Oleg Koslovski, Oborona, and Democracy Activism in Russia
Oleg Koslovski was interviewed by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, as part of a series entitled On the Ground Interviews: Conversations with Organizers and Activists (read full interview here). Oleg Koslovski is a Russian pro-democracy activist and blogger. He is also currently working on his PhD at Moscow State University examining the use of nonviolent resistance within political conflicts. As one of the founders of the Solidarity Democratic Movement in Russia he has been very active in youth movements such as Oborona. Meaning “defense” in Russian, Oborona uses civil resistance tactics to slow the steady encroachment of authoritarianism as it becomes more and more visible across Russia’s political landscape. Oleg writes about many of these issues in his blog http://olegkozlovsky.wordpress.com as well as in many international publications.
In Russia, democratic development has been on the decline for more than a decade, much of which took place under President (and later prime minister) Vladimir Putin. In addition to taking control over all broadcast and most print media, Putin placed restrictions on freedom of assembly and implemented flawed election practices to stifle legitimate political opposition. According to 2004 Freedom House press release: “Russia's electoral process floundered as the authorities used extensive manipulation of the media and the powers of incumbency.” During this period, the Kremlin also restricted the activities of nongovernmental organizations who questioned state policy while targeting their funders such as Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In the interview Oleg explains his “most memorable arrest” though that was just one out of the more than 20 arrests he’s experienced during his career as an organizer. He was also arrested and jailed 15 days for his participation in the “Jeans Revolution” in Minsk, Belarus where he and other demonstrators protested fraudulent elections. In 2007 he was illegally drafted into the army to distance him from his network of activists in the time before the elections in 2008. Two days after the elections he was released after he went on a 13-day hunger strike, and after the anti-government protests that he organized were over. Shortly after in March of 2008, his apartment was raided by Russian police, and he and ten other activists were beaten and arrested for holding Oborona meetings there.
In 2004 Freedom House’s Nations in Transit study tracked democratic development in the post-Soviet States by examining six categories: electoral process, civil society, independent media, corruption, and constitutional, judicial, and legislative frameworks. It found that Russia had regressed in all six categories, the worst decline of any nation covered in the study. After another round of arguably illegitimate parliamentary elections in 2007, the Executive Director of Freedom House stated “The stark deterioration of political rights in Russia has resulted in a system where no opposition force can play by the rules and compete for political power.”
There are some signs that a once fragmented Russian civil society is now beginning to reassert itself as a force for unity and change. Some cite the group of environmentalists that attempted to block construction of a highway through the protected Khimki forest near Moscow, or Alexey Navalny and his successful use of the web to expose acts of corruption in Russia. Many are confident that this kind of dissent will contribute to a better Russia; however some argue that because much of this activism is often tethered to localized issues it is too geographically and ideologically scattered to come together into a force for real political change. Addressing this need, Oleg is currently the director of Vision of Tomorrow, an organization that seeks to strengthen Russian civil society and hopefully build it into a more coherent force able to stand up to the government.
Today youth movements such as Oborona are among the most organized civic groups resisting rising authoritarian practices in Russia. Oleg founded Oborona with a group like minded activists after being influenced by Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, and now according to the Huffington Post, Oborona is regarded as one of Vladimir Putin’s most serious opponents. Inspired by the successful uses of nonviolent resistance in similar struggles, Oborona built their own strategy blending tactics used by Otpor during the anti-authoritarian struggle in Serbia with ones used by Pora during the Orange Revolution. Like many other nascent resistance groups Oborona has no nominal leader or centralized framework. As opposed to a top-down chain of command, its network is horizontally structured to prevent infiltrators from gaining access to critical information. Oborona now has branches in more than 20 Russian cities, with the Moscow branch containing several hundred members.
The Tools and Tactics
Oborona is now embarked on launching campaigns custom-fitted for specific issues within the larger struggle For example, Oborona’s “Strategy-31” campaign is focused on defending freedom of assembly granted in Article 31 of Russia’s constitution. To do this they organize demonstrations in Moscow as well as other Russian cities on the 31st day of every month containing that date. Recently Oborona, working with the Youth Committee of Solidarity, placed advertisements for these rallies near boutique stores in a posh Moscow shopping mall. They were attempting to expand their message, and possibly base of support, into a particular set of Moscow’s population. Cardboard dummiesof police and demonstrators encouraged “consumerism surfeited” shoppers to join the Strategy-31 rallies with slogans such as “The new fashion is freedom” and “Be stylish, be free!”
During the interview Oleg talks about team activities called “urban quests” designed to train activists as well as build bonds with other organizations. Many of these urban quests are based on accomplishing a practical objective in line with a particular campaign. The quests are always nonviolent, often symbolic, and often consist of actions such as getting past guards and obstacles in order to hang a banner. Oborona has been known to use banners, street theater, and other demonstrative tactics to generate visible opposition and communicate a message. During Oborona’s federal campaign for returning-governor elections in Russia, activists created a banner-sized one-way third-class train ticket from Moscow to Tuyman. It was for the recently elected mayor of Mocow Sergei Sobyanin, and it stated that because “We did not elect you” he’ll be returning to Tuyman where he was once governor, in a 3rd class seat “next to the bathroom.”
