent barrier and forming a faction in the Duma. Is this possible without a serious mobilization of the protest electorate?

Thesis No. 3: The Imperative
What does the radical left have to do with any of this? The paradox of the situation in which we find ourselves is that while our programs and main slogans answer to the interests of tens of millions of people in Russia (and, in a sense, of the entire society), our campaigning hardly goes beyond a few thousand people. We are excluded from the political process, which is now dominated by anti-popular and, sometimes, simply dangerous forces.

The fact that Russia lacks a full-fledged bourgeois parliamentary democracy sometimes leads people to draw the false conclusion that the country lacks a political process. Of course, it is imitated to a considerable degree by constructs, controlled by the presidential administration, that imitate pluralism in hysterical debates with Alexander Prokhanov and Vladimir Solovyov on national TV. But the very origins of these costly imitations, cultivated for years on end, indicates the presence of political antagonism, in which there are, at least, two sides: the current elite, playing to maintain the status quo, and the active segment of society, opposed to the elite and trying to organize alternatives.

Another common mistake appears at this point in the otherwise correct argument that the right-wing liberal opposition offers no real alternatives and stands programmatically for the very same neoliberal reforms as the regime. Trading the Putinist elite for someone from the opposition, such people argue, would not entail any consequences for the country except, perhaps, the flagrant acceleration of the selfsame unpopular economic reforms.

выборы
“There is no such thing as fair elections.”

This claim completely ignores the real state of affairs, in which the loss of power by the Putinist elite (even under a smooth and sophisticated transfer of power to someone from outside that elite) would be tantamount to its death.

Whoever came to power afterwards, the chance to make public the details of how the president’s friends personally enriched themselves both at the expense of individuals knocked out of the game and at the expense of the Russian state and the entire Russian people, would give this person colossal power over the current members of the ruling class. This is clearer to the ruling class than to anyone else, so they have been doing everything to make sure that stripping them of power would be prohibitively costly to their opponents and, thus, the entire country. It is therefore quite likely that the departure of the Putinist elite would be accompanied by tectonic shifts in the societal and political landscapes, shifts that could have quite different consequences. This state of affairs has become a risk factor even for the well-off segments of society, not to mention its least socially protected members.

Coupled with the systemic depravity of the current economic model, the developing political crisis at some stage could bring the country to yet another historical fork in the road. Expectation of this moment, when the accumulated contradictions are revealed as keenly as possible, unites more or less everyone in the leftist opposition. But does our budding leftist movement currently have any sense of how to hasten this moment? No. Does it have a clear, confident answer as to how to prepare for it? No. Nor could it have such an answer, because we cannot know anything about the political struggle without being involved in it. Of course, economic struggle is supposed to shape an organized working class. But it is a classic mistake to believe that by disconnecting ourselves from the “bustle of bourgeois politicking” and redeploying all our forces to the economic struggle and organizing, we will accelerate the awakening of working class consciousness.

Involvement in the political struggle, which in any case does not abolish the economic struggle, encourages the movement to take on qualities necessary for the establishment of a real political force: the know-how of spirited political agitation among the depoliticized masses, the know-how of debating opponents, and, finally, a place in the media that report on politics and society. It is important that even in the embryonic state in which we find ourselves we can begin working in this direction.

When freedom of assembly is practically nonexistent, and freedom of speech and the freedom to agitate are subjected to well-known restrictions, elections remain a venue for developing the three qualities mentioned above. But there is another consideration at work here. It is only during election campaigning that we have a chance to speak to people with the hope of being heard. If you simply hold pickets and hand out leaflets, the only means of drawing considerable attention to yourself is by engaging in tawdry moralizing. As an election campaigner, however, you play a role to which people are accustomed, a role in which they either ask you what we should do or vigorously object to your arguments. And that means you have made contact. What you do with it depends on your skills as a campaigner.

выборы
“You don’t represent us.” / “You can’t even imagine us.” Banner at Fair Elections rally in Petersburg, December 2011

Is there currently a party we could support in these elections? No, but that means only that it will have to be created. There is nothing surprising about the fact we still have not founded a party in a country where, with some reservations, there are no independent, grassroots parties, parties not generated by the Kremlin. It is amazing to think it will always be this way and it is not necessary to prepare for change.

