MOSCOW BLOG: The thankless burdens of Russia’s opposition

MOSCOW BLOG: The thankless burdens of Russia’s opposition
The odds are stacked against the opposition yet they continue to fight for their ideas with little chance of success. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews February 19, 2024

Russia’s opposition carry a heavy burden but have made few inroads since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office over two decades ago. Prepared to heroically martyr themselves, they have been crushed by the Kremlin on one side, but many of the leaders remain deeply flawed on the other. Russia’s opposition have failed to unite around a single figure or idea beyond “not Putin” and remain fissiparous, prone to infighting among themselves.

The death of opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny opened the floodgates to a storm of comment, but it was mostly driven by moral outrage and carrying the message, “doesn’t matter what actually happened, Putin murdered Navalny.”

It’s true. Russian President Vladimir Putin bears the ultimate responsibility for the anti-corruption blogger’s death and commentators are rightly incensed at his passing as it’s a bitter comment on the freedoms in Putin’s Russia.

The mood amongst long-term Russia watchers is now grim as Navalny’s death is a stark reminder of how far backwards we have gone from the heady, albeit chaotic, days of Yeltsin’s Russia. He was, for all his faults, a true believer in the possibility of a better Russia and literally committed his life to trying to make that happen. His decision to return to Russia in the face of almost certain arrest and imprisonment was truly heroic.

And it seems very likely that Navalny was actually murdered on direct orders of the Kremlin. There is no hard evidence for this at all, but the obfuscation of the facts surrounding his death has already started, which is almost always indicative of a Kremlin psy-op.

Two planes arrived at the prison from Moscow the same day he died. His body was moved to the regional capital just before Navalny’s family arrived at the prison and doctors have said the official statement that it was a blood clot that killed him is nonsense as he didn’t suffer from anything that could cause that, and besides, you can’t know that without doing an autopsy, which hasn’t happened yet.

The scenario where Putin ordered Navalny’s death just as the Munich Security Conference was getting underway, guaranteed to cause maximum press impact, is pretty chilling. One diplomat I talked to said that it means Putin is sending a message to both the West and the remaining opposition figures in Russia: “Don’t screw with us or you will be killed.” The message to the voters is: “Give up hope of ever changing anything,” which actually tallies with the polls on Russians attitude to their power to change anything in the Kremlin.

This would be a new and more blatant level of repression, even for Putin. But you can date the switch to no-holds-barred repression to the day Navalny was arrested on his return to Russia and arrested in January 2021. Having burnt all its bridges to the West with that arrest, the Kremlin didn’t see any point in trying to dress up its pressure on the opposition with lawsuits or talk to terrorism anymore and just closed it all down.

Navalny is being lionised as a Nelson Mandela kind of figure, and he was important. He had many successes like when he ran in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election and won a surprising 25% of the vote against the incumbent Sobyanin. At the time there was a big debate in the Kremlin over whether to bar him or let the population let off some steam and allow him to run. Run won, but the Kremlin was freaked out by his success and he was quickly charged with embezzlement and barred from ever running in anything again. His “smart voting” tactics were also highly successful – vote for anyone who was not Kremlin-backed but had some chance of winning a regional election – and was rolled out nationwide, which also annoyed the Kremlin.

Another problem the opposition face is the population is not that interested in challenging the Kremlin. Putin’s surgical use of the violence of the OMON riot police is finely judged: enough to cow the population into submission, but not enough to spark the outrage that leads to a revolution. Navalny’s killing can be seen as more of the same: a message to would-be revolutionaries ahead of the elections of what will happen to you if you put your head above the parapet.

But in concert with the Kremlin’s coercion is the large number of Russians that are genuinely grateful to Putin for bringing the chaos of the Yeltsin years to an and making Russia a genuinely prosperous place again, restoring some of their national pride that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s economy on a per capita basis remains by far the richest of any of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries on a PPP basis that didn’t join the EU.

And ironically the two revolutions that swept through Ukraine have also served to restrain Russians. They don’t see the move towards European values. They see the collapse in wages and living standards. Kyiv is not the bastion of free market and liberal values it appears to be from Brussels. From Moscow it is now by far the poorest country in Europe. And everyone in Moscow is fully aware of what the income levels in Kyiv are. Russians simply don’t want to risk all that they have gained since Putin took power with a destructive revolution. Russians were not inspired by the street battles and burning tires of Maidan. They were scared by them.

Finally, the Russian population remains politically immature. The Soviet tradition of voting for who your foreman tells you to vote for has not been dismantled as it has in Ukraine.

