U.S./Russia relations continue to make headlines during President-elect Trump’s transition. Setting aside reports of Russian interference in American politics, there is the fact that Russia has sought to reassert itself as a counterbalance to American power on the world stage.
The Russian intrigue is guaranteed to continue into Trump’s presidency. Trump announced last week that his first foreign trip will be to Russia for a summit with President Vladimir Putin.
This week, as I read up on some Finnish history, I remembered the Russian state of Karelia just over the Finnish border. Karelia was, for a time, under Finnish control. Soviet Russia negotiated (with a strong Cold War hand) to get it back from the Finns after World War II. This brought to mind a story that could help understand Russian politics, and the dangers autocracy presents to any democracy, including ours.
In 2013, I wrote about the new mayor of Petrozavodsk, the Russian sister city of Duluth, Minnesota. The sister city program continues, with the most recent exchange trip in 2014. I remember those trips being a big deal when I was a kid watching the local news after the Berlin War came down.
Anyway, Petrozavodsk is the capital of Karelia. In 2013, the people of Petrozavodsk elected as mayor a relatively unknown independent reform candidate, Galina Shirshina. She was then a 34-year-old journalist critical of Putin and his ruling United Russa party.
Shirshina took office that year, eschewing a ritzy inauguration ceremony as “unnecessary pathos” and criticizing the outgoing mayor for making “golden parachute” payments to outgoing United Russia officials. She announced that she would perform the will of the people, not that of the ruling party.
And then I lost all track of her. I’ve got three kids and a mortgage and, frankly, I don’t read much Russian news. I figured she’d either elevate herself as a national political figure or end up “disappeared” like many of Putin’s other critics. Frankly, I had no idea what it would be like for an opposition leader in a country like Russia.
Now, checking in on the story after three years, I see the truth is more complicated and probably more frightening for people who support democracy in places with autocratic leaders.
Shirshina did not finish her term. After two years, the Governor of Karelia requested that the city council of Petrozavodsk essentially impeach her. The charge? They said she wasn’t “fulfilling the duties of her office.”
Shirshina essentially said this was preposterous. She was right there at her desk, doing her job. But the larger issue appeared to be that she was not enacting policies in line with that of the ruling party. The city council, dominated by United Russia, and the governor, essentially a subordinate to Putin, would not abide Shirshina’s opposition.
The council indeed removed her from office. She appealed through Russian courts, which backed the council’s right to do so. Protestors supporting her encountered interference from the police.
Last year, Shirshina allied herself with the Russian liberal opposition party “Yobloko,” which translates to “Apple” in English. She stood for election to the federal Duma (akin to Congress) which selects members based on the proportion of the national vote. Shirshina’s election there would have been a long shot, so mostly she served as a spokesperson for the party. She remains popular in Petrozavodsk, where a dedicated following still protest her removal from office. The hope was that she could help run up the vote in Karelia, and perhaps help Yobloko win local races.
In August, just two weeks before the election, a court in Petrozavodsk inexplicably invalidated the slate of Yobloko candidates in the city. Though it didn’t prevent people from voting for Yobloko on the federal ballot, it discouraged pro-reform voters in one of the movement’s strongest areas in the country.
Shirshina tried to rally support despite the ruling, but the result was predictable. Yobloko fell short of the 5 percent it needed to gain seats in the Duma. United Russia consolidated its control of Karelia, even though Shirshina and Yobloko had been polling well there.
Shirshina, according to her Facebook page, has remained in Karelia, keeping a relatively low profile since last September’s election.
Sometimes opposition leaders in autocratic states are killed, but this example shows the more common outcome. Opposition leaders aren’t shot, they’re discredited. The ruling party uses false charges to hurt their reputation or serve as justification for removing them from office or the ballot. When people assemble to protest these actions, they are intimidated by police.
So people just shrug. Over time, citizens determine that they can’t believe anyone or anything, and the only real course of action is to stay quiet and out of trouble. They’re used to this in Russia. It’s been like that a long time.
But it doesn’t take long for the attitude to settle in elsewhere, even in democracies. This Melik Keylan column in Forbes magazine shows exactly how it works, and how it could happen in the United States. Keylan isn’t some partisan hack. He’s a journalist who has covered many different regimes across the world.
Autocracy controls the public through constant conflict, never resolved. Chaos, never peace. Characters wander in and out of the public square, never perfect. Never to be believed. The leader is a scoundrel, but so are they all. This is the operating reality of autocracy.
The concept of Russian and American cities forming “sisterhood” was designed to foster peace at a time when the two nations seemed on the brink of war. Today, there is no likely threat of war between these two nations. But there is some thing far more dangerous: the danger of sharing an autocratic form of government.
Look to Petrozavodsk and ask if this is what you want for Duluth, or any other American city. This is what’s at stake over the coming years.