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Archive for October, 2013

Georgia may face power vacuum after presidential election

By Blog Admin, on 25 October 2013

Georgians go the polls on 27 October to elect a successor to President Mikheil Saakashvili. However, behind the scenes power politics, a populist outsider candidate and continuing pressure from Russia may combine to open up a period of uncertainty, writes Andrew Wilson.

The West has been struggling to make up its mind as to whether Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is a good thing or not, and now he has announced he is leaving after less than a year in office. The previous era is also drawing to a close, as sitting President Mikheil Saakashvili’s two terms in office come to an end with the presidential election scheduled for 27 October.

Despite the heated rhetoric of Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the West, the Ivanishvili government was not existentially opposed to all its achievements. Some have been expanded, others chipped away at. The real question is what will happen next, with the very real risk of a power vacuum after the dual departure.

Ivanishvili’s announcement was not a complete surprise. He has always indicated he saw solving Georgia’s problems as a short-term task, and is visibly not too keen on the day-to-day tasks of administration. However, his exit strategy is far from clear, and 71% of Georgians in a NDI poll taken on 23 September said they disapproved of his decision to quit. He has not ‘finished the job’; unless it is narrowly defined as dislodging the old elite.

Part of his appeal to voters to back Giorgi Margvelashvili, his party’s (Georgian Dream) candidate for the presidency, is to allow him to continue that work. “Showing trust to Margvelashvili means showing trust to me”, Ivanishvili said in September. But he doesn’t seem to want to be overshadowed by Margvelashvili, who was a personal not a party choice. Margvelashvili is Minister of Education, and safely uncharismatic; Ivanishvili having sidestepped stronger figures like Defence Minister Irakli Alasania or David Usupashvili, the chair of parliament. The presidency will have less constitutional power after the election, but Ivanishvili has yet to name a Prime Ministerial successor – he says he will do so in November.

Margvelashvili is in an impossible situation – even if he wins his mandate will be weak and on ‘loan’ from Ivanishvili, who has also declared but not defined his intention to head a new NGO network after the election. It is unclear whether this will make him a back-seat driver. It is also possibly a mixed blessing for existing NGOs, as Ivanishvili’s fortune may cause a migration towards his money and influence. It is also unclear whether Ivanishvili’s choice for Prime Minister will be a stronger choice. (more…)

Turning left or melting down?

By Blog Admin, on 23 October 2013

ANO2011 poster

Photo: Seán Hanley

 Seán Hanley previews the upcoming parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic where several newly formed parties, including the ANO2011 anti-corruption movement led by billionaire Andrej Babiš, have the potential to  shake up the country’s ailing political establishment.

Czech voters go to the polls in early parliamentary elections on 25-26 October. The elections follow the collapse, amid personal and political scandal, of the centre-right government of Petr Nečas in June, and the subsequent failure of President Zeman’s handpicked caretaker administration to win a vote of confidence.

At one level the election seems set to deliver a simple and straightforward verdict,: established opposition parties on the left will win, while governing right-wing parties will be heavily rejected by an electorate frustrated with austerity, stagnating living standards and sleaze. The main opposition Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD), most polls have suggested, will emerge as the clear winners with around 25-30 per cent of the vote, although the final polls published before voting have suggested that the party’s support is starting to slide. Meanwhile the hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) is likely to pull in 15-20 per cent.

 The polls also point to a defeat of historic proportions for the right-wing parties of the former coalition. The Civic Democrats (ODS) (formerly led by Nečas) have proved surprisingly deft in trying to pull back from the brink: the party picked Miroslava Němcová, one of its few leaders untainted by corruption – and the first woman to head a major Czech party – as the party’s new public face and have run an inventive (and occasionally witty) Twitter-led election campaign.

But voters have remained largely unimpressed and the ODS seems set to see the 20 per cent support it received in the 2010 elections – then its worst ever performance – halved, relegating it to minor party status. Some polls put the ODS as low as 6.5 per cent, close to the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation. The Chart below gives an indication of the latest polling.