The lack of such a party poses the most difficult question: how can we be involved? First, it is possible to back candidates running in single-mandate districts, candidates whose campaigns we can join without forfeiting our own identity. Now, when the registration process has almost ended at the Central Electoral Commission, we can identify such candidates in our districts.

Second, oddly enough, there is the hypothetical possibility of running a campaign against involvement in the elections, since there is no political force advancing a leftist agenda. This campaign tactic could become part of the political struggle if it were run as a full-fledged campaign with a highly refined appeal every activist would be able to defend. There are two significant drawbacks to this option: a) unlike a campaign in support of a particular candidate, there is no source of funding; and b) campaigning “against all” candidates appears more dubious to the authorities than legally campaigning for a registered candidate and is likely to be prohibited altogether.

This paltry slate of options for active involvement in the upcoming elections to the Duma might get a big boost from the municipal council elections scheduled for next fall. Registering as an independent candidate for a municipal council is an accessible option for where we are at now, and all the advantages of running an election campaign can be realized in this case as well.

We have a whole year to answer the question of whether the leftist movement needs to be involved in elections and prepare ourselves should the answer be yes. From this point of view, this September’s elections are useful at least in the sense they confront us with the issue of political involvement, even if some imagine that it has been decided once and for all.

Translated by the Russian Reader

#quietpicket

 "#quietpicket Am I promoting heterosexuality when I hug my guy in the subway? Russian Federal Misdemeanors Code Article 6.21 (Promoting Non-Traditional Sexual Relations among Minors). Why not?"
“#quietpicket Am I promoting heterosexuality when I hug my guy in the subway? Russian Federal Misdemeanors Code Article 6.21 [Promoting Non-Traditional Sexual Relations among Minors]. Why not?” Placard, Petersburg Subway, July 24, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

This past May, I published a translation of Marina Simakova’s fascinating interview with Darja Serenko, a Moscow artist who had launched a long-term silent protest action and research project in the subway that she had dubbed Quiet Picket.

While riding the subway earlier today in Russia’s Northern Capital, I was glad to see a young woman sit down opposite me with a shoulder bag pasted over with a tiny placard hash-tagged #quietpicket.

Since she seemed a bit tense, as did the passengers around her, I went up and asked her whether it would be alright to photograph her placard. She smiled and said it would be. After that, the mood in the car seemed to lighten up a bit.

Leave the Capital!

Emergency Situations Ministry Recommends Residents Leave Yekaterinburg, Advises Those Who Stay Not to Leave the Apartment and Gargle
URA.Ru
July 23, 2016

Smog has enveloped Yekaterinburg. Photo: Vladimir Zhabrikov © URA.Ru

The Emergency Situations Ministry (EMERCOM) office for Sverdlovsk Region has made a special appeal to the region’s residents, which it has posted on the agency’s official website.

As our own correspondent reports, the rescue service has warned that adverse weather conditions of the first level of hazardousness have settled over the region until 8 p.m., June 26. During this time, calm weather and high temperatures will facilitate the formation of smog in the air.

Mayors have been advised to closely monitor industrial emissions, and motorists, to abandon the use of private vehicles and switch to public transport. Monitoring of unauthorized waste incineration has been increased.

To date, the rescue service has not recorded levels above the maximum allowable concentration of pollutants in the air. Nevertheless, they have asked the public to take the following precautions.

The public has been advised to leave the city during this time. (The message does not indicate which city. Apparently, Yekaterinburg is meant.) If this is impossible, then people are advised to go outside as little as possible and keep doors and windows closed, and when leaving the house, people should put on a dampened cotton-gauze bandage. After being outside, it is advised to take a shower and change one’s clothes or thoroughly wash up and rinse one’s throat.

As URA.ru has previously reported, a dense smog, due, allegedly, to forest fires in Siberia, has enveloped Yekaterinburg the last several days.

NB. Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, has an estimated population of one and a half million people. TRR

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up. See “Greenpeace Russia: The Far East and Siberia Are Burning,” Russian Reader, May 25, 2016.

