They are beloved of Western media reporters in Moscow, long providing spectacles for front page fodder. However, for some time now, many opposition supporters have questioned the utility of set-piece street protests in Russia.
Indeed, some have suggested that the events, a key tool in the armoury of Alexey Navalny’s Western-backed movement, were doing more harm than good to the country’s anti-Kremlin activists. One pundit regularly cited by US & UK journalists has warned that “the street calls for simple solutions, at a time when there are no easy answers.”
Now, with just weeks until Russians cast their ballots in parliamentary elections, the country’s most prominent liberal faction is trying to convince voters it can achieve success by uniting a whole host of anti-Kremlin opposition groups.
Long-standing liberal party Yabloko currently has no representation in the national parliament. Today, with more than 400 candidates on its ticket, the bloc’s leaders are hoping to get back into the State Duma, after 14 years of being shut out. However, six months on from protests that saw tens of thousands take to streets in cities across the country, they are increasingly keen to show that a different type of opposition is possible.
Consistently pitching itself as a moderate alternative, Yabloko is seemingly concerned that it will be tarred with the same brush in the minds of many Russians, who looked on at the demonstrations with worry. Nikolay Rybakov, the party chairman, used an interview with Riga-based site Meduza on Friday to distance it from prominent Western-supported opposition activists.
Playing down the idea that he could form an electoral coalition with other anti-establishment groups, Rybakov said, “I don’t know of any other democratic candidates, except candidates from Yabloko.” Just days before, the group’s figurehead, Grigory Yavlinsky, told supporters of jailed opposition activist Alexey Navalny not to vote for the party, and it has blocked the candidacies of those linked to the controversial anti-corruption campaigner.
Navalny himself commands a core of experienced activists and, until they were banned as an ‘extremist’ group by court order earlier this year, had built a network of offices across Russia. However, his popularity among the electorate at large has remained stubbornly low, despite gaining increased international prominence after his alleged poisoning last year. A poll earlier this month by Moscow’s Levada Center, registered as a ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian Ministry of Justice, found that his trust rating among the general public is just 2%, down from a peak of 5% just six months ago.
Potentially more concerning for Russia’s opposition movements is another poll, released by the same institute on Friday, which showed that 62% of the 1,630 people surveyed don’t approve of Navalny’s activities – in politics, anti-corruption campaigning, and the media – compared to only 14% who do. In a country where political stability is often cited as a chief political concern, and around half of Russians say their nation is going in the right direction, anti-establishment zeal and the prospect of unrest seems like an unlikely election strategy.
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Rybakov told Meduza that, while there was no concerted effort to remove all of Navalny’s supporters from the party list, it was understandable that his camp would be disappointed. “We turned away 1,200 people,” he said, “each would have been upset in their own way.” But, he argued, Yabloko should be able to depend on their votes anyway.
“The worst thing that can happen in these elections is if people who want changes and want different policies in the country, do not come to the polling stations,” Rybakov says. “If these people, who took to the streets in winter in protest against the current regime, confine themselves to going out and do not come to the polling stations.” For Russia’s most prominent liberal-leaning opposition, being associated with Navalny appears to be more toxic than alienating his backers.
Yabloko, however, is far from the only opposition group turning its back on the street protest movement. Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the country’s largest parliamentary bloc outside of the ruling United Russia party, has repeatedly said that none of his supporters should back Navalny. At the same time, Novosibirsk’s Communist mayor, Anatoly Lokot, has warned his comrades against “flirting” with sympathies for the opposition figure.
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Likewise, despite Navalny’s frequent associations with the hard right in the country, the ultranationalist parliamentary party, the LDPR, has also sought to refuse any association with him, going so far as to accuse the Communists of fraternization. Its leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said that “there has long been cooperation” between Navalny’s supporters and Zyuganov’s. “This is the cooperation of the rebels! People who want sedition, who want us to have barricades, a red banner!” Even the mere accusation of support for the street protest movement seems to be a championed political attack line.
In some senses, the question of whether Navalny’s supporters would be allowed to stand as candidates is an academic one. A new law passed by the State Duma in May banned those who have worked for groups that are deemed extremist by a court from standing in the upcoming elections, which now includes Navalny’s network of regional headquarters and his anti-corruption campaign. While critics have slammed this as an attack on their rights, there has been little outcry in Russia among the public or among parliamentary parties.
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The government, in the lead-up to September’s elections, has sought to impart a sense of potential danger and a need for stability. Speaking on Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, consistently ranked as one of the country’s most recognizable and trusted figures, said that foreign powers are working to subvert the electoral process. “We can assume that on the eve of the elections to the State Duma there will be new attempts to undermine [and] destabilize the situation, and provoke protests – preferably violent – as the West likes to do,” he claimed.
Organizers of the unauthorized mass demonstrations, which were ostensibly banned under Covid-19 laws, over two successive weekends in January put a pause on the actions as the size of crowds began to dwindle. Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former chief of staff, who led the movement from exile in Lithuania, said that they should be wound down until the summer, ahead of the national elections. However, despite already being in the middle of July, there has been no sign of any efforts to organize new demonstrations.
For those participating in the process, any such public displays could come at the worst possible time. Anti-Kremlin parties would be forced to criticize those taking to the streets in an effort to avoid being branded extremist, and maintain their position that – as is customary in democracies across the world – discontent should be expressed at the ballot box, and not outside the law. Opposition in Russia, it seems, is a fragile balancing act between catching the eye of the public, and being cast as unpatriotic in a nation where stability so often comes first.
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