Russians Hold an Election in Cyberspace

Russia's opposition, notorious for its lack of organization, has devised an innovative way to choose legitimate leaders: a primary election held mainly on the Web.

Some of the biggest names in the Russian Internet -- including Web guru Anton Nosik and Ilya Segalovich, a co-founder of Yandex, the search engine that tops Google in Russia -- are working to get the technology ready for an Oct. 7 vote. The aim is to elect a coordinating council of 45 people who can organize rallies, speak for the broader movement and eventually act as a sort of shadow parliament.

“We call the authorities illegitimate because they have stolen elections,” wrote anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny in his LiveJournal blog. “But as for us, we have not taken part in any elections at all. We are impostors. So let us hold an election.”

One of the organizers' goals is to prove they can manage a better, more transparent election than the government does. Candidates will have a month to campaign. Anyone who wants to take part, either as a candidate of voter, will be able to register on special websites or with offline election commissions starting Sept. 15. Leonid Volkov, an IT entrepreneur turned politician, has taken responsibility for overseeing the count and ensuring fairness.

“The main principle that we hold sacred is one person, one vote,” Volkov said on Radio Echo Moscow. If the election works and the results go uncontested, the technology could in principle be used to govern the entire nation -- under a different regime.

The organizers have crafted a voting system designed to make the opposition's disparate forces feel included. Of the 45 representatives, 30 will be elected by the entire pool of registered voters. Members of three political factions -- liberals, leftists and nationalists -- will elect a further five representatives each, an approach designed to favor grassroots activists who are not media personalities. At a tenth the size of the lower house of Russia's real parliament, the council should be relatively manageable.

The openness of the system could attract abuse. Members of pro-Kremlin organizations, for example, could register en masse to make a farce of the primary.

The vote's organizers are skeptical that such subterfuge will succeed. “My personal experience tells me that crowds of [pro-Putin activists] simply do not exist," Volkov wrote in an election FAQ in his blog. "There are several dozen people armed with botnets who can make a lot of noise... but what will they do in an election where everyone can only vote once? And if indeed there turn out to be many of them, let them elect whomever they want.”

What if Putin or one of his minions wanted to run? “That would be no problem,” Volkov said.

After the plans to hold the primary were announced, a large opposition community on Facebook held an indicative vote to see who could get on the 45-member council. More than 74,000 votes have been cast so far. Navalny leads with 15,000 votes. Other popular opposition figures include TV personalities Ksenia Sobchak and Leonid Parfenov, popular authors Dmitry Bykov and Boris Akunin, parliament deputy Dmitry Gudkov, leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov and jailed ex-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Some will not participate: Khodorkovsky cannot, and Bykov has said that he is “a writer, not an organizer.”

The Facebook vote attracted criticism. Blogger Viktor Levanov showed that many of the votes cast for publisher Sergei Parkhomenko and Navalny's lieutenant Vladimir Ashurkov came from Turkey, possibly cast from fake accounts, of which Facebook is reported to have millions. This is exactly the kind of situation Volkov is trying to avoid.

Neither President Vladimir Putin nor other officials have commented on the vote. Pro-Putin bloggers have scoffed at the idea. “Just a year after mass protests began, the opposition is finally holding primaries,” blogger arguendi wrote. “Theoretically, one might suppose that in another six months or a year the elected opposition leaders will hold a referendum to determine the purpose of their protests."

Even in the opposition camp, some well-known politicians were against the idea. “There is no need to elect a single leader, and there's no one who could fit that role,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, who emceed the first protest rallies last winter, told the website Ryzhkov and a few other activists announced they would not take part in the primary or recognize its outcome.

By the standards of the fractious anti-Putin movement, the dissenters were few. “By its reprisals the regime is not scaring anyone, but instead is pushing the heterogeneous opposition toward unity,” Akunin, Russia's most popular mystery writer, said in his blog. “By the time Putin gets smart and wants to build bridges, the opposition will have finished the process of primary self-organization."

Navalny, who now faces the prospect of a jail term on fraud charges he says are trumped up, certainly hopes that this forecast is true. In a video that shows him trying to sell his staff on the election idea, he mentions that one of the reasons for the primary is to strengthen the opposition leaders' negotiating position. If Putin sees that people such as Navalny represent more than a small minority of annoying Muscovites, maybe his political calculations will change.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)


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