In Shadow of Navalny Case, What’s Left of the Russian Opposition?


Russian domestic politics took a difficult turn this year and most of the opposition leadership is now in exile or in prison.

Moscow — Legal sanctions on Russia’s main opposition group. His imprisonment after an attempted assassination of a Kremlin critic. Almost complete ban on street protests. Strict action on independent media.

Russian domestic politics has taken a difficult turn over the past year – perhaps, as some say, economic discontent over fears of leadership or, as others suggest, the consolidation of power by a clan of security officials in the Kremlin.

President Biden has said he will object to actions inside Russia when he meets with President Vladimir V. Putin for the first summit of the two leaders in Geneva next week.

Mr Putin, for his part, has said that Russia’s domestic affairs are not open for discussion, and in no way differ from political churn in other countries.

“Views may differ on our political system,” Mr Putin told the heads of international news agencies last week. “Just give us the authority, please, to determine how to organize this part of our lives.”

Prior to this year, Russia’s political system was described as “soft authoritarianism”. This allowed criticism and mostly free internet, unlike China, but left no viable way for opposition figures to win power through elections.

Russian analysts and politicians alike divided the opposition into two categories: “systemic” and “non-systemic.”

The “systematic” opposition includes parties in parliament that are widely controlled behind the scenes by Putin’s domestic political advisers in the Kremlin.

They support local causes and even campaign aggressively against politicians in the governing party in local, regional and parliamentary elections. Politicians from these parties have at times been inclined to boldly challenge the Kremlin – but this usually leads to their expulsion, arrest or exile from the parties.

In contrast, the smaller, beleaguered “non-systemic” opposition has openly challenged Putin’s regime and called for his removal. Its members have struggled to get candidates on the ballot and faced blacklisting by state media.

All that changed this year was the “non-systemic” opposition and its leader, Alexei A. Navalny, who had narrowly survived an attempted poisoning last year and was later jailed.

Russian government officials usually point to the nominal opposition parties in parliament that actually support Mr. Putin. They have flourished. These parties have 114 seats in Russia’s 450-seat parliament.

For example, the Communist Party openly supports an even more intense return to Soviet-style rule. The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and its power, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, promotes a populist, nationalist agenda.

Such “systemic” parties fill right-wing and pro-business niches and even promote policies that overlap with those promoted by the repressed true opposition.

For example, a new party called the New People has promoted reforms that appealed to Russia’s emerging, urban middle class, as did Mr. Navalny’s group, with the difference that it was directly aimed at Mr. Putin. Does not criticize or call for the end of his more than 20-year rule as President or Prime Minister.

In his remarks to news agencies ahead of the Geneva meeting, Mr Putin suggested he saw signs of marginalization of the opposition in the US as well.

“Take a look at tragic events in the United States where people refused to accept election results and attacked Congress,” Mr. Putin said. “Why are you only interested in our non-systemic protest?”

Prosecutors harassed Mr Navalny and other opposition leaders for years and briefly detained them for violating rules at public gatherings or under laws unrelated to their political activities.

These legal screws have tightened over the years. Mr. Navalny, for example, faced so many series of detentions for petty violations that once he was out of jail waiting for police officers to arrest him on another charge.

Behind the scenes, according to Western governments and rights groups, the Kremlin had gone ahead: killing or driving exiled journalists, dissidents and leaders of the political opposition.

For example, opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was twice poisoned with still-undetermined toxins, which sent him into a coma that lasted a few days, and left him with neurological ailments.

Mr Navalani narrowly escaped an attempted murder with a chemical weapon last summer. In 2015, another opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Boris Y. Nemtsov was shot dead with a pistol. Officials deny any role in those actions.

Not in the near future. Members of the opposition consider the short-term prospects for political change to be limited, but they keep alive the post-Soviet promise of a democratic Russia.

Mid-level opposition figures, including many in Mr Navalny’s organization, have remained active and defiant. Mr Navalny himself chose to be imprisoned in Russia because of exile when he returned from medical treatment in Germany this year, some facing arrest.

A serious blow to Mr Navalny’s movement came on the eve of the summit between Mr Putin and Mr Biden, but was certainly met with the approval of the Kremlin, in a sign that Mr Putin would not succumb to foreign pressure. A Moscow court this week banned Mr Navalny’s nationwide political outfit as an extremist.

The move would prompt anyone who supports Mr Navalny to cease their political activities or go underground or into exile. This legal dissolution of an opposition group marked a new phase of action on dissent, relying on a formal process rather than excuses as before.

Mr Putin has been popular with many Russians, although free voting has shown some decline in his rating in 2018, as the economy has stabilized.

Hard-liners then sought to guarantee stability with an iron fist, some analysts say, a task made more urgent by last year’s pandemic-related unrest and the prospect of parliamentary elections due in September. .

Still, the current rift, expected at the summit next week, is not a sharp break with history: Russia held its last national election nearly 20 years ago with a parliamentary vote deemed free and fair by international observers. 2002.

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