Tough Choices Facing the Russian Opposition

The following is a short article co-written with Wesleyan University’s Professor Peter Rutland, who blogs about nationalism at NationalismWatch. It was drafted in early March, immediately after the 2012 Russian presidential election.

With Russia’s sixth presidential election having reached its preordained conclusion, what remains unclear is how Moscow’s already seething political opposition will respond to the prospect of six more years of Vladimir Putin.

If the protests continue, will they be met with harsh reprisals? That was the route taken in Belarus when Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth consecutive presidential term in 2010. Police intervened as soon as demonstrators assembled the night after the election, and hundreds of protesters along with seven presidential candidates were jailed.

Alternatively, could we see a repeat of Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution”, when demonstrators camped out in downtown Kyiv and the authorities backed off, allowing a re-run of the election, which the opposition won?

In the Russian case, neither wholesale repression nor revolution is likely. After the State Duma elections triggered demonstrations last December, the Kremlin cannily abandoned its initial response of arresting protesters, and started issuing permits for demonstrations. Since then, the opposition has generally cooperated with the authorities in limiting their protests to officially sanctioned locations and times. The March 5 demonstration was approved for Pushkin square, about one mile from the Kremlin, and participants were only arrested after the officially-designated time had elapsed.

If protests continue in their current pattern — peaceful gatherings at approved locations — then the opposition movement is likely to subsume into the background noise of Russian urban life. Opposition figure Aleksei Navalny has suggested that the time is ripe for escalating the level of confrontation, by protesting directly in front of government buildings and daring the authorities to crack down. Last week he wrote on Twitter, “Only Lubyanka. Only hardcore.”

This approach would indeed trigger a vigorous state response — but this is more likely to splinter than to unite the opposition. Unlike Ukraine’s Orange protesters, today’s Russian opposition has no candidate around whom it could organize a mass and prolonged movement. The runner up in Sunday’s election was the Communist Gennady Zyuganov – who has been a staunch critic of the anti-government wave of liberal demonstrations. A second difference is that the Ukrainian opposition had powerful allies within various branches of the state apparatus, paving the way for key judicial and security officials to switch sides, or at least sit on the fence. In Russia, in contrast, the executive is united around Putin.

It is more likely that Russian protesters will face a situation similar to the aftermath of Ukraine’s 1999 presidential election, during the failed “Ukraine without Kuchma” opposition movement. Those demonstrations began as a delayed response to Kuchma’s reelection to a second term and were aided by a series of corruption scandals. Activists kept the effort alive for months, but government interference and a handful of violent skirmishes ultimately soured public support for the movement.

The Kremlin’s approach to the wave of liberal demonstrations has been to wage a counteroffensive, staging large pro-government rallies populated by youth activists, labor unions, and state employees — whose attendance is widely speculated to be influenced by financial incentives and administrative pressures. Combined with the practice of forcing the opposition into divisive compromises about permits, the big pro-Putin rallies aim to exhaust the public’s patience for mass demonstrations, while fostering infighting within the opposition. At the same time, in a recent series of newspaper articles Putin laid out a mainstream populist agenda that shows he has not lost his ability and willingness to engage with the concerns of ordinary Russians. The election result suggests that he has succeeded in luring them back into supporting his continuation in office.

Most likely, then, we are in for a battle of attrition, which will ultimately be won by the Kremlin in the elections offseason.

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