Opposition in Russia: Struggle for leadership
Russian society is changing, slowly but inevitably, and Russia's political mood is changing accordingly. It is natural that the leadership of those who are expressing discontent will follow these shifts and try to capitalize on them.
However, the group of people who is regarded as the leadership of the Russian opposition has yet to propose a joint, more or less unified program as their platform. Up until now the agenda was to lead the protest movement in the big cities, to be on top of the societal change, and to capture the mood of discontent within a large section of the urban segment of Russian society. And the main task thus far was to attempt to ensure that the elections were transparent, fair, and that they were not fraudulent. But as of yet, this does not constitute a unified agenda for a large-scale opposition movement.
Moreover, there is no positive program of change proposed, except demands for fair and transparent elections. There is not yet a coherent economic or social program or policy of change. By focusing the agenda on the electoral process, the opposition is missing – or at least appears to be missing - other important issues for the Russian electorate.
Whether or not different opposition leaders will be able to join forces remains to be seen. Changes in the regulations of political party registration will disperse rather than unify the opposition. As of today, the opposition leaders have not been able to work closely together. There are too many differences among them, and the political situation in Russia, particularly the recent changes in the law on political parties, will likely disunite the opposition – as it was designed to do so – rather than unite them, as every one of them will probably try to form a new political party.
Needless to say, some of the opposition leaders, such as Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov or Vladimir Ryzhkov, had been among the most influential people in Russian politics. They had the experience to govern the country or a region but - for many reasons – most of them will not be able to play the unifier role for the opposition.
Despite the fact that the electorate's memory is very short, a lot of people remember Boris Nemtsov as a Deputy Prime Minister in '97-'98, and they remember Mikhail Kasyanov as a Deputy Minister of Finance in '98 and then as Prime Minister. And they probably remember that they were not the most effective political leaders in Russia. Moreover, there are new allegations (for instance presented in Al Jazeera last month) about the past corrupt practices of Mr. Kasyanov.
Among these people, Vladimir Ryzhkov may become a leading figure, with time, despite the fact that he has no charisma, as yet. But charisma, as we have seen in the past in Russian politics, may come with the office, rather than with the person. Ryzhkov, being rational, highly analytical, and a representative of a rather national-liberal group, can become a potentially serious contender for power. He has also not been involved in any corruption schemes – or at least, none I have heard about.
The drive for power might be the predominant motive in the struggle for leadership of the protests at the moment, though the major point today is whether the leaders can gather enough societal support and to what extent they can go beyond current “rally politics”. After a while people – naturally - will demand from the opposition a viable, realistic, institution based and predictable alternative rather than ongoing mass rallies.
The West perceives the Russian opposition in a different way than most Russians perceive it. Many in the West view certain leaders of the opposition as people who have the genuine support of the vast majority. However, this is not the case as seen from the Russian perspective. In the West, neither experts nor the public know very much about the Russian opposition, and still are puzzled by, on the one hand, the massive demonstrations in Moscow, and on the other hand, the strong support for the incumbent president.
It is clear that the political situation is switching in recent weeks in Russia from the high-level politics around the elections to the local politics that dwell upon the problems that worry most Russians. The dispute today is focused on health services, schools, roads, and everyday life in general. The recent mayoral elections in Yaroslavl and Togliatti are very indicative of this trend.
In the not too distant future a new breed of opposition leaders will emerge from the regional and local level, rather than the opposition being firmly led by a few from the center. These new opposition leaders will rise from mayoral and gubernatorial elections rather than from the traditional group of former, excluded insiders, leading the opposition from Moscow. And this is probably the most interesting process that we will be seeing in the months and years to come.
However, it is highly unlikely that the so-called traditional parties like the Communists or the Just Russia or Liberal Democrats will be the breeding ground for the new opposition. All of them are, to some extent, compromised by participating in consecutive elections, “being permitted to do politics,” and therefore being tainted by the allegations that they took part in a process that could be seen as illegitimate or fraudulent.
The traditional parties are in the process of exhausting themselves. They will obviously function within the constitutional framework of the Russian Federation, but the political dynamism is definitely going to be located somewhere else, beyond these stagnating parties. The locus of the political dynamism is going to be located in social networks and in all kinds of (small and bigger) social movements that will sooner or later emerge within the larger area of civil society rather than in the former political system.
If you look closely at how certain Russian leaders are positioning themselves, there are signals – for instance, from Alexei Kudrin, who has chosen to work through civil society initiatives rather than form or join any political party (another good example would be Alexei Navalny) - that social networks and all sorts of social initiatives will be the ground – the training ground and learning ground – for the new breed of the opposition.
Piotr Dutkiewicz is Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for Governance and Public Policy at Carleton University, Ottawa, member of the Valdai Discussion Club Advisory Board.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.