_________

The Politics of Denial

The Politics of Denial: The Malaysian Airliner, Doping, Dissernet, Etc.
Vladimir Gel’man
grey-dolphin.livejournal.com
July 17, 2016

The second anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 14 over Donbass has been marked by the publication of articles showing how Russian officials covered their tracks by providing the public with knowingly false information. Although these lies have been exposed (including by the New York Times), the exposés are unlikely to alter the official doctrine of the Russian authorities (shared by a good portion of Russian society), which we might term a politics of denial, the harsh, aggressive rejection of the very possibility one could be wrong (“we are always right and can never be wrong”), the deliberate denial of own’s one guilt and diverting it to third parties or even to victims, and, finally, representing oneself as the victim of biased slander (“everyone does it, but only we get blamed for it”). In this sense, misinformation concerning the downed Boeing, the actions of Russian sporting authorities vis-a-vis the doping scandals, the public shielding of high-ranking targets of Dissernet, and, to a certain extent, the aggressive reaction of a part of the public to the recent flash mob highlighting sexual violence are phenomena of the same order.

A while back, I wrote a column about “living a lie,” how lying had become the social norm in Russia. I would add that the politics of denial, as practiced by the Russian authorities, is today almost the principal means of generating collective identity, for building the Russian nation, and suchlike pursuits, whose objective is turning the public into accomplices of the “crooks and thieves.” While the public does not exactly support the moves made by the authorities, it is also not willing to disagree with them. Two years ago, almost no Russians believed that Flight MH14 was shot down by Russians and/or the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, and now a majority believes accusations that Russian athletes are guilty of doping are unfair and politically motivated.

But I will repeat what I wrote back in 2015.

“Living a lie […] is not only a moral category but also a behavioral strategy on the part of the Russian regime and its loyalists. This strategy has one major disadvantage, as once remarked by Abraham Lincoln. You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time (including, I would add, yourself). Sooner or later, Russians who have become accustomed to living a lie will be unable to hide from an uncomfortable truth by rejecting certain thoughts and words. And then, in all likelihood, the disappointment, inevitable in this case, will hit them like a severe hangover.”

Vladimir Gel’man is a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) and Helsinki University. Read my translation of his recent article on bad governance in RussiaTranslated by the Russian Reader. Photo by the Russian Reader

Pavel Sheremet, Belarussian Journalist

Pavel Sheremet, Belarussian Journalist
Simon Pirani
The Pensive Quill
July 22, 2016

Ukraine’s political life has been shaken by the car-bomb killing of Pavel Sheremet, the Belarussian journalist, in Kyiv on Wednesday – a brazen, brutal murder in broad daylight in the city centre.

Pavel Sheremet. Photo: Ukrainska Pravda

Sheremet was an extraordinarily talented and honest reporter, which is why many people with power and money hated him. He was jailed, beaten and harassed by the authorities in Belarus; worked on Russian state television and then quit in protest at its one-sided coverage of Ukraine; and moved to Ukraine where he worked on television and on Ukrainska Pravda, the largest news web site.

Sheremet graduated from a prestigious university of international economic relations, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. “My classmates became oligarchs, ministers, diplomats – and, true, some of them ended up in jail. When I moved from a bank job to work on TV, everyone said I was mad, but I never regretted it”, Sheremet said in an article, published by his colleagues this morning, entitled “Every Day As If It’s the Last: Rules for Living”.

The early 1990s was a golden era for journalism in the former Soviet Union. Sheremet hosted a popular news analysis programme on Belarussian state TV that was banned by president Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1995. Sheremet switched to Russia’s main state channel, ORT, as the head of its bureau in Minsk.

As Lukashenko’s regime descended into authoritarianism, Sheremet became a prominent dissident and spokesman for the Charter 97 human rights organisation. In 1997 his classic reportage on smuggling across the Belarussian-Lithuanian border earned him a two-year prison sentence. After serving three months he moved to Moscow.

The spirit of media freedom was still alive and kicking in Russia. Sheremet investigated the disappearances of Belarussian dissidents, some of them his close friends, and made cutting-edge documentaries, including one about the Chechen war. He set up Belaruspartizan.org, the most effective Belarus-focused dissident web resource. He won the International Press Freedom Award in 1998, the first of a string of such prizes.

“Pavel was a really rare bird among post-Soviet journalists”, wrote the Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert in one of a host of tributes. “He very well understood Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and maybe because of that he was a European – and not a Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian – journalist.”

From 2010, Sheremet began to spend more time in Ukraine, and then moved to Kyiv, continuing to work for the main Russian state TV channel (ORT, later renamed Channel One). But in July 2014, four months after the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich by the Maidan movement, Sheremet resigned from the station, complaining that those who contradict Kremlin propaganda were “hounded”.

