Vladimir Putin’s image in Russia today is not what it was four years ago. The various opposition groups are now preparing for eventual change, but are their diverse and confusing positions enough to provide Russian society with any clear alternative?
Originally published in New Eastern Europe Issue 1 (VI) / 2013.
The Russian parliamentary elections which took place in December 2011 were to be the starting point for a new changed political situation in the state. However, almost nothing has changed in relation to the institutions in Russia: the State Duma, the lower house of the parliament, remains in the hands of the pro-Kremlin United Russia majority. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev swapped places and kept control of the executive branch system and key elements of the power “vertical”. But, a set of political risks is accumulating in the state, which may greatly increase the odds for further destabilisation in a most unpredictable format.
One of the most notable events of the last decade in Russia took place in September 2011, and has acted as a sort of “bifurcation point” determining the development of the state for the next few years. This event was the United Russia convention, where Vladimir Putin’s return to the highest state office was announced. However, it was not Putin’s actual decision that was crucial to the state, but rather the consequences it had for Russian public consciousness.
Out of thin air
In practice, this was only noticed two and a half months later, when more than a hundred thousand people took to the streets in protest against the falsification of the elections to the lower house of parliament. The situation was unique due to the fact that during the most recent years of Putin’s steady rule, the opposition managed to gather a movement of only around 5,000 followers, with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation being the most popular, although the latter not being viewed by the Kremlin as in anyway politically dangerous. An average meeting of non-systemic liberal oppositions (those opposition groups who have no official recognition – editor’s note) would be attended by no more than 500 people. In recent years, the situation in the state was controlled to such an extent that the massive winter protest materialised out of thin air for the leaders of the opposition, as well as for the Kremlin and the sociologists. The Levada Centre, the largest independent sociological and public opinion research centre in Russia, clearly established that the protests in Russia were to a large extent the people’s reaction to the Putin/Medvedev decision to trade places in the Russian power structure and how that decision was made. This dissent was caused by the fact that the decision about Putin’s return was “imposed” upon society at a time when the demand for change and reform was growing.
The polarisation began in Russia between the passive conformist majority and the active liberal-minded minority, which started rapidly and radically reviewed its attitude to Putin. Since December 2011, one of the primary characteristics of the changed political situation was the fact that Vladimir Putin ceased to exist as the “national leader”, i.e. a leader who was more or less acceptable for the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens, including moderate reformers.
It is customary in Russia to divide the opposition up into two types: systemic and non-systemic. The Kremlin has allowed the first type of opposition to participate in the legitimate political process and in elections. There were just seven political parties that ran in the last Duma elections in Russia, where only the Communist party – and very nominally A Just Russia – can be regarded as the real opposition. A Just Russia was constantly seen as swinging between the status of being an opposition power and the second party of power (its informal leader Sergey Mironov, the former chairman of the Federation Council, has been close to Putin since the time they worked together in St. Petersburg City Hall). The growth of the protest movement “from below” and the emergence of the new social and political demands were severe tests for the systemic opposition.
Within a year the systemic opposition shifted from being a supporter of the protests to becoming its intolerable critic. In December 2011, when the situation was to a large extent uncertain, both the Communist Party and A Just Russia tried to join the protests. The communists took part in actions organised by the opposition. It was even expected that the communist leader Gennady Zyuganov would appear at the scheduled action of the opposition in September 2012. However, inner-party contradictions rapidly rose within the party due to the fact that a part of the leadership considered it necessary to distance itself from the protest, whereas the other part voiced its support.
The protests escalated the long-standing internal party problems. For years, a keen struggle has taken place between the three wings of the Communist Party: moderate (Gennady Zyuganov); “dogmatic-Marxists” (deputy chair Vladimir Kashin); and reformers (first deputy chair Ivan Melnikov). The latter wing has been for some time attempting to push the party down the path of change and modernisation, transforming it into a more European type of social-democratic party. Yet they are confronted by the dogmatists who insist upon the necessity to retain the “kernel communist electorate” of the party.
This internal struggle is also supported in the Kremlin, where they treat the Communist Party as less dangerous in its current preserved form. Zyuganov is trying to act as an arbitrator, manoeuvring between the two camps. As a result, while the reformists attempted to flirt with the protest, the dogmatists demanded to rigidly cease all cooperation with the street opposition. In the end, the latter prevailed. So far, only minor figures of the Communist Party have actually participated in the “March of Millions” (in September 2012), and only acted as observers. The leadership of the party has openly declared the danger of the “non-systemic opposition” and has criticised the “orangists” – this is how the Kremlin refers to the liberals demanding an overthrow of the Putin regime (through an analogy to the term “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine).
