Russia's Liberals in the Crosshairs

Image: A Russian opposition protest. Wikimedia Commons/Zurab Zavakhadze (Voice of America)

The Russian opposition's troubles are only beginning.

As Russia approaches parliamentary elections scheduled in September 2016, the prospects for Russia’s so-called nonsystem liberal opposition look increasingly gloomy. Not only have democratic opposition leaders failed to create a unified coalition yet again, as in essentially every previous election—a failure that will likely diminish their already limited chances to win seats in Russia’s federal and regional parliaments—but they also increasingly suffer from persecution and attacks by pro-Kremlin groups.

On Tuesday, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his anti-corruption activists were attacked, thrown to the ground and beaten by a group of men at an airport in the southern Russian resort Anapa while returning from a camping retreat. Several weeks ago in late April, pro-Kremlin activists attacked schoolboys with ammonia and disinfectants at an event organized by the human rights group Memorial. One of the participants, acclaimed Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya, was sprayed in the face with a green disinfectant. In February 2016, one of the leaders of Russia’s opposition, Mikhail Kasyanov, was assaulted in a Moscow restaurant when a group of men burst in, threatened to kill him and threw cake in his face. In general, the attacks on the nonsystem opposition have been on the rise recently: the opposition members have been assaulted with cakes, eggs, caustic liquids and fists. Russian state TV channels repeatedly broadcast programs “exposing” opposition leaders as paid agents of the West or showing them engaging in intimate sexual relations. Some assaults are more extreme last winter another opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was shot and killed in front of the Kremlin.

What explains the recent escalation of the attacks against Russia’s opposition? Leonid Volkov, Alexei Navalny's longtime campaign manager, argues that things have simply spiraled out of control. “Initially regional authorities instructed their militant groups to ‘teach the opposition a lesson,’ albeit the specific meaning of that ‘lesson’ was to be determined by the executives. At first they would organize antiopposition pickets with obscene content. Then they switched to attacking us with disinfectants. Now it has become fashionable to beat us. The perpetrators are simply following these trends: if they beat us in one region and were not prosecuted, such beatings will now become a trend in all of the Russian regions.” Available cross-country studies of nonfree regimes confirm Volkov's observation: levels of state repression tend to be self-reinforcing—hence, once the state begins, the repression usually doesn't stop. It gets worse.

However, other observers connect the intensification of the anti-opposition attacks to the upcoming elections. Russia’s authorities continue to enjoy seemingly sky-high approval ratings, but such numbers may be more related to the absence of alternatives rather than the genuine support for the Kremlin, and hence may not be reliable. Visible concerns by Kremlin officials about their legitimacy confirm the above observations. Their concerns manifest in different ways: passing increasingly prohibitive antiextremism and antiterrorism laws, launching a new National Guard structure in an attempt to centralize security enforcement, and consistently offering to strengthen the hold on enemies of the state, i.e., “foreign agents,” or the “fifth column.” In the period of 2011–15, the number of Russians accused of “extremism” has tripled, including people receiving prison sentences for liking or sharing Facebook posts.

The Kremlin’s concerns about its popularity are directly linked to Russia’s continuously worsening economic situation. The combined effect of collapsing oil prices, international sanctions that cut off Russian business from Western credits and a lack of long-awaited economic reforms have resulted in a prolong period of the country’s economic recession. The IMF report this week forecasts negative growth for Russia’s economy by an additional 1.5 percent this year due to the combination of these factors. Meanwhile, the propensity to protest in Russia is increasing: in 2015 the number of protests (mostly economic in nature) increased by 40 percent compared to 2014. The economic frustration has already been giving an electoral boost to the system opposition parties, including the Communist Party. If stagnation continues, the frustration might empower the nonsystem opposition (led by the aforementioned Navalny or Kasyanov) as well.