“The TV still gives the impression that nothing has happened. That irritates people”, Sheremet wrote in the article published today. “The life people actually live is one thing, and then they turn on the TV and see a completely different picture. I quit [Channel One] because it became impossible to work there and preserve my reputation and good name.”

The news web site Ukrainska Pravda, where Sheremet worked for the last couple of years, along with broadcasting commitments, was his natural home. The site was set up in 2000 by Gyorgy Gongadze, another fearless child of the post-Soviet boom in free speech.

In September 2000, Gongadze was kidnapped and murdered by three police officers, who were many years later jailed for their part in the crime. The killers were clearly acting on the orders of elements in Ukraine’s political elite – although the connections beyond the internal affairs minister of the time, Yuri Kravchenko, who also died violently, were never completely clear.

The Gongadze case became a watchword for democratic rights in Ukraine. Rising to the challenge of censorship by thuggery, Gongadze’s colleagues turned Ukrainska Pravda from a penniless blog into the country’s prime web-based news resource, a position it enjoys to this day. Its news output is underpinned by comprehensive reporting on Ukraine’s oligarchs and the corruption that surrounds them. After the Maidan events two Ukrainska Pravda journalists, Sergei Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem, entered parliament on an anti-corruption platform.

Sheremet fitted in well in this company. The car he was driving when killed belonged to Aliona Prytula, Ukrainska Pravda’s co-founder and owner. The police at first suspected she may have been the intended victim, although on Thursday it was reported that investigating officers now thought the attack was most likely targeted at Sheremet himself.

There is no guarantee that we will ever know who killed Pavel Sheremet, and who ordered the killing. In the cases of many of the journalists murdered in former Soviet countries in the past 25 years, the trail of infamy that led to their deaths has been successfully covered up, often with the help of law enforcement agencies.

All we can be sure of is that the military conflict unleashed in eastern Ukraine over the past two years makes murders such as Sheremet’s more likely.

The complex clashes in eastern Ukraine that followed from Yanukovich’s removal were turned into war by the influx of huge quantities of military hardware and volunteer fighters from Russia, an influx for which the Russian state bears the main responsibility. Human life has been cheapened; more than 9400 people have died; human rights organisations now routinely issue reports (the most recent from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on 21 July) of torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions.

All this has ratcheted up the danger to people like Pavel Sheremet, who so well understand the dynamics of such conflicts, and could explain them with frankness and good humour to their fellow citizens who don’t believe most of what the media tells them. (Pavel’s recent blog posts ladled sarcasm and wit on Russian war propagandists, Ukrainian business oligarchs and Ukrainian “volunteers”-turned-criminals alike, leaving us none the wiser about which of his enemies might have been involved in his killing.)

I have been travelling to Russia and Ukraine for the past 25 years as a journalist and a researcher. It’s easy for me: I have a British passport in my pocket and can leave at any time. For many like Sheremet, who in recent years I counted not just as a colleague but as a good friend, there is no such protection.

Flowers at the place in the centre of Kyiv where Pavel Sheremet was killed. Photo: Belaruspartizan.org

My thanks to Simon Pirani for his permission to reproduce this obituary here. TRR

The People versus the Package

"I think therefore I'm a terrorist." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016
“I think therefore I’m a terrorist.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
July 23, 2016

It doesn’t matter whether you come to the people’s assembly against the so-called Yarovaya package at 7 p.m. on July 26 in front of the arch of the General Staff Building on Bolshaya Morskaya or not. There is already enough evidence to put you away.

***

On July 7, 2016, President Putin signed the so-called Yarovaya package, a series of flagrantly repressive amendments to the Russian Federal Criminal Code. The official objective of the amendments is to combat terrorism.

IF YOU DON’T INFORM YOU’LL GO TO JAIL
An article on non-informing has been added to the Criminal Code. “Failure to report a crime” will entail a sentence of up to one year in prison. This law applies to such crimes as terrorism, seizure of power, and attempts on the life of a public official.

ALL YOUR COMMUNICATIONS WILL BE SAVED AND READ
Monitoring of correspondence has been toughened. Records of all your telephone calls, SMS messages, and emails will be saved for six months, and the security forces will be provided with the means to decode encrypted communications.

"Words don't make me a criminal." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016
“Words don’t make me a criminal.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

YOUR PACKAGES WILL BE VETTED
Postal workers will now be obliged to search vigorously for prohibited items in our packages: money, narcotics, weapons, explosives, and “other devices that pose a threat to human life and health.”