A similar process, yet far more woeful, took place in the party A Just Russia. Its three eminent activists – Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov (father and son), along with Ilya Ponomarev, joined the protest actions, closely cooperating with the “non-systemic” opposition, which also provoked a split in the party. The informal leader of the party and Vladimir Putin’s ex-friend, Sergey Mironov, was forced to seek a difficult balance between remaining loyal to the authorities and being an opposition force. What’s more, the business allies that financed A Just Russia demanded that it maintain a constructive relationship with the Kremlin.
However the logic of the political process creates a temptation to flirt with the protests. Gennady Gudkov, who became one of the most popular “personalities” of the non-systemic opposition, turned out to be an inner-party competitor of Sergey Mironov: Gudkov demanded the radicalisation of A Just Russia’s position and full solidarity with the protests. Eventually the party’s financial sponsors began to abandon the party, and a number of deputies resigned de facto from Gudkov’s faction and united into a group loyal to the regime. Gudkov, in an extraordinary manner, was unseated by the State Duma for being engaged in business activities. The final word in the disputes concerning A Just Russia’s attitude towards the protest was given by Sergey Mironov during a press-conference at the end of October 2012. He threatened party members who cooperated with the protests that they would be expelled from the party. “In such circumstances, playing revolution and provoking the authorities to further tighten the screws is either infantilism, or even worse, a dangerous and wilful provocation aimed at attaining one’s own egoistic goals at all costs,” Mironov said.
Within a year after the massive protest actions started in Russia, the systemic opposition represented by the communists and A Just Russia shifted from being a vigilant ally of the protest movement to its harshest critic. As of today, both parties are examples of the controlled opposition which is forced to maintain constructive relationships with those in power. And while the Communist Party has been able to maintain what’s left of its electorate, A Just Russia is on the brink of extinction: the party’s rating continues to sink, whereas liberalisation of the political parties’ laws (which could lead to dozens of new parties) may lead to a situation when A Just Russia will not be able to overcome the electoral threshold during the next Duma elections.
Much more significant processes have occurred on the side of the non-systemic opposition within the last year. The non-systemic opposition is a set of political leaders and organisations, which until recently could not participate in the elections in the Russian Federation. Under Vladimir Putin’s rule, election and political parties’ laws were so strong that only political parties registered by the Ministry of Justice and complying with strict requirements (such as a minimum of 50,000 people, having branches not less than in half of all Russian regions etc.) could participate in parliamentary elections. Even formal compliance with such requirements could not provide any guarantee of registration, as the Ministry of Justice repeatedly refuses to register parties on the grounds that they are not in compliance with Russian law. As a result, a number of non-systemic opposition leaders have appeared in Russia and can be divided into three types.
The first type includes professionals of the 1990s. Among these are politicians who matured and became popular under Boris Yeltsin’s rule. These are Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Vladimir Milov and others. Since 2003, when democratic parties Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces lost the vote to the State Duma, the non-systemic opposition founded plenty of organisations (Committee 2008, Solidarity, the Other Russia etc). However during all the years under Vladimir Putin’s rule, the politicians of the 1990s remained on the fringe of the political process.
Some changes only happened during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. During a thaw, the non-systemic liberal opposition began actively approaching the human rights activists through holding the first relatively successful campaign entitled “Strategy 31”. These were the meetings in support of article 31 of the Constitution of Russia on freedom of assembly. It was a local protest against the approval procedure for holding mass actions (formally Russian law provided that the actions should be held on a notification basis, but in practice the local authorities always have reasons to deny such events). As of today, the professionals of the 1990s are viewed by the Kremlin as the less dangerous representatives of the non-systemic opposition.
Coordinating Council of the Opposition
The second type of the non-systemic opposition includes the new leaders of the protests. Of course many of them made a name for themselves earlier, prior to December 2011. However, they became known during the mass winter protest actions against the electoral fraud. Today, almost all of them are represented in the recently elected Coordination Council of the Opposition (CCO). The CCO consists of 45 members (30 were elected from a “general” list and another 15 from three separate streams – liberal, left-wing and nationalist). The vote to the CCO is the first large-scale experiment of the opposition, which has managed to create a more or less clear mechanism of identifying the most interesting figures in the protest movement, organise debates, and draw the attention of more than 100,000 people.
Pursuant to the results of the poll, the CCO was comprised of public figures such as Alexei Navalny, the writer Dmitry Bykov, the chess-player Garry Kasparov, TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak, the leader of Solidarity Ilya Yashin, the ecologist Evgenia Chirikova, journalists Oleg Kashin, Olga Romanova, Sergey Parkhomenko, the coordinator of the Left Front Sergei Udaltsov, the ex-deputy of the State Duma Gennady Gudkov, his son, the deputy of the State Duma Dmitry Gudkov, Leonid Razvozzhayev, arrested on suspicion of plotting mass disorder, Daniil Konstantinov, arrested on suspicion of murder conspiracy (he will be represented by Ivan Mironov in the CCO), the nationalists Nikolay Bondarik, Igor Artemov (wanted on suspicion of crime under Article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation “Incitement to Ethnic Hatred”), Vladimir Tor and Konstantin Krylov.
