As Vladimir Putin’s returns to the Kremlin to assume his third term as President of the Russian Federation, his legitimacy has never been more tenuous, writes analyst Julia Pettengill, There is virtually no public appetite for an “Orange Revolution” scenario, she argues in a wide-ranging survey of Russia’s opposition (extracted below. But a political alternative to Putin’s power vertical can emerge through an evolutionary process of exploiting the space created by the recent protest movement to push for genuine political reforms through a combination of continued mass protests, grassroots political engagement and the strengthening of political parties/alliances.
The next six years of Putin’s presidency will be decisive for Russia’s political development — or its further deterioration. This is why the first major report to be published by The Henry Jackson Society’s new Russia Studies Centre, written by Pettengill, the Centre’s co-chair, is a comprehensive survey of the individuals, parties, and factions that have driven the post-election protests, and an assessment of their strategies and prospects.
* The relative decline of the protest movement following the reelection of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in March 2012 has raised the question of whether or not the post-election protest movement has strengthened Russia’s hitherto marginal political opposition in the long-term.
* Russia’s political opposition can be divided between the “systemic” opposition, which is permitted to operate by the state but does not challenge state authority and/or actively colludes with the ruling power structure, and the “non-systemic” opposition, which encompasses parties and groups that are unable to officially register as political parties and/or freely operate and compete in elections.
* Growing popular frustration and fatigue with corruption and the authoritarian ruling structure-particularly amongst the urban middle class-provided the momentum for the protests between December 2011 and March 2012.
* While polls demonstrate that Vladimir Putin remains the only viable leader in the minds of the public on a national level, they also indicate that this is borne not so much from satisfaction with Putin as a lack of political alternatives and the premium placed on stability.
* Prior to the beginning of the post-election protest movement, the Russian Opposition was unable to engage significant portions of the public, and the segment of the non-systemic opposition which organized the largest protests was the nationalist camp. While nationalist groups individually do not command large degrees of popular support, polls reflect a broad swath of nationalist sentiment in Russia, particularly in relation to immigration, which some oppositionists have suggested needs to be engaged.
* Liberal oppositionists have benefitted from the pro-democracy, broadly liberal character and support base of the recent protests, but face significant challenges in overcoming popular associations of liberals with the “Wild West” capitalism of the 1990s.
* Left-wing opposition parties have in the past been outflanked by the systemic left-wing opposition parties the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and A Just Russia. The protest movement has lent renewed vigor to the non-systemic left-wing activists, and inspired a growing level of cooperation between the systemic and non-systemic left-wing, with important protest leaders emerging from the ranks of A Just Russia. The socioeconomic disparities and the consequences of the economic downturn have the potential to bolster the appeal of left-wing oppositionists in future.
* Civil society groups – which encompass such diverse figures as anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny and environmental activist Evgenia Chirikova – have emerged as the crucial and unprecedented force. Their grassroots quality has lent legitimacy to the concept of a political opposition, previously perceived to be dominated by the liberals of the 1990s who turned against Vladimir Putin.
* The most significant opportunities for the opposition to gain influence are presented by the decline in Vladimir Putin’s popular appeal, which had lent the ruling structure its appearance of legitimacy; popular pressure for political liberalization; the waning fortunes of United Russia, now popularly thought of as the “Party of Crooks and Thieves;” the looming, large-scale problems presented by the failure to invest in essential services and infrastructure; and the inefficiencies and disaffection created by systemic, state-sponsored corruption.
* The most significant challenges to the “non-systemic” opposition are the continued power monopoly of Vladimir Putin and the United Russia Party; lack of access to the mainstream media; limited resources; the possibility of further fragmentation and the difficulty in keeping the multifarious groups united; and parties of the non-systemic opposition working together towards a common goal.
* The growth of Russia’s non-systemic opposition could be achieved through an evolutionary process of exploiting the space created by the recent protest movement to push for genuine political reforms through a combination of continued mass protests, grassroots political engagement and the strengthening of political parties/alliances.
* The non-systemic opposition must also try to induce systemic oppositionists to abandon Putin, and must remain wary of the potential for extremist, anti-democratic elements within the nationalist and far-leftist opposition camps to come to the fore.
* There is virtually no public appetite for an “Orange Revolution” scenario, a fact which most opposition leaders understand; their ability to build a pro-democracy alternative to the status quo will depend upon their ability to remain loosely united under a broad agenda of political liberalization and anti-corruption: the two key weaknesses of the current government.
In December, hundreds of thousands marched in protest against a fraudulent parliamentary election geared to favor Putin’s United Russia, a party that is now so tainted by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny’s moniker — “the party of crooks and thieves” — that there is talk of dissolving it altogether. Murdered tax attorneys and feminist punk bands have become folk heroes for younger, more politically engaged Russians who don’t see a fair trade in abandoning human rights and real democracy for the so-called “stability” of a perpetual strongman government.