ODS’s main centre-right rival TOP09 has, however, failed to capitalise on the troubles of its former coalition partner. Instead, it has waged a pedestrian election campaign and has no prospect of repeating its success in this year’s presidential election, when TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg united a broad swathe of liberal and centre-right voters against the left-wing challenge of Miloš Zeman. Most polls suggest the party will struggle to match the 16 per cent it polled in 2010

Many voters have turned to new parties and extra-parliamentary groupings. Niche parties such as the Greens and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), ‘personal parties’ such as the Civic Rights Party (SPOZ) of President Zeman or the Eurosceptic nationalist ‘Heads Up’ bloc endorsed by Václav Klaus have picked up sufficient support to put them within shouting distance of the five per cent hurdle.

So too has the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy movement of a businessman-turned-politician Tomio Okamura. Okamura, who first came to prominence as a judge on the Czech TV’s version of Dragon’s Den in 2010, has gained profile through his fierce attacks against the political class, socially populist rhetoric and baiting of the Roma minority using his unusual Czecho-Japanese background to deny accusations of racism

The most telling impact, however, has been made by ANO2011 the anti-corruption movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš, which has moved in a few weeks from relative obscurity to opinion ratings comfortably in excess of 10 per cent and is now regularly outpolling ODS and TOP09. (more…)

Postcard to Khodorkovsky

By Blog Admin, on 21 October 2013

Pussy Riot Global Day

London has become home to a growing, but fractious community of political activists opposed to the Putin regime, finds Darya Malyutina. 

With its long history of serving as a refuge for disaffected Russians, London today hosts a sizeable and heterogeneous Russian-speaking population.

Many of them express casual anti-Putin sentiments; some of them are more actively trying to unseat him. How effective is this activism? Is it helping to bring democratic change to Russia, or raising awareness of what is happening in Russia to the British public; perhaps, at the very least, gaining some moral authority in the eyes of Russian society, or is it just so much wishful thinking and hot air?

In the autumn of 2012 Andrei Sidelnikov, the leader of London-based Russian opposition group Govorite Gromche [Speak Up], decided that, after a couple of years of organising regular rallies and various protest demonstrations, the format of their activity should be changed to ‘intellectual discussions and educational meetings.’ Some of these meetings took place in a small basement bookshop in Central London.

The meeting I attended took the form of a Skype conversation with Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. About twenty Russians gathered in the shop and listened to Pavel speaking about his father: how he has managed to write a book; how ‘Putin and his gang’ have no intention of letting him out; and how he continues to be a ‘moral leader,’ even from his prison cell. ‘What can we, Russians living in the West, do to help fight for rights and freedoms of citizens? How can we move Russia back to the democratic path of the early 1990s?’ asks Sidelnikov. ‘We understand that our actions do not have much impact,’ replies Pavel. ‘But we provide inspiration for those who are in prison; and our actions establish a moral authority. And, of course, we might be able to influence Russia’s foreign relations, because protest can be a catalyst for solving political problems….’

We could have been in the London of Alexander Herzen, in the 1850s, discussing overnight ways to make the autocratic Tsar, a liberal. ‘And maybe,’ said Sidelnikov, ‘we could send Mikhail a postcard for the New Year?’

‘He would be very pleased,’ replied Pavel. The meeting was declared closed, and the evening ended in the traditional way – the democracy fighters headed to the nearby pub. (more…)

A Russian émigré in London: uncovering Bloomsbury’s radical history

By Blog Admin, on 14 October 2013

 

The Free Russian Press in Bloomsbury. Photograph by Sarah J. Young (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Free Russian Press in Bloomsbury.
Photograph by Sarah J. Young (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sarah J. Young tells the story of how her research on nineteenth-century Russian émigrés and visitors to London led to the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate a remarkable episode in the history of Bloomsbury publishing and Anglo-Russian relations.

It’s not often in my line of work (19th and 20th century Russian literature) that research has a concrete, physical and permanent (as far as anything can be) public outcome, so it was with great pleasure that, having collaborated on the research to establish precise locations, I was recently invited by the Marchmont Association to unveil a new plaque commemorating the work of the Free Russian Press at 61 Judd Street in London.

I first started researching the press for my Russians in London series, quickly realizing that the twelve years that the writer and publicist Alexander Herzen spent in London were central to the story of many of the other visitors I was tracking down. His importance as a point of contact – and as the beginning of the story of radical Russian émigrés in London – was primarily down to the significance of the Free Russian Press. The first of many Russian émigré presses, Herzen set it up in 1853 shortly after his arrival in the capital, disillusioned by the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe and reeling from a succession of family tragedies.

