Impressions: Opposition in Putin's Russia

On Wednesday, the 13th of May, FMS organized a debate on the opposition in Russia in De Balie, Amsterdam. Joined by approximately sixty gripped by the domestic situation in Russia, we were welcomed by Arjen Berkvens, the moderator for the discussion. He introduced the speakers for the evening: Russian opposition leader Gennady Gudkov, PhD-candidate Honorata Mazepus (Leiden University) and Russia-expert Tony van der Togt (Institute Clingendael).

Deteriorating situation

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Gudkov presented a worrying, yet compelling picture to his audience. According to the former MP the Russian people do have a social democratic mentality, but politicians have failed to translate this to a party. The party that does call itself social democratic, Just Russia, is in fact part of the establishment.

Gudkov feels the country is being prepared for further repressions. The opposition crackdown is joined by the failure of all institutions. The State Duma, which he called a ‘mad printer’, is now an institution that prints an abundance of repressive laws. Critics have slowly but surely been removed by the Kremlin. Additionally, court decisions are more often than not politically motivated. On top of this, all real opportunities for honest elections have been made impossible and candidates can be excluded for no particular reason.

img 20150518 wa0007State of the opposition 

In spite of the worsening situation, the opposition does enjoy some support among the Russian population. Gudkov thinks that at least a third of the Russian population supports the opposition, particularly in larger cities. Though, he wondered: “How can you use elections if they are completely falsified?” Tony van der Togt thinks the opposition enjoys some support based on the large turnout of the most recent elections. Younger generations, who never even felt inclined to take part in demonstrations and the like, supported the somewhat unified opposition in protest marches in 2011/12. This reminded the expert of demonstrations in Russia during the early nineties.

Unfortunately, after the elections the opposition seemed to fall apart, not only because of repression but also because of internal divisions. Van der Togt stated that he was waiting for “a common cause which could galvanize the opposition.” Boris Nemtsov’s report on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine could potentially serve such a cause, to bring the opposition together. Gudkov felt as though the report would not be enough to do so, as it doesn’t really contain anything new, and said that it is more likely to happen around 2016, when the next elections take place. He added that there has been some division in the opposition between a moderate and a more resolved wing. The more resolved wing has announced the creation of a new coalition, but that will not stop Gudkov in his mission to create a more unified opposition.

Public opinion in Russia

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The media often portrays the population as supportive of Putin: how accurate is this picture? Honorata Mazepus argued that opinion polls are problematic as indicators for Putin’s support as well as the opposition in a society such as Russia’s because of its closed institutions. She doubted these polls can be used as indicators as people often secretly hold different opinions, which is done out of self-interest. Mazepus illustrated this by comparing the polls to the support for the regime during Communist times: publicly expressing views that do not conform to what is considered conventional means you are at risk of being reported to the authorities.

Van der Togt added that mass propaganda does influence the Russian public opinion, however. Whereas the older generation was able to read between the lines during Soviet times, they now seem to believe it. Mazepus added that Putin’s popularity is also strengthened by his foreign policy: the annexation of Crimea and the Russian involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have only furthered this.

Russian foreign policy

This led to the question whether we should be afraid of the Russian ‘threat’. The panellists agreed that the biggest danger is that we do not know what Putin wants. Mazepus jokingly referred to this; “Putin only talks to god, we won’t know what he’ll do next.”

However, she also pointed out that in her home country, Poland, the perception of the Russian threat is much more serious compared to the Netherlands. Paramilitary groups have been developing not only in Poland, but also in Scandinavia and the Baltic states. These groups are open to new recruits.

Gudkov felt the Russian involvement in Ukraine should be interpreted as an “emotional response” – Ukraine’s tendency towards Europe was interpreted as a form of betrayal – and not as a preconceived plan. This would mean that there isn’t that big of a threat to other countries. Van der Togt responded that the best way to deal with Russia’s expansionism is by targeting propaganda, not by raising military expenditure.

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The effect of sanctions

Following a question from the audience on whether the sanctions could potentially lead to “cracks in the regime”, Mazepus explained that the West is being held responsible for the worsening economic situation in Russia. Even though the sanctions that hit ordinary Russians the hardest are actually ‘counter-sanctions’ imposed by Putin, the propaganda blames everything on the West, and has even influenced the well-informed in Russia.

Personal sanctions however could potentially cause a split amongst the elites  - which is required for real political change. This is currently not happening however as the Russian oligarchs are being compensated at the expense of the Russian population. The question is how long this will last, as Van der Togt put it, “people are not stupid.” Gudkov added to this by explaining that the sanctions have never been implemented properly: what is the message from the West? Gudkov does see some disagreements among the elites, but it will take some time for an actual split to occur. He argued for more personalised sanctions.

The question is what the EU prefers: their values or economic benefits. Gudkov believes the current economic crisis in Russia would have happened anyway because of the mismanagement, lawlessness and poor institutions. It is not just an economic crisis, he said, but a systemic one, reasing into all areas of government and society: from healthcare to education, from governance to science etc.

A more focused approach 

Overall the evening presented us with new and interested insights into the domestic situation in Russia. Gudkov’s knowledge as an insider further added to the existing image of the deteriorating situation in Russia. As the discussions went on there was some consensus that a more focused (EU) approach is needed, targeting propaganda and elites. In spite of the domestic situation, there is still ample opportunity for change in the future.

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