YOU INVITED A FRIEND TO A PROTEST RALLY, YOU GO TO JAIL
The Criminal Code will now include an article on “inducing, recruiting or otherwise involving” someone in organizing a “riot.” The law stipulates a penalty of 300,000 to 700,000 rubles or a prison sentence of five to ten years.

YOU REPOST THE “WRONG” THING, YOU GO TO JAIL
The punishments for “extremist” entries, reposts, and comments on the web have been toughened. Despite the fact that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, you can now be fined from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles or sent to prison for two to five years for making certain statements. By the way, 369 people were convicted of “enciting hatred by means of the Internet” in 2015.

YOU’RE STILL A KID? YOU’RE GOING TO JAIL ANYWAY
14-year-olds will now be tried as adults not only for serious crimes but also for involvement in riots and non-informing.

At 7 p.m. on July 26, a people’s assembly on behalf of liberty and against the Yarovaya package will be held on Bolshaya Morskaya in the pedestrian area near the arch of the General Staff Building. The people’s assembly format does not permit the use of political symbols and placards. But no one can forbid us from going outside, talking about the Yarovaya package, and hoping the voice of peaceful protest will be heard.

More on the Yarovaya Package:

"Inform on me and maybe  you won't go to jail." Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg,  July 22, 2016
“Inform on me and maybe you won’t go to jail.” Solo picket on Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, July 22, 2016

Alexander Bikbov: The Neoliberal State of Higher Education in Russia

Sociologist Alexander Bikbov
Sociologist Alexander Bikbov

Sociologist Alexander Bikbov: “I’m Inspired by Small University Trade Unions”
Lena Chesnokova
Inde
June 27, 2016

Where fee-based higher education came from, why universities are jockeying for places in the ratings, and what a lecturer should do if she disagrees with her university’s administration

Part of last weekend’s Summer Book Festival was the fourth edition of the lecture series “Theories of Contemporaneity,” a joint project between Inde and the Smena Contemporary Culture Center (Kazan). One of the speakers was Alexander Bikbov, Ph.D., deputy director of the Center for Contemporary Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Philosophy Faculty of Moscow State University, and an editor of the journal Logos. Among Bikbov’s interests are the theory and practice of neoliberal reforms in the fields of education and culture. Inde spoke with Bikbov about the circumstances in which today’s Russian tertiary institutions find themselves, and what “effective management” and the pursuit of profitability could lead to over time.

Neoliberalism
A term used by scholars since the late twentieth century to describe government policies that reduce social spending (on education, culture, health care, and pensions and benefits) and promote universal competition and the free market. However, the rules of the market are set, supposedly, by the state. In theory, such policies should cull inefficient businesses (which, for neoliberal reformers, comprise everything from factories to tertiary institutions, hospitals, and theaters), provide people with a higher quality of services, and make them richer and freer. In reality, neoliberal reforms often exacerbate income equality and lower the overall cultural horizons of a large part of the populace. Neoliberalism, then, is a state of affairs in which liberal values, such as democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of speech and conscience, are subjugated to the principal value: the free market.

_________

In the last five to ten years, great changes have taken place in Russian higher education. Large universities have absorbed smaller ones, and a system for auditing the efficiency and performance of teaching staff has been put in place. When did these neoliberal reforms kick off, and what stages have there been?

State-controlled reforms began after 2003, when the Russian Ministry of Education signed the pan-European Bologna Declaration. From 2003 to 2005, certain universities served as flagships for the reforms by introducing a division between the bachelor’s and the master’s degrees, and ratings to measure student progress and the success of teaching staff. But the new model was adopted nationwide between 2008 and 2012. In 2009, the Unified State Examination (EGE) was made mandatory for school leavers, and nearly all universities abolished their own entrance exams. In 2010, Federal Law No. 83 came into force, which brought all the country’s tertiary institutions under the new economic model.

But if we speak on the whole about the permeation of Russian higher education by the neoliberal rationale, the process got underway much earlier. In 1991−1992, when state financing of tertiary institutions was abruptly slashed, some universities simply had no way to pay the electricity bills. University administrators were forced into crisis management mode, making sure their universities did not go bust as economic units while simultaneously becoming the full-fledged “proprietors” of these institutions. In the early 1990s, it was totally natural for a university lecturer to be working two or three jobs. It was then that the model for the labor relations that the state is now institutionalizing top down were predetermined: relatively unencumbered hiring and redundancy procedures, hourly pay, and precarious forms of employment with no social benefits.

