Russia's Shifting Political Landscape, Part 3: Rising Anti-Kremlin Movements

George Friedman
Posted: Feb 05, 2012 12:01 AM

The second large trend reshaping Russia's political landscape is the strengthening of numerous movements opposed to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or the Kremlin. The periodic rise and fall of political dissidence is a Russian tradition. In the past decade, political sentiment has focused on Putin as Russia's "savior," a phenomenon that grew into something like a cult of personality centered on Putin. Now that Russia does not need saving anymore, though, the narrative has changed. Increasing dissent has garnered international media attention and prompted the Kremlin to take another look at politics on the other side of its high red brick walls.

Opposition political groups have strengthened and become important for numerous reasons. First, Russia no longer faces the threats of imminent economic collapse or major security issues. Second, Russia is undergoing a generational shift; the Soviet Union fell more than 20 years ago, which means the generation of Russians coming into their 20s now have a vastly different worldview from that of their predecessors. Furthermore, the increasing use of social media in Russia could be facilitating more efficient communication between and within dissenting groups.

Contributing to the dissent is a sharp increase in nationalism. Generally, over the past decade nationalist groups like the Kremlin-created Nashi youth group and Young Guard political group were considered favorable for Putin. However, in recent years, more extreme breeds of nationalists have re-emerged -- some who long for more traditional Russian values instead of the balance of policies Putin recently implemented. Ultranationalists wanting policies that limit immigration and Islam, the so-called Russia for Russians movement and others, are also growing.

The proliferation of groups that do not share the Kremlin's view has translated into large protests in the streets and losses for Putin's ruling party, United Russia, in recent parliamentary elections. Putin has begun taking these groups into account after largely ignoring them for the past decade and is shifting his policies to accommodate them. However, these anti-Kremlin groups must be examined individually to determine whether they can actually threaten Putin's hold on power.

The Communists' Re-Emergence

The anti-Kremlin groups' rise became noticeable in Russia's Dec. 4, 2011, parliamentary elections, when Putin's United Russia party won just under 50 percent. The other three political parties in the Duma -- the Communists, Just Russia and the Liberal Democrats -- all benefited from United Russia's decline, but the Communist Party made the most important gain. The successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the current Communist Party has always been a factor in post-Soviet Russian politics. The Communists share their Soviet-era parent party's ideology of nationalism. The party was fairly prominent in the 1990s, but its popularity dwindled during Putin's rule. For most of the past decade, the Communists held 11-12 percent of the seats in the Duma, but in the 2011 parliamentary elections they nearly doubled their representation, winning 20 percent of the parliamentary seats.

The more traditional and security-oriented voters who had become disenchanted with United Russia and Putin's policies looked to the Communist Party as one of their chief alternatives. This led to the party's rise in the Duma and made the Communists' leader, Gennady Zyuganov, second in the polls for the upcoming presidential election behind Putin (though it is not a close second).

The Communist Party has tried to differentiate itself from the more liberal groups and the ultranationalists in the protest movements and from other political parties in the Duma. However, the Communists can work with those groups, such as the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, in the Duma when it benefits the Communists. The Communist Party and Zyuganov have been communicating with the protest movements in recent weeks, though the Communists' and protesters' ideologies are nearly polar opposites and thus a grand alliance against Putin would be unstable at best.

The Protesters

Protest movements, which have been seen in Russia only in isolated incidents or, in those cases of regular protests, with small numbers of supporters during Putin's rule are also on the rise. The current movements and personalities involved in protests are not united in their roots, goals or activities. The various groups have risen up for different reasons: corruption, growing anti-Kremlin sentiment, changes in wealth distribution, a generational shift, the proliferation of social media and increasing ultranationalism.

Protests have become more common since the end of 2010, and most have been ultranationalist demonstrations. There have been many ultranationalist movements in Russia, though one of the largest is the Russia for Russians movement, which was created at the end of the 19th century. The movement gained momentum at the end of 2010, and the Levada Center polling agency recently reported that 60 percent of Russians agree with the movement's sentiments, which are hostile to Muslims and minorities as well as the government's role in supporting them. As Russia for Russians marches increased in 2010 and 2011, the movement gained support from more extreme groups. In October 2011, on Russia's National Unity Day, the Nashi youth movement publicly separated itself from the Russia for Russians group, breaking many of the Kremlin's links to the movement. During a march in November, representatives of the ultranationalists declared that they were shifting their focus to electoral corruption and political matters and would start protesting to demand political reforms after the parliamentary elections.

