By Jacob Kishere
On July 5th 2017 the Henry Jackson Society and Lord Trimble hosted a panel of prominent speakers in collaboration with Open Russia to explore Russian issues pertaining to the Russian opposition movements and recent developments in unsanctioned mass street protests across Russia. Attending were Vladimir Ashurkov prominent figure in the Russian opposition and associate of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in their joint enterprises the Anti-corruption foundation and the leading opposition group the Progress Party. Also panelling was Polina Nemirovskaia, a Human rights researcher representing Open Russia, Dr Sam Greene the director of the Russia institute at Kings College London and Dr Andrew Foxall the director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.
In opening remarks Ashurkov set out how in the context of the ‘bulldozing’ of opposition by the Putin regime in the past 17 years a new movement is forming around the opposition and civil society organisations to have a ‘virtual roundtable’ about the future of Russia and what comes next. The opposition, lacking state media coverage, has resorted to increasingly effective alternative media reaching 20 million with their most recent documentary film and regular viewership. Mass protests, Ashurkov contends, are integral to the Russian opposition’s strategy; allowing them to meet similar people and to be emboldened when they realise they are not alone. Ashurkov described protests as a pre-requisite to political change and as the only tool for action in a society lacking any democratic feedback mechanisms under falsified elections, no free media and a corrupted judiciary. Ashurkov attributed the unprecedented success of the opposition in protests on March 26th and Jun 12th to their innovative media strategy. Whilst Alexey Navalny remains the only leader around which protests can be formed, Ahurkov notes that many attending merely use him as a channel to vent their general frustrations with the government.
Polina Nemirovskaia described how Open Russia has played an increasing role in facilitating the opposition by providing legal assistance to those unduly arrested and charged for participating in protests not sanctioned by the state. Mentioning several cases of many charged in their first protest, Nemirovskaia described the average people; parents, dock workers and schoolboys who have been given undue criminal sentencing. Repeating Ashurkovs contention that Navalny remains the only opposition leader Nemirovskaia emphasised that an effective movement will need organisations not based on leader structures. She went further stating that even if Navalny were to one day become president, it would be critical that there were democratic civil organisations and institutions that would continue long after his tenure.
Dr Sam Greene, with reference to his background in political science, noted the successes of the Navalny opposition in forcing the Kremlin to defend the less popular figures in the Russian political elite. In regards to protests and the recent increase in flagrant police brutality to protesters Dr Green speculated that there was a correlation between state’s use of violent suppression and the decreased longevity of their regimes. Dr Greene spoke of a new generation of Russians coming to age which have never engaged with democratic processes in an effective way and lived most of their lives under the rule of Putin. Putin’s power, Dr Greene contended, derived from the perceived inevitability of his rule.
The panel discussion was followed by a lively Q&A with discussion of what a potential power transfer could and should look like in future and what the prospects were for Alexey Navalny in the upcoming Presidential election. Lord Trimble closed the session, remarking that his personal highlights were the generational shift taking place in Russia in tandem with the power of new social media and successes of the opposition in using this medium.