The intermediate stage between the spontaneous reforms and state-driven commercialization happened in the late 1990s and mid 2000s, when universities established a system of fee-based instruction. By the mid 2000s, so-called commercial students accounted for about half of all students. Now the laws have been amended so this percentage can increase further.

What have been the most significant changes over the past ten years?

The most significant change is the new procedure for financing universities. Universities no longer receive core funding from the state and have begun to get vigorously involved in the fight for project and grant monies. Naturally, this leads to an uneven distribution of resources: economically stronger and weaker universities have begun to emerge. The “weak” universities are forced into subordination to the “strong” universities, despite the fact that higher education institutions deemed economically ineffective may be stronger in intellectual terms.

A very important date on the timeline of reforms is late 2008, when the government abolished the unified wage rate scale. This was a real revolution that instantaneously rocked the entire state sector, including medical care, culture, and secondary and higher education. The original version of the unified scale was adopted way back in 1936. It had evolved over the entire Soviet period and had continued to exist in the post-Soviet period. The Soviet system assumed an individual who worked at his or her job for a long time was a priori competent to perform that job. The older the lecturer, the more serious was his or her academic title, the higher was his or her pay grade, and the more he or she earned.

The new mode of compensation was introduced very quickly, literally in a couple of months. People were summoned one by one to the boss’s office and confronted with a choice: either they signed a new contract or they went looking for a new job. People who had previously been considered valuable employees lost all their privileges. According to the new rules, they are on a par with inexperienced employees and must annually certify their competence. I am not saying the old system was flawless. Obviously, it did not always guarantee the competence of teaching staff and a high quality of education. It had to be changed. But it is just as obvious that the new reforms are excessively radical. One extreme system has been replaced by another, without any steps in between.

In parallel with the new system of wages, a system of Key Performance Indicators, including publication citation indices, student attendance, and so on have been introduced. The duration of contracts has been reduced. The experiments are still underway, but permanent contracts no longer exist at most universities. Rigid market-based relations have now come to higher education.

Does the pan-European Bologna Process assume that changes follow the same scenario everywhere, or does each country go its own way? 

There is definitely no common way. In France, for example, the transition to the new labor relations was smoother: lecturers who already had permanent contracts when the reforms were adopted kept them. In Italy, however, junior lecturers can work for years without being paid, because they are listed as trainees. The Russian approach is radical, and I am guessing that, as time goes by, it will experience more and more serious glitches. Permanent confirmation of competencies makes winners of those who are better at playing the game, for example, who are better at writing reports in bureaucratic newspeak or filling out applications for salary bonuses. This does not always mean the person has a profound knowledge of his or her subject or is a skilled teacher.  In addition, lecturers have been subjected to a new set of conflicting rules. On the one hand, the recommended number of instructional hours has been raised from 750 to 900 hours a year. On the other hand, lecturers need to demonstrate high citation indices annually. But when is a lecturer supposed to do her own research when she spends more and more work time on classes, on preparing for them and checking homework assignments?

Are there any universities left in Russia that have either bucked the trend completely or follow the new rules only in part?

Yes, but things are not simple in those places, either. One of the flagships of the reforms, the Higher School of Economics, has full professorships. Full professors are the most protected category of employees. They sign permanent contracts with the university, and collegial methods of decision-making operate within their community. They elect each other, and they solve many problems without interference from the administration. Yet this special regime in which full professors exist is made possible by discriminating against the rest of the teaching staff. Less protected than the full professors, they are involved in the struggle for classroom hours. Their benefits and bonuses are cut, and the administration may suddenly refuse to renew their contracts.

Why have all these changes taken root so quickly in Russian universities? It’s hard to believe no one has protested.

