oDR: Interview

A democratic socialist running for Russian parliament. What could go wrong?

Not much, if Communist candidate Mikhail Lobanov has anything to do with it. The Corbyn and Sanders fan is open to alliances across the divide

Dmitry Sidorov
1 September 2021, 12.00am
Russian university lecturer Mikhail Lobanov has a fresh approach
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Ivan Afanasiev. All rights reserved

Thirty years after the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet Union, Russian society is just beginning to get rid of its allergies to left-wing rhetoric and politics.

For a new generation, socialism is associated more with the left-wing parties of Europe and the American New Left than the Gulag and Joseph Stalin. And there are also politicians who are trying to meet this demand ahead of the parliamentary elections this month.

For example, Mikhail Lobanov, a 37-year-old lecturer at Moscow State University is running for the Russian Communist Party, although he is not a member.

A veteran of trade union and urban activism, Lobanov is leading a European-style campaign in west and south-west Moscow – including fundraising, volunteer outreach at the grassroots level and direct communication with voters. His main rival in the district is Evgeny Popov, host of a controversial, primetime political talk show, ‘60 Minutes’, on Russian state television, who is running on behalf of the ruling party, United Russia.

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Lobanov has a left-wing agenda that focuses on local urban problems and the self-organisation of Moscow residents. And his election campaign comes at a time when the conditions are becoming more conducive.

Firstly, the Russian opposition is seeking to unite once again. Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation is running its ‘Smart Voting’ programme, which aims to promote running single opposition candidates in voting districts, instead of opposition candidates running against one another.

Secondly, there are signs that Moscow residents are fed up with the constant development and so-called beautification of the city that its mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, has been conducting over the past decade.

Lobanov explained why he chose to run with the Communist Party and how he intends to fight inequality in the Russian capital if he wins.

It appears that you are building your campaign around solving local problems and grassroots self-organisation, as opposed to the eternal ideological disputes about the ‘fate of Russia’ that dominate the public sphere. You’ve noted that people are trying to shift your agenda in the direction of the latter. How did this happen?

We are trying to get away from the controversy around ideological clichés. We want to get away from arguments about ‘who is the main communist (oppositionist, liberal) in the district’ – this is what the authorities inevitably want to discuss.

How does this happen? The people who organise the elections (the Russian Presidential Administration or whoever else) have a whole pool of sanctioned political projects capable of nominating candidates for various seats. And these candidates are nominated. They can be good people, for example, some local councillor is offered to run in the Duma elections. They have their own goals, which I cannot condemn, to increase their recognisability, how often they are quoted and so on.

When opposition candidates throw mud at each other, it throws the opposition electorate out of whack

But by adding a large number of such candidates, the Russian authorities are trying to dilute votes via a large list and push people of similar views into ideological confrontations among themselves. This is to make a candidate from the Communists of Russia [a smaller off-shoot communist group] attack a candidate from the Communist Party, and then to make the Communist Party candidate answer, and for them to argue which of them is more to the Left. Or to force different green politicians to figure out which of them is ‘greener’. And that candidates from the official opposition brand everyone else as ‘spoilers’.

When opposition candidates throw mud at each other and quarrel, this throws the opposition electorate out of whack. ‘They can’t come to an agreement in their opposition, they swear at each other,” people say.

My position is to avoid this as much as possible. Let’s not automatically call all people who are nominated by fake organisations ‘spoilers’. Don’t focus on ideological warfare with each other. I tried to send a message to my competitors: “Let’s not attack each other, to find out who here is the main leftist, democrat or patriot, and so on.” I just don’t respond to attempts to force this discussion on me.

Tell us about these attempts to force this discussion. Perhaps there is a candidate who has focused on you in particular?

My message was preventative. We have indicated to them [politicians who want to divert the discussion] and to voters that we will not participate in this, we will avoid this. I am personally ready to communicate with people coming from any organisation, if they live here and are active. If a local councillor agreed to run in the elections from a fake party in order to do something in his area, I would not burn bridges with him. We are focused on winning these elections and long-term work in this district for at least five years.

