The Russian Opposition: A Survey of Groups, Individuals, Strategies and Prospects

By Julia Pettengill


Russia’s power structure faces the most significant challenge since Vladimir Putin assumed office in 1999. The fraudulent Duma elections of 2011— which delivered the ruling United Russia Party a significantly reduced majority— sparked a wave of popular protests in Moscow and smaller protests in major cities such as St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The first protests, held on 5 December, demanded redress for the electoral fraud, but subsequent demonstrations were marked by broader demands for political reform, and drew crowds of up to 100,000. Ahead of the 4 March 2012 presidential elections, the protests assumed an increasingly explicit anti-Putin tone, as opposition activists forecast another fraudulent election and objected to the lack of genuine political competition in the presidential race.

Credible international and domestic observers have concluded that Putin’s victory arose from a combination of fraud, the massive mobilisation of state resources, pro-Putin propaganda by the state-controlled media and the heavily restricted field, which prevented viable candidates from competing. This brought activists back to the streets for protests on 5 March and 10 March, both of which reportedly drew crowds of up to 15,0004, as well as smaller-scale protests—which some have interpreted as a sign that the protest movement will prove to be a short-lived phenomenon. Opposition activists have continued smaller protests across the country ahead of Putin’s inauguration on 7 May—perhaps mostly notably in Astrakhan, where up to 10,000 activists, including opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Udaltsov and Alexey Navalny, gathered to support the reformist mayoral candidate Oleg Shein’s protest against election fraud—and plan to hold a large-scale rally on the day of Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration, 7 May 2012.

Russia’s contemporary opposition movement has come together from a variety of political backgrounds under a broad banner of rejecting the Kremlin’s pseudo-democratic authoritarianism—a strategy which has seriously challenged the legitimacy of both the newly-elected President Putin and the entire ruling structure of the Russian Federation. Whether or not the movement is able to maintain its momentum and exert further pressure on the ruling regime, the protest movement has significantly diminished Putin’s once-unquestioned authority and legitimacy, and highlighted the mounting frustrations of Russia’s growing middle class in particular—a development which could eventually lead to his departure from Russian politics.

This protest movement has surprised many observers of Russian politics, and has brought the groups and individuals who have worked to oppose the Kremlin in various forms into the spotlight. This report provides a survey of the dynamics at work in Russia’s contemporary national opposition movement, including original insights from Russian activists, politicians and scholars on the character and future prospects of the Russian opposition, and an assessment of the next steps forward for the opposition.

The report is divided into broad thematic sections. Chapter 1 provides a brief overview of some of the political dynamics at play in Russia which have produced this movement, as well as the strategies employed by the opposition in the current protest movement. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 analyse (respectively) the liberal, left-wing and nationalist components of the contemporary opposition, including key groups and figures, and Chapter 5 explores the emergence of civil society groups as an important force in the contemporary opposition. Chapter 6 concludes with an exploration of the prospects of success for the contemporary opposition, with an emphasis on the opportunities and challenges facing the protest movement.

It should be noted that the term “opposition,” for the purposes of this report, denotes the “unofficial” or “non-systemic” opposition groups operating on a national level which are not permitted to fully participate in the political process in Russia, and are in some cases banned. This term should be distinguished from the “systemic” or “official” opposition groups, which are permitted to participate in political life by the state, and which have not generally represented a sincere form of political opposition to Putin and United Russia’s monopoly on power. The increased cooperation between the official and unofficial opposition, and the possibility of further defections from the official opposition, is discussed further in Chapter 1. In some cases, the term opposition is used more loosely, to denote the protestors who have informally participated in the demonstrations that began in December 2011.

This analysis is by no means intended to be exhaustive, but to introduce the reader to the broad domestic dynamics underpinning the current movement and the key facets, factions and leaders of the unofficial opposition. It must also be emphasised that the protest movement under analysis is Moscow-centred and does not attempt to analyse the broad swath of public opinion in the Russian Federation; rather, it approaches the protest movement as a significant indicator of the influence and prospects for this politically active vanguard to exert pressure on the Russian government.

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