Of course, the ultranationalists are not the only protesters. However, there is a large overlap between the new protest movements and the old ones, and the lines separating the protest movements are not clear. The ultranationalists have been joined by large groups of liberals, communists, anarchists and others, all bound by an overall anger toward Russia's current political situation.

Though the protest movements are many in number, they are still a relatively small segment of the population -- 80,000 participated in the latest organized protest on Dec. 24, 2011, and some Stratfor sources project that 100,000 could attend the Feb. 4 protest in Moscow. Stratfor has attempted to categorize the various protest movements into four loosely defined groups based more on ideology and roots than on goals and activities (and there is much overlap among these categories):

  • Alexei Navalny's followers: The largest of the protest movements began as an indefinable mass but recently rallied behind a lawyer and blogger named Alexei Navalny. Navalny gained popularity in recent years as a whistleblower on government corruption but has become the face of the protest movement (although he does not officially lead these groups). His followers come from various segments of society -- the young generation, liberals, the emerging middle class and the ultranationalists (Navalny has been accused of ultranationalism). His followers' diverse goals include ending corruption, ousting Putin's regime, creating political reform and ending government subsidization of the Muslim Caucasus. Navalny's beliefs do not diverge far from Putin's in the area of foreign policy, as he wants Russia to be the center of the region.
  • The professional activists: Smaller factions with a great deal of overlap with Navalny's supporters seem to protest almost as a profession. Made up of intellectuals like Boris Akunin and Kseniya Sobchak and revolutionaries like Sergei Udaltsov and Evgenia Chirikova, these groups have not formulated a political agenda. They demonstrate against the Kremlin rather than making specific demands. In recent weeks, these groups have become more organized, forming into political groups like the League of Voters (designed to monitor election fraud) and Left Front (an anti-capitalism and anti-Kremlin group).
  • Established opposition groups: Quite a few opposition groups and their leaders have been working against Putin for years (and some have been protesting the Kremlin since former President Boris Yeltsin was in power). They have arranged protests and formed political parties and coalitions during much of Putin's rule. Notable leaders among these factions are Boris Nemtsov (Union of Right Forces), Mikhail Kasyanov (People's Democratic Union), Garry Kasparov (Other Russia coalition) and Vladimir Ryzhkov (Republican Party of Russia). Their names were associated with anti-Putin sentiment long before the current protest movements started. However, many of these individuals are not trusted among the other groups -- and much of the Russian population -- because they were either associated with Yeltsin's disastrous economic plans (like Nemtsov) or once worked for Putin (like Kasyanov).
  • Dissenters from Putin's camp: A few personalities in the protest movement either came from Putin's inner circle or went along with his policies until recently. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov both joined the anti-Kremlin movements, though their motives are unclear. After a very public break with the Kremlin, Kudrin is attempting to position himself as the broker between the protesters and the Kremlin and has met with various protest factions already. Prokhorov wants to become the protesters' candidate in the upcoming presidential election. However, both are viewed with suspicion among various segments of the protest movement who believe they have not truly broken away from the Kremlin's political machine.

Crossover Between the Communists and Protesters

Until recently, the Communist Party and the protest movements had little crossover. There is a vast difference between the groups' ideologies. The Communists are mostly from an older rural population and want the economy's strategic sectors nationalized; as Communist leader Zyuganov said, he wanted a re-Stalinization of Russia. The protesters are not as uniform demographically, but most are from a younger, Internet-savvy urban cohort that believes in liberal economic policies. Some of the protest movements, like some ultranationalists, Left Front and Other Russia, do have links to the Communist Party, though most protesters are on the other end of the political spectrum from the vestigial Soviet party.

However, on Jan. 17, the Communist Party and the Left Front created a pact to work together to defeat Putin in the upcoming election. This kind of crossover is important because the protest movement has no strong political or policy machine or representation in government -- something it could find via cooperation with the Communists. Stratfor sources say Zyuganov does not want to shift the Communist position but hopes to access the protesters' venues -- and votes -- in the future. This is not likely to be an easy alliance; Zyuganov will have to be careful not to alienate his own base by supporting unrest and violence in the country, and the Left Front's leader has said he would only support Zyuganov as a "short-term transitional president," which does not mesh with Zyuganov's long-term plans if he should gain power.

