The Road Ahead for the Russian Opposition
On March 5, the day after Vladimir Putin won a new term in the Russian presidential election, around 20,000 members of the country’s broad-based opposition movement gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest what organizers deemed an unfair and illegitimate vote that was marred by electoral fraud. The demonstration ended with nearly 250 arrests in Moscow alone, as a number of the protesters refused to leave the park in an act of civil disobedience.
The movement sought to keep its postelection momentum alive by quickly scheduling another large-scale protest for March 10 on Noviy Arbat, one of Moscow’s major thoroughfares. While up to 50,000 people were expected to participate, a mere 10,000 ultimately attended. The turnout was part of a steady decline in the opposition’s ability to draw supporters into the streets. According to protest leaders, more than 100,000 people had joined the initial rallies following the controversial parliamentary elections of December 4, 2011, which amounted to the largest antigovernment protests since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. With a dwindling number of active protesters, does the movement have enough life left to make a real difference in Russian politics?
A primary concern for the Russian opposition is its ability to affect decision-making in an authoritarian country. As fatigue sets in among demonstrators, the next logical step for the movement would be to declare a real leader (or leaders) and establish a political party or electoral bloc. However, the opposition faces two obstacles in this regard: the restrictions imposed by the current electoral code and the threat of internal divisions in a movement consisting of varied personalities and ideological inclinations.
At present, political parties are banned from forming loose electoral coalitions, meaning the opposition must establish a single party to have any real impact at the polls. This is a serious hurdle, as the movement includes leftists, nationalists, and liberals associated with a number of existing parties and organizations. There is also some distance between the political sentiments of the more radical leaders, such as Alexey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, and those of the average, middle-class, urbanite protesters. Given such rifts and the slow pace of discussion on electoral reform, the opposition may be justified in laying their faith in the power of street demonstrations.
Another concern for the movement is its effectiveness beyond Moscow, in the vast hinterlands of the world’s largest country. However, there are a number of reasons to hope that the opposition could find both support and advantage outside Russia’s primary urban centers. To begin with, protests have been taking place in smaller cities and towns for the past several years, though in much smaller numbers than in Moscow. Long before cities such as Samara and Yekaterinburg experienced significant demonstrations in conjunction with the current election-related movement, the Strategy 31 campaign—which mounted protests on the last day of every 31-day month to assert Russians’ right to freedom of assembly under Article 31 of the constitution—had proven that the spirit of civic mobilization was already present in places like Yaroslavl and Perm. There have also been instances of small protests in some of Russia’s economically vulnerable single-industry towns, or monogorody. One protest in Pikalyovo, not far from St. Petersburg, prompted a visit by Putin himself, who promised to bring infrastructural development to the town of 22,000 people.
And while Putin claimed victory in the presidential contest on March 4, a number of independent municipal candidates won in concurrent local elections in the city of Moscow. It is possible that local elections in other regions of Russia could similarly provide political access for opposition figures who lack major party affiliations. Capitalizing on the dissatisfaction of citizens in these smaller cities and towns, and benefiting from the less restrictive atmosphere of local elections, the movement may have a chance to garner grassroots support and work within municipalities to implement and influence reform.
Whatever strategy the opposition movement adopts, Putin is clearly facing a major shift in the political mood of the country, and the emergence of a new type of citizen that is no longer satisfied with his pledges of social and economic stability. Not only will middle-class residents of the cities continue to demand real moves toward free and fair electoral processes, but Russians in the periphery—affected by increases in utility prices, cuts in social spending, and pension crises—will begin to demand change as well. Freedom House findings show an overall decline in Russia’s governance scores under Putin, including poor performances in the categories of media freedom, electoral process, and corruption. Inexorably, the modest but illusory goal of “stability” is being replaced with a desire for better governance and accountability that will put unprecedented pressure on Russia’s new-old leader.
* Katherine Brooks is a master’s candidate at Columbia University focusing on Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies. She is presently assisting Freedom House staff with the forthcoming report Nations in Transit 2012.