Russia followed by Navalny


The Russian opposition doesn’t have the capacity to mobilise on the ground, but there is an alternative path.
In the first days of March, thousands of Russians flocked to Borisovskoye Cemetery in a far-flung corner of Moscow to pay their respects to the late opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
In recent history, there has been no funeral of a Russian public figure of this scale, except perhaps that of the Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov in 1989.
The crowds at Navalny’s grave clearly demonstrate who led the opposition in Russia.
President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to destroy his movement, had Navalny been a mere nuisance who lacked support among the Russian public.
That said, it is also true that the Russian opposition is unlikely to effect political change now that Russia is tied up in a hair-raising confrontation with the West over its war in Ukraine.
The high attendance at Navalny’s funeral may very well have been a one-off event spurred by the emotional shock at the perceived loss of hope for a better Russia which the ever-so-optimistic and stoic Navalny represented.
But Russia was explicitly excluded from that process and the Russian opposition doesn’t have a satisfactory answer why.
That’s before they even get to read about Western politicians calling for a total strategic defeat of Russia and the dismembering of the country into a bunch of Western client states.
They can also advise the West on how to right the wrongs in its badly miscalculated policies towards Russia and its neighbours, which contributed to the conflict.

Though there is another way, the Russian opposition lacks the ability to mobilize on the ground.

To honor the late opposition leader Alexey Navalny, thousands of Russians descended upon Borisovskoye Cemetery in a remote area of Moscow in the early days of March. The official account of events states that he died in February from a blood clot while incarcerated in an Arctic prison.

Except possibly for the 1989 funeral of Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov, no Russian public figure of this magnitude has had a funeral in recent memory. Although fewer people attended, the funeral processions of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev attracted public attention as well.

Even fewer parallels can be drawn between it and the 2022 funeral of LDPR’s unconventional leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Who led the opposition in Russia is evident from the numbers gathered at Navalny’s grave. Granted, this was evident even in his lifetime.

If Navalny had only been a bothersome figure with little support from the Russian people, President Vladimir Putin would not have gone to such extremes to crush his movement. Much of the final ten years of his life was spent behind bars; he was disqualified from seeking the presidency; and he faced threats and arrests from his supporters, close family members, and even attorneys. Not only that, but he narrowly escaped a chemical agent assassination attempt.

However, it is also true that given Russia’s involvement in a nerve-wracking standoff with the West over its war in Ukraine, the Russian opposition is unlikely to bring about any political change.

During a period of peace and comparatively positive relations with the West, the opposition movement against Putin reached its zenith in 2011–12. However, two years later, during Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, which culminated in Russia’s occupation of Crimea, he was able to successfully recast his domestic political conflict in terms of geopolitics.

Putin was able to polarize the Russian populace and justify repression against the pro-Western opposition thanks to the US-led West’s ambiguity about its strategic goals with regard to Russia, its use of salami tactics to expand its sphere of influence into the post-Soviet space while excluding Russia from European integration, and its covert support for ethnonationalist forces and policies in Eastern Europe.

It’s the result of years of deliberate suppression. There were still sizable protests against the conflict in Ukraine in Moscow in 2014 and 2015. These days, it is unimaginable to criticize the actions of the Russian military without risking a jail sentence.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the departure of almost all opposition politicians, activists, independent journalists, and leaders of civil society. Public protest organizers are becoming an increasingly rare breed in this country.

The emotional shock at the apparent loss of hope for a better Russia that the ever-so-optimistic and stoic Navalny represented may have contributed to the high attendance at his funeral. The government will act swiftly to put an end to any indication of mobilization while they are actively monitoring. Numerous attendees of the funeral have reportedly already been arrested after being recognized by facial recognition software.

Russians are urged by the late politician Yulia Navalnaya’s widow to sabotage the upcoming presidential election on March 17 by turning up in large numbers at polling places precisely at midday, voting for alternative candidates, or tampering with ballots.

This would allow to show the extent of anti-Putin sentiment and raise even more questions about the election’s legitimacy, the organizers hope, at a relatively low risk to the participants.

But there’s no assurance that a large number of people will show up, and that’s not just because they’re afraid of being punished. Aside from its ardent supporters, the pro-Western opposition lacks any compelling narrative to energize the conformist and apolitical majority of Russians, which is a critical vulnerability in Russia’s conflict with the West.

Individuals would only come together to protect their own interests—in this case, the interests of the West or Ukraine—and not those of anybody else. If a realistic plan for integrating a democratic Russia into Euroatlantic institutions, like NATO and the EU, isn’t presented, then claims that a Ukrainian victory will somehow improve the lot of the Russian people are going to be met with silence.

If not, Russians will always be suspicious of the West because they went through a period of unrest and intense insecurity during their close friendship with the West in the 1990s, followed by a marked improvement in living standards during Putin’s decades in office. As long as Kremlin propaganda persists, they will believe that the West is trying to reduce their nation to a destitute wasteland on the outskirts of Europe.

Integration with the West is the only hope that can inspire millions of people and result in real political change in Eastern Europe, as demonstrated by the revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Serbia. However, the Russian opposition lacks a convincing explanation for Russia’s explicit exclusion from that process.

It will need to address the dangerous slant of the West toward the far right and the slow securitocratic takeover of the political discourse that has been going on for the past 20 years, since 9/11, in order to craft a logical and coherent narrative for its supporters in Russia. It will be impossible to provide the Russian people with a credible and impartial explanation of the conflict in Ukraine without that element.

Essentialist accounts of the mentality of Russian “imperialists,” which are frequently used in Ukrainian and Western discourse, are simply untrue. People will cite the ways that they believe Western imperialism has shown itself, including its support for poisonous ethnonationalism and its divide-and-rule tactics in Eastern Europe. This pointless debate can go on indefinitely.

The West invests large sums of money in Russian-language media in the hopes of delivering political messaging and news coverage free from Kremlin propaganda. On the other hand, in real life, pro-Ukrainian infowar organizations and troll farms flood Russian internet users with excessively racist messages when they search for news in the language. And that’s even before they learn of Western politicians’ demands for Russia to be strategically destroyed and divided into numerous Western-backed states. They are once again taught not to trust the West.

The best the Russian opposition activists can do in this situation right now is work to make the West aware of the risks associated with its turn to the far right and the necessity of resisting its own Putinization, whether it takes the form of Donald Trump or illiberals from Eastern Europe. Additionally, they can offer the West advice on how to make up for its poorly thought out policies toward Russia and its neighbors, which fueled the conflict.

Given the current situation on the front lines, Ukraine’s victory appears more unlikely than ever, but this is turning out to be the only workable plan that could eventually lead to democratic change in Russia and assist Ukraine in regaining its sovereignty.

The author’s opinions are their own, and they may not accurately represent Al Jazeera’s editorial position.

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