The annual almanac The Polar Star – named after the journal produced by two of the Decembrist revolutionaries who had inspired Herzen in his youth – and the bi-monthly newspaper The Bell were published from Judd Street in the 1850s (the press moved to a new site across the road after establishing its first independent premises at no. 61, at the time 82 Judd St.), were probably the most influential publications in Russia. Thousands of copies were smuggled in to Russia through Herzen’s various contacts, and it was read not only by the intelligentsia or the radicals, but by everybody in authority, including the Tsar. In Herzen’s wonderful memoirs My Past and Thoughts, we read, ‘“The Bell is an authority,” I was told in London in 1859 by, horrible dictu, Katkov’, referring to the arch-conservative journalist and publisher of Dostoevsky’s novels. If such a notoriously reactionary figure was prepared to admit this, it can only mean that The Bell was indeed highly significant.

The Bell, through its agenda of freedom of expression and emancipation of the serfs, became a touchstone and almost ubiquitous shorthand for progressive thinking – references to it in nineteenth-century Russian literature are remarkably common. For example, in Nikolai Leskov’s 1872 novel The Cathedral Clergy (recently re-translated by Margaret Winchell and published by Slavica), the central character, Archpriest Tuberozov, comments in his journal for 1857, the year The Bell first appeared: ‘While visiting the police chief, I read for the first time Mister Iskander’s [Herzen’s pseudonym] Russian newspaper the Bell, which is printed abroad. The discourse was lively and highly stylistic, but unaccustomed as I am to boldness, I found it wild.’ Later, he writes:

I am utterly perplexed. The sacristan’s widow unthinkingly sent her son a one-ruble banknote not by registered mail, as required by law but in a plain envelope; at the post office the envelope was unsealed and, after the widow’s crime was uncovered, her missive was confiscated and she was subjected to a fine. It is no news to anyone that letters are opened and read at the post office; but just how is it that they intercept the widow’s banknote but not the Bell, which I get from the police chief?

While this is obviously fictional, it is supported by what we know about The Bell’s readership. No doubt for some getting hold of it was a matter of knowing the enemy, while for others a frisson of danger derived from dabbling in progressive politics may have been a factor, but it does seem that whatever the motives, many of those involved in banning and policing the ban on Herzen’s publications were in fact simultaneously complicit in their distribution – an interesting case study for further research?

Material for this post first appeared on Sarah J. Young’s blog.

Sarah J. Young is a lecturer in Russian literature at UCL SSEES. She is currently working on a study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century narratives of prison, hard labour and Siberian exile. She blogs about her research and teaching at sarahjyoung.com. She will be talking about Herzen and the Free Russian Press at the Bloomsbury Festival on 20 October.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

Alexei Navalny: Could a politically self-made man make it to the Kremlin?

By Blog Admin, on 7 October 2013

Alexey Navalny

Photo: MItya Aleshkovskiy [CC BY-SA-3.0]

The leading anti-Putin blogger and activist Alexei Navalny was recently handed a five-year jail sentence following a widely criticised trial. But his mix of hard-headed anti-corruption politics and internet-based mobilisation may yet pose a challenge to the Kremlin, writes Ekaterina Besedina

On 8 September 2013 Alexei Navalny officially received 27.2% in the Moscow mayoral election, while the incumbent Sergei Sobyanian – one of President Putin’s closest allies – gained 51.2%. This narrow absolute majority meant that the second round run off expected by Navalny supporters was avoided. The Moscow Electoral Commission subsequently declared Sobyanin mayor. Navalny is still trying to challenge the vote in the courts with evidence of voter fraud and ballot stuffing.

The Kremlin had to demonstrate its power and majority support in Russia. This was one of the reasons why the run off did not happen. But Navalny managed to get on the ballot, win a large percentage of votes, and challenge Sobyanin. Despite the a fraud trial still threatening Navalny with five years jail, he has built up a substantial base of support, proving it possible to build a large scale political campaign without access to federal TV channels.

Navalny, a lawyer and high-profile blogger, is the first Russian politician to be created by the internet. His mayoral campaign was based on the internet, social networks and the enthusiasm of supporters. He started gaining popularity two years ago during major opposition protests, becoming a key figure in a growing movement for change that has a potential to challenge the Kremlin and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. (more…)