RUSSIA’S BURGEONING CIVIL SOCIETY: THE NEW WAVE OF CIVIC ACTIVISM
One of the most important and novel developments in Russia’s contemporary opposition landscape has been the importance of individuals and groups expressing opposition to various government actions or policies outside of the conventional political activism of the liberals, left-wing or nationalist groups. These writers, artists, bloggers and grassroots activists have coalesced into a loose movement, united by the principle of holding the Kremlin to account for its performance on certain issues.
These groups operate on a horizontal model of loose cooperation between organizations run by self-starters, and lack centralized leadership, and is scattered across the country. Many of these groups and individuals have been instrumental in forming the League of Voters and the For Fair Elections movement, founded in response to the fraudulent Duma elections. Journalist Yulia Latynina has argued that perhaps the most significant development in this burgeoning movement’s influence was the mobilization of the 28,000 citizen volunteer election observers, who monitored the polling stations on 4 March and reported numerous cases of voter intimidation and fraud.
This phenomenon is partly a consequence of the restrictions upon political competition in Russia, which has made activists turn their energies from conventional political activities like building political parties, towards issue-specific causes like corruption or the environment, for which the country’s burgeoning civil society lends slightly more space to develop. According to scholar Graeme Robertson, “No longer is protest dominated by workers with economic demands, involved in bargaining games among the divided elite. Instead there are real widespread and numerous opposition groups actively challenging the Russia state wherever they can.” Despite legal constraints on the formation of civil society initiatives, sheer civic initiative has allowed Putin’s Russia to experience the gradual growth of this hitherto unoccupied area of the public sphere.
Denis Volkov argued that the Levada Centre polls show that these civic initiatives are more popular than the traditional opposition because they offer a chance to “…change the pattern within traditional oppositional politicians, which could be a positive development.” It is telling that Levada Centre polls of protestors at the 24 December protests expressed a far greater degree of trust for figures such as the writer Boris Akunin, blogger Alexey Navalny and journalist Leonid Parfyonov more than traditional politicians like Mikhail Kasyanov.
Oleg Kozlovsky argues that it is precisely the novelty and authenticity of these grassroots activists that is the opposition’s greatest source of strength. “The civil society revolution is the way forward—they have more legitimacy, because of the strong distrust of traditional politicians. The older politicians need to take a backseat,” Kozlovsky said. “For years the opposition has had the problem of not seeing new faces—especially in the liberal camp. The next generation of leaders will come from civil society, not from established political parties or groups.”
Ironically, it was the spontaneous development of anti-Kremlin youth groups like Oborona which inspired the creation of groups like Nashi and the All Russia People’s Front coalition, as part of the Kremlin’s strategy to build and control their own ersatz civil society. Civil society activists have also been targeted for harassment, imprisonment and censorship by the state. However, in some cases they have cooperated with the local authorities in their efforts—for instance, being invited to join “expert groups” by governmental authorities.
It should be noted that the emergence of civil society actors as an important component of the opposition movement presents certain organizational challenges. Vladimir Milov argues that the very source of their strength and legitimacy—their lack of centralization and association with official politics— also means that these groups do not always possess the political skills to carry their agenda beyond the initial period of street protest.
“A large part of civil society activists have no clear idea about how the political structure works and the instruments you need to use,” Milov contended. “They have the authority and the energy, which is good, but they are political amateurs and sometimes promote the wrong things.”
Others point out that it is too early to assess how well this new generation of civil society activists has performed. “Some of the civic activists are quite impressive, but emerging as a leader is a more difficult question,” Maria Lipman noted.
PROSPECTS AND PROJECTIONS
Russia’s long history of autocracy has led many to assume that the country is either not equipped or not desirous of democratic reform. In this view, the “sovereign democracy” of Vladimir Putin represents a genuine reflection of popular will, and the best prospect for stability. Yet the internal contradictions of the mixed system Putin has created, and the inevitable instabilities which will result if the culture of corruption and state-led disregard for the rule of law is left unchallenged, have become increasingly evident. This presents a window of opportunity for the contemporary opposition movement— strengthened for the first time in a decade by the 2011-2012 protest movement—to push for genuine political liberalization in Russia.
It is unclear what the final strategy of the regime will be to counter the current opposition movement, but it is unlikely that Putin would be able to introduce meaningful democratic reforms and survive. Genuine political openness would undermine the entire basis of the system that has kept him in power and above the law, and would submit him to challenges from political alternatives. Given Putin’s well-known fear of an “Orange Revolution” scenario, he may be induced to launch tactical crackdowns against key leaders of the opposition movement, or even a wider crackdown. Some have pointed to the detention of activists in Red Square in April, searches of the independent REN-TV channel and the ousting of independent board members from the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy (known for being critical of –and hated by—Putin) as a sign of more to come.
