Russian socialist Mikhail Lobanov: ‘We are sure that at this “election”, millions will cast a protest vote’

Mikhail Lobanov is no stranger to the rigged nature of Russian elections under President Vladimir Putin. In the 2021 parliamentary elections, the then-37-year old ran as an independent socialist on the ticket of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. After the votes cast on election day had been counted, Lobanov found himself well ahead of the candidate from Putin’s United Russia, leading by more than 10,000 votes (a 12% margin). However, after remote electronic “votes” were added, Lobanov was declared to have come second.

Since then Lobanov — a co-founder of the independent trade union for higher education staff, University Solidarity — has been jailed more than once for his anti-war views. He was fired from his post of mathematics professor at Moscow State University, declared a “foreign agent” by Putin’s regime and finally forced into exile last July.

Despite this, he continues to struggle for a better Russia. Together with others, he is part of a new left-wing initiative seeking to disrupt the staged presidential elections that will take place between March 15-17. The name of the initiative is Справедливый мир, which can be translated as both Just World or Just Peace given the double meaning of мир. Federico Fuentes spoke to Lobanov about the campaign for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

With presidential elections set for this weekend, you have helped launch the Just World/Peace initiative. It argues that to “make our voice heard, we need to vote against all of them.” Why is this the case? What is the campaign calling on voters to do?

The event that will take place between March 15-17 in Russia can be called an “election” in name only. It is purely a spectacle, one in which the winner and his final vote tally is already known, and where the other three candidates are all completely loyal to the Kremlin. The result that the authorities desire will be obtained through coercion and falsifications.

In 2006, authorities removed the “against all” option from the ballot paper, fearing an upsurge in political activity. But we are convinced that given the disastrous conditions Russia finds itself in, we must not vote for any of the three toy candidates.

Instead, we are agitating for our fellow citizens to use these elections to express their discontent and get involved in collective action in order to learn how to refuse to play the Kremlin’s game or follow its rules.

We have proposed two options for such actions. The first is a protest turnout at polling stations. We are asking everyone to turn up to voting places at the same time, namely 12pm on March 17.

The second is to vote “against all” and invalidate one’s ballot papers by crossing out the boxes for all candidates. Such ballots will be counted separately at each polling station, in each region and across the whole country, and will be included in official statistics.

At the last presidential “election” in 2018, the “spoilt ballot paper” candidate received almost 800 thousand votes (just over 1%), thereby defeating four of the so-called “candidates”. That was when nobody was campaigning for such a course of action. It therefore was an expression of individual actions taken by many out of sheer desperation.

We are sure that at this “election”, several million will cast a protest vote.

A manifesto has been issued as part of the campaign. What are its key focuses?

Our manifesto is called Справедливый мир (Just World/Peace). This concept combines two meanings. First, we want and demand that this unjust war [in Ukraine] be ended immediately and that the men sent to the front return home. Second, we believe the causes that led to this war — namely, the glaring economic and political inequalities tearing Russia apart — must be addressed.

The concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few made it possible for this bunch of usurpers to drag a huge country into an unjust war without asking anyone. Meanwhile, because of the right-wing neoliberal labour policies of the past decades, most people have been left in an extremely vulnerable position and deprived of any possibility of resistance.

In our short text, we have proposed a series of urgent measures that could address both the causes and consequences of this situation. We have also outlined some new principles for international politics that should replace the existing struggles for spheres of influence and markets.

A new, peaceful Russia should call for the broadest possible coalition to tackle environmental and climate problems, and to support capital controls and common fair principles on global tax policy aimed at combating tax avoidance by the super-rich and corporations and ensuring living standards are the same across the different regions of the world.

The manifesto calls for “a world without annexations”. Does this include the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine or is that being left ambiguous? Why does the Ukraine war not feature explicitly in the platform?

Yes, absolutely. The withdrawal of troops from Ukraine follows directly from our text. However, Russia now has harsh repressive laws that punish those who voice such words. And since many of our participants are in Russia, we have sought to use words in our general statements that will minimise the risks for them.

It appears that the Putin regime has initiated a clean-up operation of any dissenting voices prior to the elections, with the banning of anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin, the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison and the jailing of socialist Boris Kagarlitsky. The manifesto itself makes reference to “a civil war unleashed by the authorities against political opponents”? Why has the regime felt the need to launch such an attack?

The invasion of Ukraine should be viewed not only through the prism of Putin’s imperial ambitions, but also as a preventive response by the regime to the politicisation of a significant part of society inside Russia. In this view, the main purpose of this war at home is to maintain domination within the country and to strike at Russian society, which has been taking steps towards resistance.

Which forces are currently involved in the Just World/Peace initiative? Is their hope the campaign could lead to something more ongoing after the elections?

Several dozen left-wing groups, bloggers and media projects are participating in our initiative. Some have an audience of a few thousand people and some have an audience of hundreds of thousands. These are very heterogeneous and diverse projects, but it is very important that we are running a common campaign, and in the process discussing and getting to know each other.

I see this as a step towards the formation of a strong left-democratic movement; one that is oriented towards active participation for changes inside Russia and greater interaction with like-minded people outside the country via politicians and activists who have been forced to leave Russia due to repression and the threat of being forcibly sent to the front.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

For the past 15 years, there has been a growing leftist milieu in Russia and a growing demand from the whole of society for political participation. The only way out of the current war and towards a transition to real peace lies through a revolution in Russia. This will only be possible by further strengthening the left wing of the Russian opposition, for which all the prerequisites exist.

That is why I call on left groups, parties and trade unions in different countries to realise this and lend a helping hand to Russian socialists, who are now regrouping and preparing for the future struggle. A revolution in Russia is possible and, should it happen, will give new impetus to the global climate movement and the struggle for greater equality.