Local Democracy and the Anti-War Narrative in Russia: Insights for the Present, Lessons for the Future?
By Guzel Garifullina
When a municipal council member from Moscow, Alexey Gorinov, stood up during a council meeting in March 2022 and suggested a moment of silence for the victims of the invasion in Ukraine, he might have realized the gravity of the gesture. Few anticipated the severity of the punishment. Now serving a 7-year prison sentence, he illustrates two phenomena of contemporary Russian politics: an increasingly repressive regime that punishes any public dissent – and the existence of a class of elected politicians that voice opposition to the war in that repressive environment. While the former is often discussed, the latter is almost entirely overlooked.
This dissenting group of local politicians owes its existence mainly to a significant resurgence of local politics that took place in Russia after 2017, as public politics at the national level was increasingly sterilized. This revival was most evident in municipal elections, where thousands of inexperienced first-timers ran for elected council positions. Some newcomers who eventually won were opposition activists, but many were not. Now this group of popularly elected local leaders – each of whom was supported by several hundred or thousand regular citizens – consistently produces public opposition to the war. We are still talking about a small minority among the tens of thousands of local politicians, but no other type or group of state-sanctioned public actors comes close to that. Despite their small – and waning – numbers, the lack of expert attention to their actions is unjustified. Their electoral legitimacy and close ties to the local population mean that they may be the key to answering one of the pressing questions on everyone’s mind: Which anti-war narrative is most likely to find broad support inside Russia?
Some examples illustrate how diverse and nuanced anti-war messaging can be, particularly when it tries to gain traction within the country and not consolidate opposition outside its borders. Very early after the start of the war, several dozens of local council members – mainly from Moscow and Saint Petersburg – wrote and signed a petition for Putin’s resignation. The petition stated that the President’s actions harmed Russia’s future and its citizens. The abovementioned municipal counselor Alexei Gorinov talked about the victims of the invasion, particularly the children, during a municipal council meeting. He ended up the first to receive a lengthy prison term for anti-war speech. As part of a more institutionalized response, a former local politician, Yuliya Galyamina, co-founded a feminist anti-war movement, “Soft Power”. The movement’s message is that the reason behind the devastating war is the reliance on violence in the Russian state and society. Its documents call for embracing non-violence and a deliberative approach to democracy. “Soft Power” started a petition against mobilization signed by more than 450,000 people, led anti-mobilization public actions, provided people with legal support, and relies on a wide decentralized network of activists within the country.
Additional weight to these messages by local politicians is supplied by the wide popular support for local democracy. The centralization of the recent decades was often met with resentment – not only from the local elites but from the citizens too. Most larger towns and cities in Russia don’t elect their mayors anymore, instead being governed by appointed city managers. Yet survey data shows that 65% of the population prefer popularly electedlocal executives – and in several cities right now, local legislators are leading the fight for the return of popular mayoral elections. Another ongoing institutional development that is challenged locally is the abolition of the lowest (settlement) level of self-government. Where the pushback against this reform is strong, it is often led by the local municipal council members and supported by the population. Further illustrating the demand for local democracy, electing new local politicians in a guerrilla-like fashion can even be part of local citizen protest. In May, the citizens of a village in the Republic of Bashkortostan, protesting against an industrial development in the vicinity and frustrated by the response of the municipal officials, organized an in-person meeting and during it elected the local activist to be a new de facto head of the municipality. The authorities promptly challenged that move, but the conflict is ongoing.
In a surprising twist, being elected by the people and maintaining a close connection with them turned certain Russian politicians into advocates of peace, making powerful contributions to the anti-war discussion in an increasingly repressive country. The content of their messages illustrates potential ways to make this discussion relevant for the broader Russian population. Concern for one’s own country, personalized empathy, non-violence – if anything about those messages is surprising, it’s how they are not more prominent in our discussions of the anti-war narrative in Russia. The benefit of directing our attention to the messages chosen by local politicians is that such messages can be much more viable and realistic as we consider the current and future public support for the war.
From a broader perspective, if we want to discuss future political reforms and democratic development in Russia, we may want to stop lamenting what is absent, be it coordinated opposition or widespread anti-authoritarian sentiment. We should focus instead on the behaviors and institutions that are present.
About the Author
Guzel Garifullina is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (Stanford University), and will be starting as the Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond in Fall 2023. Her work focuses on Russian subnational politics, governance, and comparative political behavior and was published in Post-Soviet Affairs and Comparative Political Studies. Her recent PONARS policy memo deals with the way the Russian state selects and motivates its agents and the consequences that has for their behavior in a crisis.
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