The intensification of Soviet-style rhetoric accusing the opposition leaders of being puppets of the American government has played an increasing role since the beginning of the protests in December: US Ambassador Michael McFaul’s promises to allocate $50 million towards funding Russian civil society projects has been seized upon as evidence that the civil society movement is in fact a vast American conspiracy. According to Ilya Ponomarev, “The possibility of a Velvet or Orange Revolution is very unlikely: we’re not going to get the government to resign peacefully. I think violence is now more likely that non-violence.”
If this happens, Putin may in fact be more constrained than he appears: a crackdown risks fuelling public outrage, and may not even be effective given the decentralized nature of the protest movement. This is symptomatic of what Alexey Navalny has argued is the fundamental weakness in the regime’s mixed model of electoral authoritarianism: “…if they try to do anything systemically against a huge number of people, there’s no machine. It’s a ragtag group of crooks unified under the portrait of Putin. There’s no super-repressive regime. There are no mythical Cheka agents that we need to be scared of. It’s just a bunch of crooks.” This weakness also makes the current power structure very vulnerable to street protests, as it reveals the essential contradiction between the constrained freedoms and the lack of a fully-developed repressive apparatus.
In the past, Putin has dealt with this challenge by seeking to channel popular frustrations into popular movements controlled by the Kremlin, whilst relying on coercion to create an environment of caution. The relative light touch displayed towards protestors thus far is likely part of strategy to project an image of calm and tolerance towards the protestors, in the hopes that the movement will act as a temporary pressure valve but eventually lose its popular interest.
In the interim the state has so far preferred to deploy a strategy of token “reforms” and “engagement,” such as the meeting Medvedev held with opposition leaders prior to the presidential elections and at the signing of the bill easing registration limits for political parties, but has restricted the application of the reforms to such an extent that they cannot shift the ruling party’s monopoly on power. For example, the proposal to restore the direct election of regional governors has stalled and is set to be hampered by new amendments proposed by the Federation Council—including a requirement that the candidates receive presidential approval, which would all but nullify the intended effects of direct election. Such measures are clearly designed to prevent strong, popular leaders emerging from the regions capable of challenging Putin’s monopoly on power.
Putin’s legitimacy has been fundamentally eroded by the protest movement, and the combination of a rising middle class and popular ambivalence could provide the oppositionists with the ingredients to further develop and extend their reach. “Putin is seen by many as a man of stagnation, so the momentum is on our side,” said Vladimir Milov. The fact that Putin received 47 percent of the vote—partly thanks to electoral fraud—in Moscow is a significant sign of the erosion of his power base. If the president’s genuine support in the capital has withered to that extent, the rest of the country may follow in time.
Moreover, social and economic such as widening access to the internet and enhanced expectations are creating an increasingly “horizontally integrated generation,” a development which the Kremlin does not appear equipped to counter. However, the state has been known to use tactics such as redirecting users of VKontakte, the social networking site widely used by oppositionists, to malware sites, and recent reports indicate that the siloviki are planning to employ new technologies to orchestrate an internet crackdown.
The possibility that the systemic opposition will forge closer ties with the unofficial opposition is a significant threat to the stability of the regime, and the increased cooperation between the two forces—particularly in the mayoral elections in Yaroslavl and Asrakhan—have already demonstrated the power of such an alliance. One of the key weaknesses of hybrid regimes like the Russian Federation is the threat that hitherto cooperative elites will side with anti-regime forces and challenge the power structure. Maintaining the status quo consequently relies upon projecting an impression of invincibility and providing sufficient incentives to keep the elites in fold. The fact that members of the systemic opposition are positioning themselves to take advantage of the insurgent opposition movement– coupled with the diminishment of Putin’s popularity and the unpopularity of Unite Russia, may induce political elites in the systemic opposition to withdraw their support and demand political change.
However, the fact that the opposition do not have the guaranteed support of “court” figures who may facilitate negotiation and increase pressure remains a source of weakness—and may persuade some oppositionists to compromise their principles and ultimately undermine their own movement. Alexey Navalny has said that he is “…convinced that the main strategy of the Kremlin in the coming months would be neutralizing protests by the usual deceit and bribes.” This remains a source of significant suspicion and distrust within the opposition movement, and ironically, the reforms to political party registration could aid the state in its effort to co-opt oppositionists by courting individuals who weary of division or simply become greedy for power. Indeed, when asked the most important piece of advice he could give the new generation of oppositionists from his long career as a dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky advised: “Never agree on anything offered by the KGB, which in this case is the people in power. They won’t negotiate with you: they’ll just try to recruit you. And if you show that you’re willing to compromise, they see you’re weakness and you will only go further and further. Tell them to go to hell.”
