Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Nature of Russian Opposition Defines and is Defined by Nature of Russian State, Moscow Media Analyst Suggests

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 2 – In ways that confirm the Russian saying that “if you tell me who you enemy is, I’ll tell you who you are,” Viktor Pokhmelkin says in a commentary published today, “the current state and activities of the opposition [in Russia] say almost everything about the state system and political regime” there.
Pokhmelkin, who writes frequently on media issues for the portal says that a political opposition is “inseparable from the struggle for power in which there are always victors and those who lose but seek to come back as well as new pretenders for the pedestal of power (
Defined in “the most general terms,” Pokhmelkin continues, an opposition regardless of the country involved is “a group of people (a party, a movement, a union, a coalition), who really participates in political power and publically sets itself in opposition to another group which is officially in power.”
Each of these elements is important, he continued, and the extent to which they apply to one or another “opposition” group in Russia is thus instructive. First, opposition groups must oppose the party of power. They must “position themselves as an alternative to the ruling group. The depth and intensity of opposition can vary, but one thing remains unchanged:”
“An opposition completely separates itself from power,” Pokhmelkin says. It doesn’t take “even part of the responsibility for the actions of the government.” And consequently, it is wrong to consider as opposition parties, those which are members of the ruling coalition and who “partially support” the government’s course.
Second, opposition is a public activity. Society must be able to see that a group is opposing the government to consider it an opposition. Given that, “one cannot be included as a member of the political opposition until one publically breaks with the majority and declares independent aspirations for power.”
And third, an opposition group must be a real participant “in the political struggle.” It isn’t enough to disagree and criticize. An opposition group must “have coming to power as its goal.” Many groups in Russia that say they are opposition parties in fact play the role of “theater critic,” denouncing everything the government does but doing nothing to replace it.
According to Pokhmelkin, “the following conditions are necessary” for the formation of an effective opposition: broad social agreement on the foundations of the political system, real division of power both horizontally and vertically, and the division of the political class into “two or more political parties,” each of which has the resources to compete and rule.
“The absence of even one of the conditions listed,” the Moscow analyst suggests, “makes it more difficult if not impossible of having a civilized competitive multi-party political system,” he argues.
Without agreement on the foundations of the political system, “the struggle between the powers that be and the opposition inevitably begins to be carried out with an eye to the destruction” of one or the other. Whatever other values are involved, that tends to promote authoritarianism among those in office and revolutionary attitudes among those outside.
And only “a real division of powers serves as a barrier against the establishment of a political monopoly and thus represents a most important guarantee for the establishment of a resource base for the functioning of an opposition.” If power is concentrated “in a single set of hands, then the ruling class will never [voluntarily] allow” anyone else in.
In the 1990s, Pokhmelkin points out, Russia was developing “some of the prerequisites for the creation of a competitive political system.” Power was divided, and an important opposition party – the KPRF – existed. But it lacked “the first condition” for a real opposition – agreement on the part of all players on the constitutional rules of the game.
As a result, the government moved toward authoritarianism, while the KPRF moved in the direction of unrestrained radicalism at some points and cooperation with the powers that be at other times. The same thing happened, Pokhmelkin insists, with parties based in the regions, something the Moscow government did not view as having accepted the same rules of the game.
And the marginalization of these groups was “the inevitable consequence of the monopoly bureaucratic administration established in [Russia] and one of its manifestations,” Pokhmelkin says. And that reinforced the authoritarianism of those in power and led to the further radicalization of these groups as far as the state and society were concerned.
Given the authoritarian nature of the Russian government, there are only two categories of groups that might be described as opposition, Pokhmelkin says: the genuine opponents of the regime, “courageous and self-sacrificing people” who are prepared to “seriously struggle” with for power and “capricious” individuals who like to pose as opponents of the regime.
“The fate of the representatives of the first,” the Moscow commentator says, “is tragedy and triumph;” that of the second, “farce and scandal.” Pokhmelkin insists that he is not interested in denigrating any individual “personally,” because “if one wants to change the face of the opposition,” then it will necessary “to change the political system.”
That is no easy matter, he suggests, especially when a country like Russia has a government like the one that it does and the opposition that such a government gives birth to. Pokhmelkin then concludes with what is his basic point: “Look at the [Russian] opposition: in this mirror, you will see reflected the true face of the statehood that had been formed.”

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