Is this truly your opposition?
For most observers, the current state of the Russian opposition is simultaneously despondent and hopeful, defeated and resurgent. On March 26th, thousands of people came out to protest against corruption and express their anger at Vladimir Putin’s regime. The demonstrations were catalyzed by Alexei Navalny’s exposé of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s offshore accounts, yachts and vineyards that he secretly owns at a time of economic decline and expenditure cuts.
Yet, it is important not to characterise the opposition as monolithically liberal. The March protest was not based on any coherent ideological commitments — it was about channeling rage — but it energised all types of opposition groups, some of which are a far cry from democratically inclined intelligentsia.
There are two important questions concerning the Russian opposition. The answers to these questions will ultimately show if and how a regime change can occur in the country. First, when and to what extent can these forces become a coherent movement against Putin’s government? Second, what are the real ideological commitments of these forces?
It is impossible to predict when the opposition may erupt into a sweeping political revolution. Even in open societies like Britain and the United States, pollsters and pundits could not predict the cataclysmic events of Brexit and Trump’s election, which means that in Russia the multiplier of uncertainty is doubled, if not tripled. However, one can track some of the opposition groups that are most active, even if their support base is hard to quantify. One thing is clear: the opposition to Putin’s government is growing not only in size, but also in its demographic and geographic breadth.
Anecdotal evidence, independent media reports and the recent demonstrations suggest that many people, young people especially, no longer buy the nationalistic frenzy on state propaganda channels. Those who showed up were not just the “cosmopolitan elites” of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but people of all ages and professions in some of Russia’s most remote regions.
Meduza, a respected online news source, estimated a turnout anywhere in the range of 32,000 and over 90,000 people across 90 different cities. Such a wide margin of error is due to a lack of sociological research and the risks associated with it. Even the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling organisation, was as a “foreign agent” last year. These circumstances make it nearly impossible to accurately estimate how many demonstrators showed up last month, let alone the overall extent of anti-regime sentiments.
Perhaps the best indicator of growing discontent is the Kremlin’s paranoid reaction to any show of dissent. On the day of the protests, state media was unusually quiet and the riot police responded with unreasonable force, detaining nearly 1,000 peaceful demonstrators in Moscow alone. Navalny was sentenced to 15 days in prison and the office of his Anti-Corruption Foundation was raided by security services, who confiscated documents, equipment and detained most of the employees.
A few days later the authorities even banned a comical caricature of Putin, where he is depicted wearing makeup and lipstick. Joshua Yaffa of the New Yorker noted that Navalny’s jail time is “ostensibly a window the Kremlin wants to reassess its strategy toward Navalny and figure out what to do next”. Even the fact that Navalny has not been imprisoned or found dead in mysterious circumstances demonstrates that there is no easy way to get rid of him.
Navalny is an innovator in Russian politics. He is the only opposition figure that sends the Kremlin onto the defensive, as he stands paradoxically unfettered in a system that does everything to restrain him. The caveat is that no one is entirely sure what Navalny’s ideological commitments are, which leads to the second question: what alternative to Putin would the opposition prefer?
As Russia’s party system is dominated by the so-called “loyal opposition” of servile puppet parties (except, perhaps, for the Communist Party), the population has no other choice but to turn to opposition groups that align with their interests. The more closed off civil society becomes, the less are the chances that people’s discontent will be adequately voiced, let alone acted upon, by bureaucrats and politicians. The key danger is the potential for rapid radicalisation of those segments of the population that feel the brunt of economic hardship, societal pressures, and administrative neglect.
Currently, Navalny is undeniably the central opposition figure. His honesty and anti-corruption slogans already built up a base of loyal supporters, and have the necessary appeal to attract broader segments of the population. But, corruption is the battering ram with which the opposition can get attention and dent the Kremlin’s popularity. After that, a serious political agenda would need to emerge. The issue is that the opposition is an agglomeration of movements with completely different ideologies, united only by their dislike of Putin.
Some represent the conventional liberal forces of People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS) and Yabloko, but others have little concern for liberalism or openly stand against it. Those are radical groups from both ends of the political spectrum that view the current regime as “anti-Russian,” citing the same evidence of corruption as Navalny would. The more nationalist organisations also use hybrid pan-Slavic notions to declare the regime as “anti-Slavic” because of the war against Ukraine.
In September, several individuals attacked activists of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party, and destroyed their booth in St. Petersburg. Throughout the year, several entrances to United Russia offices have been set on fire, while low-level representatives have been physically attacked. Though these actions were minor and seemed more like hooliganism than political dissent, a right-wing nationalist group took responsibility. It is known as D SORM (translated as “Movement of Slavic Unity for Russian Maidan”) and claims to have been inspired by Ukraine’s 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution. As reported by Radio Svoboda, D SORM has been joined by a number of Ukrainian and Belorussian right-wing “radicals” since its inception.
In 2015, the group issued a pamphlet titled “The Coming Russian Maidan,” outlining their belief that Russia is being “gagged and robbed” in much the same way that Ukraine was during Yanukovych’s administration. The manifesto’s key thesis is that the war in Ukraine is being waged because of the Kremlin’s insecurity and fear that “Maidan” will soon arrive in Russia. It calls on Russians to “spit onto the TV,” to see the hypocrisy behind Putin’s regime that the propaganda tries to obfuscate.
Though their liberal opposition counterparts would likely agree that the war in Ukraine is illegitimate and that state propaganda is harmful, D SORM’s statements are tinted with ethno-nationalistic rhetoric, Falangist principles (some passages on their website are taken directly from pro-Franco Spanish writers), and militant readiness to take on the regime. Russians are addressed as “Russian Slavs” and the ending of the text proclaims, “the enemy [Putin’s government] does not understand words. Yet, it understands action”.
Following the D SORM article, Radio Svoboda also interviewed the leader of a left-wing organisation, known as the “Russian Socialist Movement.” While the interviewee essentially denounced D SORM’s actions, he also pointed out, perhaps inadvertently, a psychological insight that appears in many sociological studies and can explain why people become radicalised. “We cannot ignore that violence is a part of our everyday life,” he said, before outlining ways in which Russian authorities, police in particular, consistently violate civil liberties and due process of law. “I’m not even talking about war, political repressions, and the rest,” he continued, implying the extent and pernicious influence of abuses by the government and the mark they leave on Russian society.
The lack of free political channels through which citizens can express their grievances only exacerbates the problem, as the victims feel alienated and more inclined to believe that peaceful political solutions are not possible. Indeed, that is precisely the reasoning utilised by D SORM and similar movements.
There are real stakes involved in the rise of radical groups, not just for Vladimir Putin’s regime but also for the opposition. No analysis can accurately predict if and when a revolution could happen, but Russian history suggests that such a possibility should never be discounted. The 1917 revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union were as unpredictable when they occurred as a regime change in Russia seems now. Daniil Konstantinov, a nationalist speaker at the 2011 and 2012 protests who became famous after a sham murder case against him, said in a widely disseminated article: “revolution needs to be prepared for, not guessed when it will occur.”
Perhaps some in the liberal opposition will take his advice (Navalny probably already did). If a spur-of-the-moment event escalates into a revolutionary force, it is unclear whether the moderate opposition will be prepared to withstand pressures from radical movements, who are likely to employ populist rhetoric and fearmongering to gather support from a vulnerable public. The liberal opposition has reaffirmed its presence last month, but will it be able to produce a coherent, progressive narrative that Russians would believe in? Rallies against corruption are the steps forward, but ideas are the leaps.