One of Navalny’s problems is that the majority of Russians remain uncomfortable with the idea that just anyone can decide they want to be president and run for office. While Navalny remains respected for his anti-corruption work, he doesn’t command significant trust from the electorate, according to the independent pollster Levada, and that has fallen since he was jailed.

Although that is starting to change slowly, as many of those that rallied to Navalny’s flag when he toured the regions to drum up support were young people that got their views online and not via state TV – the big change in the way domestic politics works in Russia in the last decade.

This political naiveté is manifest in the low turnout of most political demonstrations. Navalny’s rallies were on the whole small. Even those that came out to lay flowers at memorials in Moscow and St Petersburg were in the few hundreds. The population is much more concerned and willing to protest for non-political issues. A series of protests against land-fills built near suburban areas in regional cities saw thousands come on the streets a few years ago. It got little play in the international press as it was a purely non-political issue, but the protestors successfully got the regional authorities to back down. Likewise, an administrative border dispute between Ingushetia and Chechnya saw a crowd of over 10,000 protest for at least a week, but got no play in the international press at all. Nevertheless, even with this disadvantages, the Krmelin found Navalny's success an intollerable threat. 

“Navalny’s significance was never a simple matter of how broadly he was supported by Russians. The Kremlin has so scorched the political landscape of meaningful, autonomous opposition forces that even a figure with minority support in society was seen as an existential threat,” said academics Ben Nobel and Nikolai Petrov in an article for Chatham House.

Flawed characters

Navalny is a hero, but he had his flaws too. From all the eulogies I have read only academic Ben Nobel, who wrote a book about Navalny, bothered to do the nuance and bring them up: Navalny was a nasty racist who once advocated “swatting Muslims like bugs” and on another occasion appeared in a video brandishing a gun, recommending Russians to get one to deal with the immigration problem. He was also a nationalist who supported Putin’s annexation of Crimea – a fact that almost no one mentions. In an example, of the fissiparous nature of opposition politics, Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the Yabloko fraction and probably Russia’s longest serving liberal politician, refused to support Navalny, and very publicly fell out with him, saying that if he comes to power it could lead to "Nazism and war". Amnesty International even revoked Navalny’s prisoner of conscious status over the right-wing claims in 2021.

The other tricky issue that got brushed over is that he is not actually very popular with most Russians. They know and respect his anti-corruption work – his video exposes get tens of millions of views – but they don’t take him seriously as a potential presidential alternative to Putin. This is of course partly due to the fact that Putin has totally shut the opposition out of Russia’s media space, but it's also partly due to Putin’s genuine support with a large segment of the population and also that a lot of Russians associate any opposition-like politics with the chaos and poverty in Ukraine. Put it this way: Navalny is a lot more famous and respected in the West than he is in Russia.

It’s one of the depressing aspects of reporting on the Russian opposition story: most of the leaders are deeply flawed in one way or another. Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in 2015, was deeply corrupt and caught taking a $100,000 bribe from oligarch Vladimir Potanin amongst other things, as was the “liberal reformer” and privatisation minister Anatoly Chubais. Liberal figure Ilya Ponomarev, who is now in Ukraine, was likewise caught up accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lecture scandal in Russia before he fled the country.

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was a leading opposition leader, was known as “Misha 2%” for allegedly taking bribes to reorder the sovereign debt repayment schedule to investors’ advantage when he was Finance Minister. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, oligarch-turned-opposition-doyen was in his time called “the most corruption oligarch in the most corrupt country in the world in a NYT editorial in 1999 and his head of security was convicted for the murder of the mayor of oil town Nefteyugansk that ended up in Khodorkovsky’s oil empire.

Indeed, even Navalny’s own team has been sullied by corruption scandals. Leonid Volkov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF), was forced to step down when it was revealed that he had taken money to support top Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman’s bid to have sanctions on him lifted. Volkov confirmed he had signed and sent a letter in 2022 to Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs chief, calling for Brussels to relax sanctions on Fridman and his partners Petr Aven, and business partners German Khan and Alexei Kuzmichev.

The other two leading opposition leaders currently in jail, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin are both clean, but all of Russia’s opposition leaders are prone to infighting and egotism that makes them wholly ineffective. Yashin tried to organise a coalition of opposition movements in the last presidential election but managed to garner less than 1% of the vote after the coalition descended into a vicious round of backbiting and squabbling. Yashin was sentenced to 8.5 years in jail last year.

Kara-Murza is among  the best qualified as a legitimate successor to Navalny as opposition leader, but he was sentenced to 25 years last year and has also been poisoned twice. He is reportedly suffering severe health problems and is also very likely to die in jail. Yet despite the thankless task that fighting the Kremlin is, and the precarious state of his health following two assassination attempts, he decided not to flee the country and face the very real risk of imprisonment and an early death because of his convictions.