At a minimum, we will be able to cooperate in the field of election observation and create a unified election observation system, so that a whole team of observers from different candidates will visit the polling stations here. This is fundamentally important to prevent United Russia from getting through. We here in Ramenki already have a system that has been maintained for many years by graduates and employees of Moscow State University, and I’m a coordinator in it.

Someone will have to take up the seat instead of United Russia, and you are competing for opposition votes. At meetings with voters, you say: it’s either Evgeny Popov or me. But there’s a candidate from the opposition party, Yabloko, (Kirill Goncharov) running here too. How do you interact with him?

We have crossed paths three times, to discuss something briefly. It is a pity that he made the decision to run in this district. Prior to that, he ran three times elsewhere, in his native Nagatino district, and spent a lot of money there on campaigns.

It’s not clear why he moved here this time. Yes, he lost in Nagatino three times, took second place three times, so he decided to change districts. But he knew that this particular constituency [Kuntsevo district] would have a strong local opposition candidate – the only candidate from the Communist Party who successfully raises money for his campaign by crowdfunding. Probably, Nikolai Bondarenko [a popular blogger and Communist Party member from Saratov] could raise money for his campaign with a simple appeal, if he was allowed to run. But in Moscow no one does this.

Kirill knew that I was running here, that people with different views, from different spheres, spoke positively about me – trade unionists, human rights defenders, people from the academia, protest activists. I have been involved in the Moscow protest movement for a long time. And on the other hand, there is Kirill Goncharov – a person who is not from this district at all, but who has significant resources. This could dilute protest votes here.

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Is this competition good or bad?

It’s not good, and it’s a fact we have to deal with. For our part, we could not resist this in any way. We had no choice where we would run.

Goncharov has some influence on [the Yabloko leader] Grigory Yavlinsky, he could choose any district in Moscow (with some exceptions). For example, a district where there’s no strong candidate from the Communist Party. But knowing all this, Goncharov still wanted to run in this particular district. We don’t know why.

The fundamental question is who the Smart Voting programme will support in this situation.

Aren’t you a Smart Voting candidate?

Smart Voting announces its candidates a few days before voting to minimise the risks of the authorities removing people. This is an old strategy, and it was the same in the 2019 Moscow city elections. If Smart Voting supports someone in advance, the authorities simply remove this candidate.

Well, Yabloko is unlikely to get into the Smart Voting programme – given that the party does not support it.

In my situation, it wouldn’t be right to talk about their chances. We are working hard to reach as many voters in our district as possible – to tell them who I am as a candidate, that I am from the education system, that I and our team have been dealing with real problems for ten years and know how to conduct public campaigns. That we have a common position, a common direction. “The future is for everyone, not just the chosen,” this is what we took as our slogan. That we are not running to fight over ideological programmes and platforms. That we are opposed to glaring economic inequality – where Russia, unfortunately, is far ahead of many countries.

We do not have any tools to contain this inequality, such as, for example, progressive taxation, and the authorities do not want to introduce them. The authorities do not want to fight offshore schemes and tax evasion. In our country, a TV presenter can receive 50 times more than a teacher [the TV presenter Popov allegedly owns elite real estate worth tens of millions of roubles]. That we are also against political inequality, when most of the people cannot influence anything even at the level of their own courtyard and their apartment building – let alone the whole country.

All people should have the right to live a normal life and the right to a normal, interesting job, to quality education, medicine and the opportunity to participate in politics.

Regarding courtyards, in Moscow, there are a lot of people who are genuinely satisfied with the way city reforms are arranged – even if they are authoritarian and slow. Many people hate Putin, but they support Sobyanin on the basis that “he at least does something”.

I’d argue with that. I constantly encounter negative attitudes towards Sobyanin.

What you are describing is the situation three or four years ago. Then some things were being improved in the city and the Moscow city budget put aside tens of billions of rubles towards media and bloggers.

Together, this led to some support of Sobyanin among the intelligentsia, among people who are used to being critical of the authorities. There was a feeling that Moscow was, in some way, becoming similar to a European city, and that in a few years we will become 'like them', where these people like to go on holiday.

