MOSCOW BLOG: Caught with its pants down, Russia's opposition blows up

MOSCOW BLOG: Caught with its pants down, Russia's opposition blows up
The sex tape has sidelined Mikhail Kasyanov and fractured the opposition.
By Ben Aris in Moscow April 18, 2016

Why is Russia's opposition so shambolic? Clearly they are harangued and harassed by the notoriously heavy-handed Kremlin, but sometimes it seems as if only the slightest pressure is needed to fragment the various groups, which invariably then turn on each other. The current sex tape scandal of opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov shows how Vladimir Putin's dominance of Russian politics has been made so much easier by the inability of the opposition to present a united front against him.

Putin is currently sharpening the knives ahead of September's crucial general election where he needs to get his increasingly unpopular United Russia party across the 50% threshold to retain control over parliament. The Kremlin has never been above using dirty tricks to pull the rug from under the opposition, even though it barely needs to, and the sex tape scandal that has embarrassed former prime minister Kasyanov bears all the hallmarks of being organised by the FSB domestic intelligence service.

Newly released black and white footage seems to show that 58-year-old Kasyanov was secretly filmed and caught with his trousers down – literally. A leader in the Parnas democratic coalition, he is shown baring all in a tryst with Russian-born British passport holder Natalya Pelevine, who is also very active in the Russian opposition movement.

The tape was edited and tame in comparison with previous politically-charged sex exposes, but it did show the married Kasyanov in the buff and made him look foolish. The tape was aired during prime time on Russia's NTV commercial broadcaster, which reported allegations that Pelevine regularly travels to the US, has contacts with Kremlin critic Bill Browder, and owns a spy pen with a built-in camera. 

The source of the tape is unknown, but it is very likely a Kremlin-ordered sting operation to help neutralise a potential fly in autumn's voting ointment. Considerable resources were clearly expended to make the tape, and the timing of its release, only four months before the general election, is extremely damaging.

The upshot of the tape was to cause the splintering of the Parnas coalition, which was founded in December to unite the various opposition fractions in the polls and cross the 5% vote threshold that would give it seats in the Duma. Instead of rallying behind Kasyanov, despite his unsavoury adultery, and condemning authorities that resort to such dirty tricks, the other leaders turned on their colleague and called for Kasyanov to withdraw.

As the only candidate from Paranas to be registered for the vote so far, Kasyanov refused to give up his place at the top of the party list. Two other leaders of the coalition, Ivan Zhdanov, head of legal affairs at opposition activist Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and Ilya Yashin, Parnas deputy chairman, both withdrew their candidacy for the September election in protest.

"Kasyanov's position destroys voters' trust and scraps our ability to be an effective opposition coalition," Yashin said in a statement.

The upshot is the whole opposition movement has been smeared and looks uncoordinated and victim to infighting at a time when it most needs to convince the sceptical public that it is a united force that can bring change. Instead it has made itself look like the same power-hungry politically privileged elite that it wants to replace.

Ilya Yashin, Russia opposition leader

Ilya Yashin, Russian opposition leader (©Ben Aris) 

Only a week earlier, Yashin earnestly told bne IntelliNews that the coalition's chances for winning some seats in the upcoming elections were good. "There are 10 parties in Parnas now," Yashin said in an exclusive interview at the coalition's headquarters. "We are the biggest democratic union in Russia and we have a good chance of making it into the Duma."

Small but wiry, Yashin brims with nervous energy and talks with the intensity of a revolutionary in the basement apartments of the alliance's HQ on Pyatnitskaya Street, an upscale address in the heart of old Moscow and less than 15 minutes walk from the Kremlin. But rather than humming with revolutionary fervour, the offices are largely empty.

Two middle-aged men lounged on the chairs lined up by the wall. A pretty assistant buzzed around in the background with the next person waiting to talk to Yashin. There were no volunteers talking earnestly on telephones trying to rally regional offices to organise votes. No clacking of keyboards churning out anti-government propaganda and leaflets; no political posters on the wall other than a very large Parnas banner. Just intense activist outrage at the government and the desire to do something about it – almost all of which emanated from Yashin himself.

