As Putin secures another term in the Kremlin, what’s next for Alexei Navalny and the Russian opposition

Sunday’s elections show Kremlin’s divide-and-rule tactics are working

Oliver Carroll
Tuesday 20 March 2018 19:26 GMT
Donad Trump says he has congratulated Vladimir Putin for Russia election victory

Life for the Russian opposition has never been easy, but Sunday’s election was an unmitigated disaster. Credible claims of fraud aside, Vladimir Putin can confidently claim his vision of an exceptionalist, reactionary state was endorsed by the majority of the voting public.

And that poses an existential question to those left fighting against his rule.

These were not real elections, of course. With state media egging on the main candidate and insulting the rest of the hand-picked field, only Mr Putin stood a chance. But according to official figures, less than 5 per cent of votes went to the liberal “opposition” candidates – the celebrity Ksenia Sobchak, the veteran dissenter Grigory Yavlinsky and the “representative from business” Boris Titov.

Alexei Navalny, the most credible challenger who was forced to sit the election out, called for a boycott. The final result – with exaggerated figures for the incumbent – suggested that his strategy, too, had backfired.

On the night of the election, the sense of disarray was compounded with an angry exchange between Mr Navalny and Ms Sobchak live on air. He rejected her offer to join forces and accused her of being paid to discredit the opposition. “You have shown yourself to be the champion of hypocrisy,” he said.

A day later, Mr Navalny addressed criticism of his stance by posting a video of his rival where she seems to accept the defeat of Russia’s liberal agenda.

“To the commentators who suggested I was harsh with Ksenia, watch this, and go to hell,” he wrote.

In contrast, loyal Kremlin cheerleaders were ecstatic.

“We don’t want to live like [the West] anymore,” declared Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the state-funded RT network. “Before [Putin] was our president, now he is our national leader.”

Mr Putin’s emboldened administration wasted little time getting back to work.

On Tuesday, state regulators demanded Telegram, an instant messaging service, hand over backdoor keys to users’ secret messages within 15 days. The social network issued a defiant response, but could now be blocked. A little later, state prosecutors requested a nine-year prison colony sentence for Yuri Dmitriev, an anti-Gulag activist controversially accused of child pornography offences. There had been hope the charges would be thrown out. And then Oleg Navalny, Alexei’s brother, controversially imprisoned in 2015, was moved to a harsh solitary detention cell. His crime? Sitting at a table after curfew.

Mr Navalny’s supporters insist they have not become disillusioned by the result. Close ally Vladimir Ashurkov, now exiled in London, said it was “better to concentrate on the positive aspects of the campaign”.

“We knew the opposition was not strong enough to take an autocratic regime head on, and there was a lot of debate in our group whether we would even get this far,” he told The Independent. “But when I first met Navalny in 2010, he was working in a tiny office with three lawyers. Now we have a media empire, a national network of offices, volunteers, and recognition in Russia and abroad.”

Mr Navalny’s team is now focussed on “building agility and strength”, in anticipation of a future opportunity, Mr Ashurkov said. “However stable it looks, the current system is growing increasingly fragile, and it faces many challenges. At some point there will be a crisis that will inevitably lead to political liberalisation. We are preparing for this moment.”

Voices nearer the government were dismissive of such a prospect.

“Navalny didn’t realise how weak he was,” said Andrei Kolyagin, a spin doctor and former Kremlin adviser. “He thought he was in some pre-revolutionary moment, but he didn’t listen to advice and he didn’t do the sociology – that would have told him less than 3 per cent of the population supported his boycott.”

The success Mr Navalny has enjoyed among critical voters will probably be seen as historical, said Mr Kolyagin. With personalities like Ms Sobchak and the Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin now in the frame, there is now any number of “opposition figures” to choose from. “Provided the state continues to engage with this opposition, and develop it, Navalny will find it difficult to break through on his own,” said the former Kremlin adviser.

Mr Ashurkov said it was unlikely the Navalny camp would reconsider its decision not to join forces with Ms Sobchak.

“Never say never, but my view is that you need partners who are close to you in values or are strong, who bring something to the table,” he said. “Ksenia currently fails on both counts.”

Ms Sobchak’s 4 per cent result in Moscow showed that his man remained the stronger candidate, Mr Ashurkov added. Mr Navalny won 27 per cent in mayoral elections in 2013, nearly forcing a run-off with the Kremlin’s choice, Sergei Sobyanin.

The inability of the Russian opposition to unite under pressure is, of course, not a new story. In 1995, free market liberals Yegor Gaidar and Grigory Yavlinsky famously “agreed” to unite forces after a night of negotiations and a bottle of brandy – only for Mr Yavlinsky to deny it a few hours later. This became a pattern in Mr Yavlinsky’s later political career.

“It’s much easier to unite when you are winning,” said the independent political expert Maria Lipman. “When a cause is lost from the start, all the differences – political and personal – come to the fore.”

The odds certainly remain stacked against Mr Navalny. With only a fraction of the state’s repressive apparatus turned on, his movement remains at the mercy of the those in the Kremlin. The authorities made it through election day without reverting to arrests, but that is no guarantee they will not turn up the pressure in the future.

Mr Ashurkov said he had “no illusions” about his own personal security, even while based in London. “Any person who opposes a corrupt and repressive regime has reason to worry. None of us are in any doubt that the Russian security services are capable of another Skripal-like operation.” The Kremlin has denied being behind the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

Given the hostile “tiger and mouse” conditions they face, Mr Navalny and his team have already achieved a lot, says Ms Lipman.

“No one else has managed to build a network of young supporters who have stayed loyal despite the risk of violence, arrest and worse,” she said.

“But having created the network, and rallying it around a presidential campaign that was never to be, the question remains: now what?”

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