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Фото: соцсети Михаила Лобанова

But since then there have been so many waves of 'bordering' [the constant replacement of street curbs, which is believed to have links to corruption], so many situations when the Moscow authorities gave greenfield sites over to development, situations when public hearings over development were replaced by digital votes. These problems with roads and the all-out offensive by property developers have reached almost every courtyard in the city – and the situation has changed.

People hate the mayor’s office and its urban planning policy, calling it a cancer cell that grows and swallows more and more territory. I don’t have any sociological data, but purely subjectively, I feel that everything has changed on this front. We see a lot of discontent in the courtyards, on the streets. We see it on social networks, in neighbourhood chats.

Is it normal for single-mandate candidates to run for Parliament with a local city agenda? Why didn’t you run, for example, in the Moscow City Duma in 2019?

Most of my civic life was not associated with local problems – or rather, not only with them. I started my civic activities at Moscow State University, and am still involved there. This is the leading university in Russia, and its life is organised according to national legislation. These are the problems of higher education and science, and this is the domain of the State Duma, these areas are not regulated by the city or the municipality. It receives funding from the federal budget. So we have been dealing with national issues at the national level for many years.

As a democratic socialist, a person with left-wing democratic views, I am very worried about inequality, and instruments of self-organisation, such as trade unions, as an instrument of real democracy and the fight against inequality. This is an issue that cannot be decided at the municipal level or at the level of the Moscow City Duma – it can be influenced precisely from the State Duma. Plus, it is at this level that there are resources that can and should be used to solve problems. Municipal deputies do not receive salaries, they have no paid assistants and almost no real leverage.

A State Duma deputy receives a resource in the form of a noticeable number of salary assistants, his own salary, which can be put into action. He can hold rallies under the guise of a meeting with a deputy. He has real immunity. With the help of these things, one can help the development of the trade union movement, develop systemic, global mechanisms for solving local problems, and develop local self-government. We are trying to go where there are resources for solving the problems that we have been dealing with for years.

Can you give an example of parliamentary deputies who contributed to trade union activities in Russia?

There is Oleg Shein, he came out of the trade union movement in Astrakhan during the 1990s. He maintains ties with the Confederation of Labour of Russia, maybe not so actively. Back in the 2000s, we conducted a campaign together against agency labour. This problem had only just come to Russia from other countries – when a company outsources some of the workers who work directly at the plant, and the workers actually work at the plant, but formally they have lower wages, worse working conditions and no legal protection. This is a practice with dire consequences for people and the economy as a whole.

Independent trade unions tried to stop this emerging threat and tried to influence the pro-government trade unions. I went to their May Day demonstration with a large bundle of leaflets against agency labour, and we managed to convince them to support the campaign. As a result, some restrictions were introduced into the legislation, which narrowed the possibilities of using agency labour.

The State Duma has a certain number of deputies who help trade unions and other activists with deputy requests and the opportunity to hold rallies as meetings with deputies, including Valery Rashkin and Denis Parfenov [both from the Communist Party].

Do you have some kind of internal polling? What are the numbers like in terms of your support?

I personally do not apply the concept of sociology to election polling. Sociology is an important science, and it has nothing to do with polling before elections. It is customary in Russia to use the same word to describe this – polls and sociology. It is better to separate these concepts.

We do not spend our resources on polling. We collect money in small donations, and we are going to spend it sparingly, only on the most important things. Our job is just to campaign as widely as possible. To convince as many people as possible that these elections are important, that we can use them together to show our dissatisfaction, give the authorities a powerful slap on the head, and show how dissatisfied we are with their policies.

Then how do you understand who your voter is?

Our voters are all categories of citizens. We are running with a left-wing democratic agenda. Usually, in our society, these ideas confuse people, but when we decipher that this means fighting inequality, fighting for real democracy – not for the right to put a ballot in a box every two years, but for the opportunity to really influence our lives at all levels, we see that almost everyone is ready to subscribe to this. Despite the organisational weakness of the democratic Left in Russia now, there have been tremendous shifts over the past 15 years in terms of ideas and their perception in the intellectual, academic environment.

We do not have tools to contain inequality, and the authorities do not want to introduce them

On the other hand, we are ready for coalitions. When we formed our university trade unions, we immediately had to build coalitions. To achieve something at the level of the university, the State Duma, the government, we needed to unite everyone, and avoid division. Therefore, we were always looking for the possibility of cooperation with people who have more right-wing views, and we almost always succeeded.