One would imagine that if it is an international reform aimed at uniformity, its aftermath would be similar in all the participating countries. But it turns out that a fairly successful resistance has been mounted against it in France, while in Germany tuition fees were abolished. In Russia, however, the commercial model indeed became dominant quickly and triumphantly.  The short answer to the question of why this happened is that collegial organizations and social bonds among teachers have been traditionally weak in Russia. This was a legacy of the Soviet period, and it was exacerbated by the “crisis management” of the 1990s. Such organizations exist in Western European universities. For example, there was a months-long university strike in France in 2009 in which over two thirds of the country’s universities were involved. Decisions to close universities were approved by vote at general assemblies. There were street demos, and medical workers, postal workers, and other state-sector workers who were going through similar circumstances supported the university lecturers. At the same time, unofficial classes, organized by students themselves, continued on the campuses of certain universities. They invited intellectuals and lecturers they found interesting. The students insisted the strike should not be a period of inactivity. Unfortunately, the strike did not lead to a complete halt of the reforms, but protesters did cushion some of the commercial pressures.

With the raising of neoliberalism to the rank of state doctrine, independent quasi trade unions have also popped up at Russian universities. They are not like the trade unions that existed formally in the Soviet years and arranged trips to health spas. Instead, they are capable of saying a collective no to state-driven lawlessness. They interact with rectors, putting pressure on them and trying to ensure that university administrations negotiate more acceptable conditions with the state as embodied by the Ministry of Education.

Where are these quasi trade unions operating in Russia? Have they achieved any results?

In the late 2000s, an independent organization known as the MSU Pressure Group (Initsiativnaia gruppa MGU) emerged at Moscow State University.  Initially, its members fought for the right to free entry to the dormitories and the abolition of silly prohibitions concerning the use of lecture halls. Basically, they tried to solve very practical issues. The more often the activists got what they had set out to achiever, the stronger they felt. Nowadays, the Pressure Group is part of University Solidarity, a independent nationwide trade union.  All over the country, members of University Solidarity have been defending the rights of lecturers to legal employment contracts. At the Russian State Universities for the Humanities, for example, members have been fighting to abolish the practice of dismissing lecturers for the summer so the administration does not have to give them holiday pay.

Do such organizations exist in the regions?

They do, but they are not as active as in the capitals. Early experience of involvement is vital to civic and professional activism. The conditions for this have to exist. If a university administrations cracks down too harshly on students who make demands, the desire to defend rights and engage in vigorous protest is lost at the time in people’s lives when they are university students or postgraduates. For now independent trade unions have thus been emerging in cities with a traditionally strong culture of activism. I know for sure that, aside from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, such organizations exist in Yekaterinburg and Voronezh.

Given the circumstances, what tactics should lecturers and students choose? What is more effective: joining the new trade unions, starting a rebellion or switching to another line of work?

I am inspired by the small university trade unions, despite the fact they often admit to achieving limited results themselves. But any effective union is a voluntary association of professionals, and the more lecturers and students who are involved in it, the more it is capable of achieving. True, it is not all that simple. We can blame lecturers as much as we like for sluggishness and timidity, but 900 instructional hours a year and the need to think constantly about additional sources of income simply do not encourage many people to make the time to actively pursue their rights or, often, even just contemplate this possibility.

Do the reforms we have been talking about always entail a change of university leadership? In Kazan, for example, the scholar who had been elected to the post of rector was replaced by an appointed manager.

The federal universities tend to have a geopolitical function, and they are structured according to the same rationale that defines relations between Moscow and the regions. The government regards the old universities as platforms for professional and political loyalty where exceedingly abrupt shake-ups can produce uncontrolled change. If a university has a direct line to the ministry or the presidential administration, the changes are likely to be milder. Otherwise, the university faces an abrupt change in management. I gather that regional universities often find themselves in these circumstances.

Can we regard this round of reforms as completed, or are there more shocks on the way?

I have already mentioned the foundations for the situation we are now experiencing were laid in the early 1990s. Back then, Yeltsin’s reformers wanted to shift tertiary institutions to full self-financing, meaning one hundred percent commercial self-sufficiency. This bar has not yet been achieved, although in this instance Russian universities have considerably outstripped their European counterparts: at least half of their costs are covered by extra-budgetary resources. (This figure ranges from ten to twenty-five percent at different European universities.) I doubt the radical dream of full commercial self-sufficiency will ever be realized, because that would be tantamount to a total collapse of the higher education system.

The current leadership sees the universities as economic enterprises that should be cost-effective. This is not specific to Russia: England and Germany continue vigorously slashing “loss-making” departments and programs in philosophy, philology, and Slavic studies. There are also regions in Russia where such things are happening. Another consequence of this take on the problem is the constant desire on the part of university administrators to drastically reduce labor costs. Experiments with forms of employment will thus continue. So-called performance contracts have already been introduced: a lecturer’s salary and continued employment now depend on whether he performs a precise list of official obligations. In addition to giving lectures, the list includes getting published in highly ranked academic journals (there should be no fewer than a certain number of such publications per year), obtaining external financing, performing an extracurricular workload, and other factors that used to be more a matter of valor than obligation for educators.

