Working group:
Governance and politics

Co-chairs: Marie Mendras and Vladimir Kara-Murza

The group discussed lessons learned in the 2016 electoral cycle in Russia, and using this experience in the future. Russia’s relations with Europe and cooperation between European institutions and civil society in Russia were also raised.

The political situation in Russia is deteriorating: the Constitution has been hijacked and does not function properly; democratic institutions have been undermined in every aspect and barely exist even on paper; the regime has been focused on searching for enemies instead of developing the country; rifts are growing between Russian regions. Despite their proclaimed patriotism, the Russian elites prefer to keep and spend their money in Europe and the U.S. At the same time, the elites are not interested in adhering to European values, thus, consumerism constitutes their main attachment to the West, which highlights one of their key weaknesses.

Against this political background, the work of the opposition is increasingly challenging. Russia’s democratic opposition has recently been struggling due to internal divisions, constraints created by the regime, and targeted repressions. One of the biggest failures of the opposition was the low turnout at the 2016 parliamentary elections, especially in large cities where support for the opposition is usually high. Part of the problem has been the general public’s disappointment in the very institution of elections, which has led people to stop voting. However, low turnout creates a legitimacy problem for the Kremlin ahead of the 2018 presidential campaign.

The working group outlined a number of strategies for the opposition to increase public trust and garner support. First, the opposition needs to continue its work to inform the Russian public of the abuses of power and use all available channels to draw public attention to the democratic choices provided by the Constitution. Russian people are growing more aware of their rights, and the opposition should work to provide people with the means to defend those rights.

Second, the opposition needs to educate the public about the significance of participating in the elections, explaining why they should be casting a vote and how this simple act can facilitate political change.

Third, working with voters at the regional level should be one of the opposition’s priorities. Local grassroots initiatives (e.g. supporting causes such as women’s rights or environment) are vital to the development of civil society.

Fourth, as part of these efforts, the opposition needs to show there is an alternative to the current regime. Therefore, with the 2018 presidential elections approaching, the opposition should agree upon and endorse a strong, independent candidate.

Fifth, the opposition groups should spend less time arguing and criticizing each other, and more time investing in “success stories” that would serve as a positive motivator for the people who may be willing to support the opposition but are currently discouraged by its divisions. In other words, the opposition must work together now to prepare for the transition period that will come after the current regime falls.

Finally, cooperation between Russian democratic forces and Europe should be expanded. Despite the current tensions, Russia is still part of Europe, even though debates about the universal nature of European values continue. The ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West is instigated by the Kremlin that needs a foreign enemy to blame for Russia’s domestic problems. Europe’s tepid reaction to the Kremlin’s aggression left the latter with a growing sense that it could continue its policies with impunity. However, as recent developments have shown, what happens in Russia has a direct impact on European countries, therefore the EU can no longer ignore the political situation in Russia. The working group suggested that Europe should be talking more to the democratic part of Russian society rather than the regime. European participants in the working group stressed that in that sense communication is crucially important: European leaders and interested parties need to gain more information on what Russian civil society needs from their European counterparts.

The working group concluded that as part of larger cooperation efforts, Western leaders and Russian activists also need to work together on a road map of measures to repair the relationship between Europe and Russia. This road map should address existing problems, propose possible solutions, and clearly state that there is no place for the spheres of influence in modern Europe.

The working group concluded that no reforms in Russia are possible without political reform, for which constitutional reform and establishing a strong federal system should be the key priorities. Transition to democracy in Russia is achievable, though it will not be easy, the group members agreed. One should not forget that as history has shown in many countries (e.g. Spain, Italy, France), tradition does not determine a country’s political choice

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