I was nominated by the Communist Party, so I am supported by those people who traditionally vote for the Communist Party. Yes, I agree with the Communist Party’s programme when it comes to social issues – against raising the retirement age, against solving budget problems at the expense of pensioners, for raising the minimum wage, for free education and medicine. The left-wing democratic community also supports me automatically. And as for people who usually vote for Yabloko: for them I am not an irritant either. I know many members of this party who support me. I am supported by people of completely different views, except for the far Right.

I am a general opposition candidate in the party. Although, I emphasise, I am not a functionary of any political party and am not out to make a career here.

Why did you choose to cooperate with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation? Isn’t Yabloko a social democratic party?

Yabloko is a fairly right-wing party. It has a social democratic wing, but its representatives play second and third roles, and many people in the leadership of this party are against progressive taxation. So Yabloko are by no means social democrats, even by the standards of social democrats in Europe today.

On the other hand, Yabloko simply would not have risked nominating me. The Communist Party took a risk. They perfectly understand who I am, that they can get problems if I win – there is no leverage on me. I will join the Communist Party faction, but I will not vote against my conscience. I will use the faction’s platform to convince the Communist Party deputies to vote for something that I consider necessary, I will be in dialogue with them. But if they try to force me to vote for something that contradicts the interests of my voters and my opinion, I will not bend.

Does your cooperation with the Russian Communist Party scare anyone away? How do you explain to them why it’s necessary?

Yes, it scares some people. I explain it in the same way as I’ve explained it to you – what I have in common with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, what are our differences, that I am not a member of this party and am not making a career in it, that I will maintain a position independent of the leadership of the Communist Party.

I explain that the candidates from the Communist Party are the only way now to beat United Russia at the elections. You may not like leftists at all, but if you don’t want United Russia to win, vote for their main competitor. In our district, the main competitor is me.

If you get into parliament, will you be ready for ad-hoc alliances that aren’t always pleasant? Apparently, this is a given for Russia’s official politics, what can be done about it?

There are people who I would not be ready to be in the same camp with under any circumstances – they are all ultra-Right. But if it is necessary to unite people with different views on some issues, then you can’t even ignore United Russia. Not in terms of entering into a situational alliance with them, but it is necessary to force them to take certain positions. And this requires talking and negotiation. At the same time, of course, you cannot retreat from your positions or make concessions on global issues.

Besides Oleg Shein, who would you cooperate with from the official opposition?

I am impressed how [the Communist Party parliamentary deputy] Valery Rashkin spends a lot of time at rallies for any active groups that ask for it. This should be welcomed, he helps people.

From the Moscow City Duma, I like what Elena Yanchuk and Evgeny Stupin [nominated by the Communist Party] do and say. They help initiative groups, rely on real-life groups of citizens with their own interests, and try to represent them. In my opinion, this is how deputies should work – when a politician is a spearhead, an instrument in the hands of citizens’ associations, and even to some extent, controlled by them. These are not necessarily left-wing politicians: the Moscow city councillor, Yulia Galyamina, also relies on the self-organised groups of citizens that have developed in her district.

If you are asking in general about politicians, I am inspired by Jeremy Corbyn for returning the party’s mass character, radicalism, leftist attitude, to get away from what this party became in the 1990s and 2000s. From the US politicians, Bernie Sanders, who is a symbol of the democratic Left movement, which has been gaining momentum in this country and in the whole world all these years. Sanders’ attempt to participate in the presidential campaign, as well as his charisma, significantly influenced the growth of this movement.

But Corbyn lost the election.

The main thing is that he tried. That effort has inspired millions of people around the world.

After the despondency and decline of 2014-15, when the civic movement in Russia was driven down, some people with left-wing views in the country saw what was happening in Britain, what mass support there was from below, and how a more radical wing of the Labour Party emerged. This inspired them to reduce their pessimism and take a fresh look at the situation in Russia, at the prospects of leftist politics here and across the world.

This is an abridged version of a full interview in Russian.

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