Navalny was the absolute winner of the poll and his status as the most popular figure in the protest movement in Russia has been confirmed. On the whole, however, the composition of the CCO was astonishing due to a relatively low representation by the nationalists and the left-wing. This turned out to be rather a nice surprise for the democrats, and the basis for criticism by the left-wing and the nationalists, who suspected that the organisers had created more favourable conditions for Navalny and his team.
Nevertheless, the CCO today is a kind of coalition of the very diverse non-systemic forces – the left-wing, the nationalists, as well as the liberals. The specific features of this type of non-systemic opposition are that it has a democratic ideological world-view and it has found its allies among the Russian liberal intelligentsia. This is a fairly new feature to the part of the non-systemic opposition that has only begun to be set up, and which today seems to be the most perspective part of the potential protest.
Finally, the third type of the opposition is the “elite opposition”. So far the two major players are the former vice-prime-minister and former-minister of finance Alexei Kudrin, who founded the Civic Initiatives Committee; and Civic Platform, a party created by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. This type of opposition is special because it belongs to a group of the most influential people in Russia, who have access to the offices of the highest governmental and Kremlin officials. The very fact that the appearance of an opposition represented by Kudrin and Prokhorov is a sign of the growing rift in the Russian establishment, a part of which is dissatisfied with “stagnation” and tendencies to nationalise the economy, toughen political laws and aggravate anti-Western attitudes.
Kudrin’s and Prokhorov’s strategies are so far quite different. Kudrin has preferred to limit his actions by creating an expert group – the Civic Initiatives Committee (CIC), while keeping a good relationship with Putin, yet also publicly declaring his doubts to the official Kremlin “line”. Kudrin’s committee is currently reluctant to participate in elections or register as a political party, as this would create additional political risks and limit Kudrin’s opportunities; according to some sources he has the ambition of becoming prime minister. In other words, Kudrin’s CIC is a kind of inter-elite opposition which, for the time being, prefers to appeal to the elite and not to society.
Mikhail Prokhorov, on the contrary, decided to establish his own political party. Prokhorov has had a rather controversial relationship with the authorities during the course of the last year. The Kremlin invited him to lead the Right Cause party, which could have become a sort of constructive liberal partner to the Kremlin. However due to disagreements with respect to the potential candidates to be included on the voting lists of the party, Prokhorov soon clashed with the Kremlin administration (the party was at that time overseen by the former First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, Vladislav Surkov).
Prokhorov took several months off from his political activities after harsh criticism from the Kremlin. Upon the change of leadership in the presidential administration, Prokhorov’s relationships with the authorities were revived, and he participated in the presidential elections. According to some sources, he was expected to get an office in the federal government based on the results of the elections. The Kremlin considered his participation as very convenient and supported the semblance of an alternative and competitive character of the elections. Yet Prokhorov did not receive any office in the new cabinet of ministers, and the surge of protests after the elections to the State Duma led him to think of continuing his individual political career.Liberalisation of the laws of political parties allowed the quick registration of his own political party, which was initially supposed to be to focus on regional elections. However, it has recently transformed into a fully functional organisation, whose purpose is to implement a radical reformation of the national political system. Yet in spite of the declared “radicalism”, Prokhorov is still extremely close to the authorities, and his chances to really stand against the Kremlin seem rather vague.
Thus, more than a year after the protests, a new opposition elite has rapidly started to arise in Russia, which is turning into a real political force with new leaders, ambitions and agenda. Further development of the situation will be largely determined by a number of factors, which are not completely dependent upon the efficiency of the opposition itself. First of all, it is a matter of efficiency of the authorities and their readiness to comply with social obligations. Today, the political regime has become much more vulnerable to the consequences of the possible financial and economic crisis. The latter is unavoidable in the case of a significant reduction in energy prices or a second wave of the global economic crisis.
Crucial changes are happening in the public consciousness. Within the last four years Vladimir Putin’s image has been profoundly desacralized, and his approval ratings continue to be high largely due to the artificially supported lack of an alternative. However this very lack becomes more illusory: the importance of the internet and social networking is increasing, and the greatly improved rate of information circulation substantially lowers the chances of controlling the information space.
The old schemes of promoting Putin’s image as a brave hero who has perfect health and a professional approach to resolving any problem have been exhausted and are no longer digested by the population as they were four years ago. Putin’s model of ruling the state with the lack of system mechanisms to change or update the model is gradually turning into a crisis. All of these combined lead to the accumulation of critical political risks inside the system and substantially increases the possibility of chaos in Russia’s political life, at least in the medium term. For the opposition, the top priority now is being prepared for the day when the authorities will no longer be able to perform their duties.
Translated by Olena Shynkarenko
Tatiana Stanovaya is an expert on Russian domestic and foreign policy. She is a researcher and analyst with the Russian Center for Political Technologies (CPT) and the representative of CPT in France.