The Kremlin's Response

The Russian government is not ignoring the situation as it did in the past when protests were smaller. Moreover, there have been relatively few crackdowns on the protests; the government has given permits and deployed security for the demonstrations. The Kremlin has reacted to the dissidence rapidly within its own walls with a series of sackings and reshuffles among the government elite. The Kremlin also has dealt with the Communists in the Duma, giving the party chairs of some coveted legislative portfolios, like defense.

In order to try to neutralize the anti-Kremlin sentiment, the government is accepting quite a few of the reforms the protesters and Communists have demanded -- or at least it appears that the government is acquiescing to those demands. Some of the reforms being enacted only partially meet the protesters' demands, and some do not take effect for another year. Furthermore, each of the reforms had already been under discussion since summer 2011 but received approval right after the protesters called for them. Timing aside, these reforms represent a major concession to the protesters and Communists. The three main reforms are as follows:

  • Direct voting for regional governors: Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sent a bill to the Duma on Jan. 16 to reintroduce elections for local governments. Since 2004, the Russian president selected local governors under the guise of protecting national security after the Beslan school siege. The new bill will allow registered political parties to nominate candidates for regional governors for five-year terms after "voluntary consultations" with the president (there has not been an explanation of how voluntary consultations will be carried out). Candidates who are not nominated by a party or who have not met with the president will have to collect signatures in order to run, and the president retains the ability to fire governors for corruption, failure to perform duties or conflicts of interest. The bill could take effect as early as May.
  • Restructuring the mandates for certain constituencies in the Duma: A measure introducing proportional representation from 225 constituencies that elect Duma deputies from parties that have cleared the 7 percent threshold is under discussion. The other 225 deputies are elected from single-mandate constituencies. This could mean that all 450 deputies will be elected by single-mandate, or another plan could be introduced. Talks on this issue are still in the early stages.
  • Simplifying the registration of parties: Starting in 2013, the threshold for registering to become a political party has been drastically lowered. Currently, a party must have 45,000 members, 50 percent of Russia's regions must have at least 450 members in them and the other 50 percent of the regions must have no fewer than 200 members. It is a list of rules that is extremely convoluted and has prevented most aspiring political parties from registering. The new law is that a political party must have at least 500 members and represent no less than 50 percent of the regions (in theory, 10 members per region). Also, the bill abolishes the rule that to participate in the Duma elections non-parliamentary parties are to collect at least 150,000 signatures in their support. This could create a rapid upsurge in political activity in Russia, though also possibly a more chaotic and confusing opposition.

As the demonstrations continue, the protesters will present new demands to the Kremlin, and the government may answer some and ignore others. The Kremlin is also trying to keep the protest groups from uniting and would like to see them co-opted by Kremlin-friendly personalities like Kudrin. At the same time, the Kremlin wants to prevent certain personalities with a great deal of support from the protesters, such as Navalny, from moving beyond protests and forming their own political platforms.

Next Steps for Anti-Kremlin Groups

Major protests have been announced for Feb. 4 (one month before Russia's presidential election) and March 11 (one week after the election), with a few more demonstrations possible in between. As time goes on, the Communists and protesters have four options:

  • Dissolve: The Communist Party could return to its comfortable place as the second-largest party in the Duma and not alienate the Kremlin further, while the protests fade.
  • Become co-opted: The Kremlin could ease or manipulate pro-government individuals into position among the protesters and Communists.
  • Strengthen: Communist leader Zyuganov could gain momentum ahead of presidential elections while the number of protesters grows into the millions, challenging the security of the state.
  • Evolve: The Communists could continue working with the protest movement and the Kremlin without bending to either, while the protesters form small political parties that eventually gain some seats in the government.

Barring an unprecedented consolidation among the anti-Kremlin movements, the factions likely will evolve. The planned protests on Feb. 4 and March 11 will attract large numbers of demonstrators, but after that the numbers could begin dwindling. Then the Communists could return to their opposition role in government and the protesters could start organizing into smaller parties for future elections but not unite into a large opposition movement. This would not be a complete victory for Putin and the Kremlin (though the current regime would remain in power), as Putin has already had to change his policies to account for the shifting political landscape.

This article is reprinted with the permission of Stratfor