In the early 2010s, some universities discussed introducing a system under which all lecturers would be casualized and hired under temporary contracts for ongoing projects, for example, for a semester-long or yearlong academic module. It is only at the idea stage for the time being, but it suggests that movement in this direction will continue.

What could be the long-term consequences of these reforms?

A shift to increasingly short-term and precarious contracts with lecturers will produce increased social insecurity. Further reduction of all “unprofitable” spending will increase inequality in academia. In addition, the gap in the quality of education will grown between individual universities and departments.

It is important to understand that a university’s intellectual level is inseparable from the social and financial standing of its teaching staff and the patterns of their employment. An individual who constantly changes the subjects she teaches, regularly experiences periods of unemployment, and is forced all the time to worry about maintaining at least a minimum income, ceases to see high-quality, creative teaching as a priority.

Universities have sought to increase the ratio of students to lecturers, class sizes have been growing, seminar hours have been reduced, and advanced optional courses are often not counted as part of the instructional load. The outcome is that a meaningful dialogue between students and lecturers has been rendered almost impossible. They find themselves in the positions of suppliers and consumers of standardized services, which are delivered along with increased formal monitoring of discipline on the part of both groups.

The draft federal budget for 2016 has again shown that spending on education is slated for cuts. This means the burden on family budgets will grow, and tertiary institutions are going the way of primary and secondary schools, where money for repairs, computers, and other necessities are collected from pupils’ parents. Such levies can be direct, but they can take the shape of rising tuition fees. In any case, the focus of the reforms is slashing the number of full-ride scholarships.

I have already talked about the closure and merger of unprofitable humanities departments. The trend has been deepening. Often, even if a department is kept open, its program is commercialized. A good number of liberal arts teachers even now can allow themselves to work only because they have other sources of income in addition to their university salaries. It is the same with students. The choice of a humanities specialization is often determined by the availability of free time and the absence of the need to start contributing to the family budget immediately. In ten years or so, philosophy and philology will probably become bourgeois disciplines, not in the Soviet sense of the word bourgeois, but in the sense that only wealthy people will be able to study them.

Tertiary institutions have already begun competing with each other for students and financing. The same rationale will probably penetrate even deeper. Departments and programs will begin competing amongst themselves for pieces of the university budget, and universities will open resource centers that will rent space to their own schools and departments for academic conferences.

Are the neoliberal reforms reversible at the national level? Are there forces within the system capable of slowing down the process?

I believe the only potentially effective force are lecturers themselves, united to defend their professional interests, the quality of their work, and the quality of education. That is why independent university unions are so important now.

There is also an alternative within the system, but it is a variety of neoliberalism. This is neomercantilism. The state’s rationale in this case is not extracting as much profit as possible from students, but keeping young people in the area, tethering their consumption to the local market, and protecting borders. Because the major federal universities, which were established in a dozen or so cities around the country, are basically a geopolitical project.

But then you might want to create a better environment for teachers and students?

Right. And here we approach the neoliberal model’s most important and intrinsic internal contradiction. The demands of reformers contain conflicting codes right from the get-go. For example, one neoliberal slogan is the absolute flexibility of skills and expertise that individuals build up over an entire lifetime. But this is contrary to reducing the time to the degree. In the Russian recension, the approach of neoliberal officials goes like this: we have too many people getting a higher education, but nobody to put to work in the real sector of the economy. Yet the assumption is that people employed in the real sector should be sufficiently competent. And there are more than one or two such fatal contradictions.

You ask why the reformers are so persistent in ploughing ahead with the changes. Don’t these contradictions bother them? But the fact of the matter is the neoliberal model is not a well-shaped ideology, but a technique for governing. It is almost impossible to imagine it as a consummate, consistent set of rules that could be checked for internal consistency. So that is why it is impossible to fully implement it in practice. But this is a challenge and incentive for commercially minded officials, who see the educational field as unnecessarily complicated, confusing, weak, dependent, and unproductive. I think reformers will keep trying to tame it for a long time to come.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VT for the heads-up