Infighting champions

Russia's opposition leadership has always suffered from infighting and egotism. The one big party that is missing from the coalition is Yabloko (which means apple in Russian and is formed by the first letters of the founders last names). Set up in the 90s by former perestroika economist Grigory Yavlinsky, Yabloko is the blue blood of Russia's opposition. It passed the 5% threshold and has actual legislative experience. Yavlinsky is a well-known name, having run for president twice and was even offered a cabinet position in the administration of President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, which he turned down. Uniting with Parnas would make sense but the proposal was dismissed out of hand.

"It was suggested that we include our candidates on the Parnas list. They actually suggested we liquidate our party, which means there is no point discussing the issue [with them]. It is a deliberate provocation to create headlines," Yabloko chairperson Emiliya Slabunova told reporters at the time of the offer in February.

For his part, Yashin was dismissive of Yabloko in his interview: "Yabloko is not independent. It gets money from the state and is not interested in joining forces with the opposition alliance," he claims.

Kasyanov is one of the very few opposition leaders who has actually held high office in government, which, especially in Russia, is an important qualification. But the whole opposition movement has been riven by infighting, as the Yabloko story shows. Other prominent leaders from the 90s have also fallen foul of internal strife. During that decade, Irina Khakamada, the daughter of a Japanese communist and Russian mother, was a prominent opposition leader together with Kasyanov in the Union of Right Forces. However, Khakamada was abandoned by her party in the 2004 presidential elections, claiming that she stood only to legitimise the election on Putin's behalf, something she strenuously denied before dropping off the political scene.

The only other opposition leader with heavyweight credentials like Kasyanov was Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the walls of the Kremlin on February 27. Nemtsov rose to fame as the energetic and progressive governor of Nizhny Novgorod before being brought to Moscow to join Yeltsin’s cabinet as a so-called "young reformer". Assuming the Kasyanov sex sting was an FSB operation then this already casts Nemtsov's murder in a more sinister light, if the government is really assigning time and resources to a campaign to defang the opposition well before the elections.

Tarred with corruption

However, both Nemtsov and Kasyanov would be hard to elect, whatever their agendas. The problem with many high-level Russian opposition leaders is that they have been tainted by the same corruption allegations that they protest against in the administration. In Kasyanov's case, he was dubbed "Misha 2%" after kickbacks his accusers said he routinely took while in government.

Nemtsov was also implicated in corruption when he was still first deputy prime minister in 1997. He was exposed in a "book scandal" along with fellow young reformer Anatoly Chubais, and accused of taking a $90,000 advance for a book he never wrote. And last year, he reported an income of $7mn despite the fact that he has only ever had two jobs, as a university physics professor and a state official. He claimed the money was earned from investing in Gazprom shares.

Currently the only prominent unsullied opposition politician in the Russian firmament is anti-corruption crusader Navalny, but the Kremlin has managed to tar him with the corruption brush anyway; Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in December 2014 by a regional court in what many say was a politically motivated case.

While Navalny is much feted by the Western press as a potential clean pair of hands and an eminently suitable opponent to Putin, his traction with the Russian population is limited. His problem is that he is an outsider. Apart from briefly flirting with democracy at the start of the 20th century, Russia has no tradition of democracy at all and the idea that anyone can just stand up and say they want to be president is an entirely alien concept. As Navalny has never served in any official capacity, most Russians find it hard to understand why he should be considered a candidate for the top job.

The only other name that springs to mind as having both the institutional background and a real and independent political agenda is the late General Alexander Lebed, whose tank company decisively sided with Yeltsin in the 1993 confrontation with the Russian parliament and decided the issue. The gravelly-voiced general went on to stand against Yeltsin in the 1996 elections, before doing a deal to step aside and give Yeltsin victory. A tough man with a penchant for pithy epitaphs, he was also a potent political force. However, Lebed died in a helicopter crash in 2002. There is no suggestion of foul play and he is said to have forced his pilot to fly in storm conditions, causing the aircraft to crash. But Lebed is exactly the sort of man that Russians would vote for and could have been a real alternative in an election.

Unfortunately, until the opposition picks up the pieces and shows it can stay the course, Russians today still have no clearly electable alternative to Putin.