Opposition parties still face the considerable challenges of attempting to engage popular support in an environment in which they have virtually no access to the mass media, at a time when popular interest and engagement in the protests appears to be on the wane, whilst keeping party activists happy and maintaining relationships within a broad coalition of groups and interests. While the internet has emerged as an important tool with growing influence in Russia, it does not yet have the power to reach the entire country. As Vladimir Milov noted: “The problem is that the opposition has for quite some time existed in a different mode compared to what is required, and hasn’t been able to reach out to the average voter because of the information blockade. Now the protests have brought the groups a new dynamism, but some have been unprepared for that, and could fail to meet the expectations of the protestors.” Going forward, Milov emphasized the need to focus on breaking through the “information blockade,” twinned with a strategy of party political pressure to force Putin into making concessions: “Some people say we need to focus only on protests, but that can’t happen without political engagement.”
Milov warned of the divisions that remain in the ranks of the opposition between those who favor a protest oriented strategy, and those—like Milov himself—who emphasize the need for political engagement and mobilization of parties: “People are overcome with a romantic revolutionary mood—people like Navalny deny the need to develop party politics, they want internet democracy. But that’s giving Putin what he wants—he doesn’t want us to develop those core institutions. That lack of understanding in the opposition may be a consequence of being out of power for so long. A horizontal civil society network just isn’t sufficient.” Yevgenia Albats, editor of the pro-opposition newspaper The New Times, has castigated the current movement for what she argued was an insufficiently clear and adaptable strategy. “Clearly, the For Fair Elections motto is too outdated now. They [the opposition leaders] should have foreseen that,” Albats said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy. She also complained of the lack of unity between protest leaders displayed during the 5 March demonstrations, in which some leaders left the Square, while other stayed behind to face arrest and police harassment; but at the same time, has argued that Udaltsov’s calls for protestors to remain in Pushkin square until Putin leaves power will prove counterproductive. Accusations of amateurishness play into the hands of the Kremlin, which has charged that the opposition lacks a “…constructive programmed for national development.”
This split over tactics has long been a source of division within the liberal camp, and disagreements over whether to initiate a “permanent protest” as Alexey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov advocate, versus focusing on the mobilization of political parties, as Milov and Nemtsov advocate, are likely to intensify now that the passing of the presidential elections has weakened the momentum of the protests. This decline in enthusiasm was, to some extent, inevitable; and the opposition’s reliance on popular outrage at electoral fraud would always need to give way to a transitional message in the event that demands for an electoral re-run fizzled out. While the mass organization of electoral monitors was extremely important in engaging citizens in the political process and in building a broader base of civic engagement, the chance of affecting the outcome in the short term was always remote. In short, the gains of the opposition have been subtle and evolutionary, and the opposition will need to communicate this in a way that does not make their supporters lose hope.
Finally, the lack of clear leaders capable of uniting the entire movement has been cited by many analysts as a key handicap of the contemporary opposition, and it is true that the movement would doubtless benefit from a figure like Andrei Sakharov or Vaclav Havel, capable of uniting and leading the movement across ideological lines, and possessed of unquestioned moral authority. Yet the fact is, the amalgam of ideological strains and pseudo-democratic practices which characterizes the contemporary Russian state has produced a situation in which such a leader has not emerged—or at least not yet. Yet the absence of the type of all-encompassing totalitarianism that was challenged by dissidents like Havel and Sakharov may compensate for the absence of such a galvanizing figure.
SPOTLIGHT: WHAT DOES THE LEVADA CENTRE’S POLLING INDICATE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF RUSSIA’S OPPOSITION MOVEMENT?
As one of the only independent sources of polling data in the Russian Federation, the Levada Centre’s research offers a compelling insight into the attitudes of ordinary citizens in Russia today. The polls taken on a variety of subjects since the height of the protest movement in December 2011/January 2012 up to the presidential elections of March 2012 reflect the complex collection of attitudes and impulses which characterize the Russian public’s attitudes towards contemporary politics, and illustrate a society that is at once increasingly engaged on matters of reform yet unprepared to push for radical responses to these problems. The polls analyzed below were conducted on representative nationwide samples of urban and rural populations of 1,600 people aged 18 and over, with a 3.4 percent margin of error.
ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUTIN AND AUTHORITARIANISM
Support for the “vertical power” structure created by Putin has declined noticeably, and disapproval of vertical power has increased: with 30 percent finding vertical power useful in January 2012 (down from 38 percent in February 2011), and with 35 percent finding it more harmful (up from 27 percent in February 2011).