The protests in Russia have reached an unprecedented scale. In Saint Petersburg, a network fighting with by a different method for fair elections emerged from the shadow of the demonstrations. Behind this movement is, above all, one active student. A background report by Carina Huppertz
Saint Petersburg. As Daniil Klubov opens the photography studio’s door for me, his mobile phone rings. The 22-year old Petersburger smiles apologetically and points me in the right direction with one hand, answering the call with the other. The student grew accustomed to the fact that his phone is never silent any more. In the studio there is a tall, broad-shouldered man in a woollen pullover standing in front of a white canvas. Ilia Bortnuk is founder and producer of Light Music, a music company based in Saint Petersburg. As Klubov ends the call, Bortnuk begins to speak. “The future is now and we always have to consider that our future lies within our hands,” he tells the camera. Daniil Klubov uploads the video thus produced to the YouTube channel of the group For Fair Elections. Ilia Bortnuk is one of 22 characters from Saint Petersburg who gives voice to the protest movement and supports it.
For Fair Elections is the group behind the demonstrations in Saint Petersburg. In Moscow, Saint Petersburg and many other cities, people took to the street on the 4th of February 2012, precisely one month before the presidential elections. They protested against the ballot-stuffing exposed by the Duma elections in December. The number of participants in Saint Petersburg was estimated to be 10,000 to 15,000 people. It is also to Klubov’s credit that the movement reached such a large number of people. His group For Fair Elections announced the demonstration together with the opposition parties. On the group’s website, Klubov writes new articles on a daily basis and publishes information, videos and pictures. The group features almost 10,000 members at present.
Anger on the evening of the parliamentary elections
It is a movement that was born from an individual’s rage only two months prior. On the 4th of December 2011, the day of the parliamentary election, Daniil Klubov spoke on the phone to a friend of his who, as an election observer, witnessed egregious misdirection. “I just wanted to scream”, Klubov remembers. In order to find like-minded people, he founded the group For Fair Elections on vKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, on the very same evening. As quickly as an hour later, 1,000 people had become members, and by the next morning there were as many as 3,000. The members arranged a meeting in the centre of Saint Petersburg in order to protest against the election results. It was an unregistered protest to which the police reacted with severity. Klubov himself was put under heavy pressure on social network. Anonymous users sent him ominous messages, threatening with military conscription or expulsion from his university.
Together with friends, Daniil Klubov decided to register a protest. On the 10th of December 2011, the first demonstration – “meeting” in Russian – took place. At this point the opposition parties took notice of the group For Fair Elections. Collaborative demonstrations on the 18th and 24th of December, as well as the 4th of February, ensued. Klubov explains that the cooperation with the parties is problematic. “The opposition parties use the events to fight for influence.” He and his group do not want to join a party. Just elections are the goal of their work. For that reason, their flags and balloons are white, which simultaneously signals their peaceful attitude. Nevertheless, the group For Fair Elections depends on the cooperation with the parties. They pay, for instance, for the stage and loudspeakers necessary for protest. Independent funding is unavailable to the group. “I myself have spent about 10,000 roubles already”, Klubov says. This equates to roughly 250 euros. A lot of money, for a student.
This money flows into different projects. The media almost exclusively reports on the demonstrations, but Daniil Klubov and his allies are active in many places. Aside from the video project, the group organises presentations on the subject of democracy and recruits election observers. Media relations are one of their tasks as well. The group is by no means a mere student organisation any more. Beside Klubov, there are three other committed people in the inner circle of coordinators: Anastasia Stasenko, student of philosophy, as well as entrepreneur Alexandra Kulenkova and the scientist Sergei Karashevich. Klubov tries to link as many activities as possible. According to him, the group For Fair Elections is the “point of intersection for all protest activities in Saint Petersburg.” Ever since his work was professionalised like that, the threats against him ceased as well.
Daniil Klubov is especially glad about the network that gives his group an enormous reach: “Everyone is willing to contribute something. When we need something, we just say so on the internet,” he tells. This is how Maxim Zawirjcha entered the group. The 45-year old amateur filmmaker actually works at an insurance company. In the evening he now shoots the videos with Klubov – free of charge. “My friends do not believe me that I work for free”, Zawirjcha says. “They think I am being paid by America.” To him, his assistance is to be taken for granted. “Who else if not us?”, he asks. Klubov thinks alike. He actually studies international relations while working an internship, all of this beside his commitment to the group For Fair Elections. “I just do not sleep”, he says, laughing out loud. Then his look returns to being serious. “I really hardly sleep. Maybe four hours per night”, he confesses. “The work takes up a lot time, of course; I am very stressed at the moment.”
Upcoming elections in March
Preparations for the presidential elections on the 4th of March 2012 run at full speed. Apart from the video project, Daniil Klubov and his friends work, above all, on finding and training election observers. “We have 2,000 observers already, but we still need 4,000 more”, Klubov explains. In all of the 1,800 poll sites in Saint Petersburg there shall be, aside from a member of the electoral commission, three independent election observers who monitor the process. Some afternoons he spent on the street, trying to recruit passers-by.
Daniil Klubov’s own desire for the next president is clear: “It is all right as long as it is not Putin”, he says laughing. In all seriousness he adds: “Putin must go. The system has to be renewed fundamentally. Especially the courts operate unfairly. Besides, the president has way too much power”, he explains. “Every candidate, should he win the election, ought to reform the system under society’s pressure.” His own ideal candidate would be Mikhail Prokhorov. Currently, most forecasts predict Vladimir Putin’s re-election. However, Daniil Klubov and his friends are not preparing protests for the 4th of March. “After all, we do not know the outcome yet. And if we did not believe in a different result, we would not continue working to begin with.”