There is a tendency for Russian youth movements such as Oborona to effectively blend humor with political dissent, a formula that seems to be partly learned and partly instinctual. This is probably due to the fact that similar tactics were used effectively by activists during similar struggles in this region. Humor was an important tool used by Otpor activists in Serbia to oust the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Such tactics were called “dilemma actions” because blending humor within implicit political criticism can create a lose-lose situation for security forces seeking to quell it. In one example Otpor activists placed a barrel, painted to look like Milosevic, on a busy street in Belgrade and asked people to put a coin in the barrel to support the campaign against Milosevic. However people were asked to pound the barrel if Milosevic’s economic policies rendered one too broke to contribute. Eventually a crowd of people were battering the barrel, partly because they were angry but mostly because it was funny. Serbian police were faced with the choice of either arresting people for pounding a barrel or allowing the protest to continue, hence the name “dilemma action.” The police instead chose to calm the situation by taking the barrel away prompting headlines like “police arrest barrel.” Although Oborona doesn’t specifically call it a “dilemma action” the goals remain the same: stimulate public interest around a particular issue, make repressive action backfire, and hopefully have a few laughs.
The internet continues to be an increasingly significant realm in which dissenters battle repressive authorities for the control of information. Given the reality of Russia’s state-run media, bloggers like Oleg and organizations such as Oborona moved quickly into cyberspace using it as a place to share and access information, communicate, and organize. In the interview Oleg mentions that many organizations including Oborona used the internet to attack the credibility of Russian television in a 2007 campaign called “Stop Lying.” Oleg regarded that as one of their more successful campaigns in that it got many Russian youths to question what they were watching on state television. Now many, especially those in urban areas and those who are more educated, remain skeptical of it. Organizations like Oborona also use the web to provide access to downloadable books, manuals, and other content on nonviolent action as well as on activism in general.
The Stumbling Blocks
Even more importantly, the internet provides the Russian people with a source of authentic journalism -- a critical pillar of support within any democracy. The Kremlin’s strategy has been to slowly chip away at this pillar as opposed to swiftly destroying it. Freedom House’s 2011 Freedom On The Net study reported that Russia experienced 25 cases of blogger harassment and 11 arrests between January 2009 and May 2010, a 50 percent increase. After violators are arrested, courts will often attempt to find them guilty of violating Russia’s law banning “extremist” content, which is vaguely defined as any content indicting a “social group.”And while some of the 25 bloggers arrested were clearly posting extremist content the study states that “the majority seem to be politically motivated.” The Kremlin possesses sophisticated internet censorship and surveillance technology and while many claim that the government actively monitors online activity, it seems less inclined to practice outright censorship. Instead the government prefers to censor content within the region of the country where it may inspire action.
Violent assaults on bloggers have been fairly limited. However there was one incident where Oleg Kashin, a journalist at an independent news paper called Kommersant, was severally beaten outside his home in Moscow. About a month later he published an op-ed in the New York Times while still in the hospital. He stated that unlike previous attacks against journalists doing investigative work on corruption and human rights abuses, he believes that was “more disturbing” because it was provoked simply by his criticisms of a pro-Kremlin youth group called Nashi. He went on to state that “it seems indubitable that the atmosphere of hatred and aggression, artificially fomented by the Kremlin, has become the dominant fact in Russian politics.”
In this piece Kashin not only acknowledges that voices of opposition operate within a climate of hardship and fear but he also suggests that this climate is the result of social divisions cultivated by the Kremlin. In 2011 The Nation reported that Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute conducted a study examining the role of the internet and Russian civil society. He found that nine out of ten people still get their news from state-controlled media leading him to describe the situation in Russia as “a tale of two nations.” He was referring to the division between the vocal minority of educated, internet-savvy urbanites, and the less educated provincial consumers of state television that encompass the silent majority.
In August 2011 Russian bloggers observed that little to nothing was done in commemoration of the 20th anniversary marking the successful nonviolent resistance to Soviet attempts to retake the control of government in 1991. There is no official annual celebration of these events at all, and some argue that the fact that the population seems to be fine with that is problematic. A piece in Time Magazine, written by a Russian blogger cited a study by the Levada Center that stated “Only 10% of respondents said the collapse of the Communist putsch was a victory for the forces of democracy, and almost half said the events set the country on the wrong path.”
Harness the power of the truth: The Russian government is more inclined to use tactics of manipulation to maintain control while carefully suppressing voices seeking to speak the truth about the reality of conditions in the country. Oborona, as well as many in the blogosphere, understand that the first step to mass mobilization is informing people of the injustices.
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