Yes, Mr. Putin, There is Political Opposition in Russia

International attention to Russia has been primarily focused upon President Putin’s annexation and invasion of Eastern Ukraine over the past 18 months, and more recently on his military moves in Syria.

Notwithstanding Russia’s international ambitions, it would be a mistake not to peruse more closely what is happening in Putin’s own backyard: the evolution of the Russian political opposition.

Since ascending to power, Putin has sought to eliminate independent media, civil society organizations and opposition political parties. Undaunted, the political opposition continues to advocate for basic rights of democracy and the rule of law while enduring repression, including convictions and jail sentences merely for gathering for peaceful protest.

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of Russia’s democratic opposition, while we were in Stockholm for a conference designed to educate the West about the activities of the Russian opposition. We were both there to speak about the next elections to the Russian Duma, scheduled to take place in September next year. As a close colleague of the late Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down last winter in the shadows of the Kremlin, Yashin continues to play a key role in the opposition’s efforts to oppose the Kremlin and its crackdown on democracy. After Nemtsov’s murder, Yashin completed Nemtosv’s comprehensive report on Russia’s involvement in the invasion and fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Yashin then publicly released the report, entitled “Putin. War” in Russia, Europe and the United States.

Yashin is actively involved in what only a few in the West have focused on: a coalition of pro-democracy political parties has been formed consisting of PRP-PARNAS, Democratic Choice, Party of Progress and several other political movements. The coalition created a coordinating council, consisting of, among others, Mikhail Kasyanov, Alexey Navalny, Yashin and Vladimir Milov. Despite the very real threats of death and imprisonment for their activism, they are devoted to ousting the current government, labeled by Navalny as “crooks and thieves,” through the ballot box.

The coalition is united, organized and has a strategy for competing in the Duma elections, in which the opposition will unite behind a single candidate in each of Russia’s 225 single-mandate districts that they are able to compete for, and hope to have a coordinated message and strategy for the 225 seats elected under party lists. The coalition needs support, political and diplomatic, from the West.

All of this is taking place under a regime that continues to repress all political opposition. The opposition feels that even in a fraudulent elections, they will be able to elect at least a few Pro-Western candidates to the Duma
This strategy, and the continuous repressions, have not deterred the opposition from challenging Putin’s party in the upcoming elections. Nor has the murder of Nemtsov discouraged the democratic opposition. As Yashin described his situation, “I am not dead, and I am not in prison, so I will continue to fight.”

The focus of the Stockholm conference was to educate Westerners on the opposition’s long-term focus on the democratization of Russia, and the short-term objectives of competing in the Duma elections, and finally to convince the West to rededicate itself to building democracy in Russia by supporting the opposition. In short, to take the fight for democracy directly to the Kremlin. If Putin is preoccupied with political opposition in his own backyard, he will be less inclined to foreign adventurism in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. Importantly, the U.S. would benefit from supporting the democratic development as free and fair election processes are more likely to result in a more pragmatic government in Russia which may be a partner in tackling the multiple security and economic challenges in the world.

Which leads me to believe that if the West cannot support brave and dedicated people like Yashin, then who can we support?

By Steve Nix |Director, Eurasia Division | @stephennix