The year 2020 marked 20 years in power of President Vladimir Putin and yet, in a way, could also be dubbed as the year of Russian opposition. It started off with the heating up of talks of succession, which had been going on for some time already, even before the end of the Putin-Medvedev tandem era. In mid-January, during his annual state-of-the-nation address, Putin proposed a raft of constitutional amendments that, initially, seemed to reinforce the parliament's role and give more powers to a relatively low-profile institution, the Security Council. Speculations on a possible transition to a post-Putin phase, however, came to an abrupt end in March, when lawmaker Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman to fly into space) proposed “resetting the clock” of Putin’s presidential terms so that he could stay in power beyond the end of his term in 2024. Her proposal was indeed included in the package of constitutional amendments that were later approved by the referendum on July 1.
This year has also been marked by protests. In February, thousands of Russians rallied across the country in memory of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician killed five years ago on a Moscow bridge near the Kremlin. Every year since the killing, the march becomes a platform for the Russian opposition to protest other issues; this year was no exception, as the Nemtsov march's organizers used the constitutional vote as a call to action. In mid-July, mass protests erupted in Khabarovsk, in Russia’s Far East, and have been ongoing since the unexpected arrest of popular regional governor Sergei Furgal. Furgal, who is being held in a Moscow jail pending trial, is accused of several murders dating back 15 years, but his supporters see these charges as politically motivated and started a movement that soon became a broader political protest against the central government. Local and central authorities, accused of beating up and arbitrarily detaining peaceful protesters, are looking at these rallies with concern, even more so given the huge demonstrations in neighbouring Belarus, where the protests following the August 9 presidential elections are also still ongoing at the time of writing. The two movements, in many ways, could be mutually reinforcing. Russian opposition's hectic summer ended up on a tragic note, as a key opposition figure, Alexey Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent on a plane taking him back to Moscow. Navalny, discharged from a Berlin hospital but still in Germany, declares that he is ready to go back to Russia, but his political future and the effects of this case of high-profile poisoning on a member Russia's opposition movement, remain unclear.
Now that Putin's post-2024 option is secured and Navalny’s return appears dubious at the moment, talks about Russia’s political opposition may look detached from a reality of growing authoritarianism and the monolithic political landscape characterising the country. Yet, this is not the case. The articles in this dossier prove that actually, beyond the surface and despite monumental challenges, Russia’s political opposition is very much alive. Jussi Lassila sets the scene by describing the obstacles facing a democratic opposition in a growingly undemocratic state like Russia. Despite stricter and more repressive mechanisms of political control used by the Kremlin vis-à-vis its rivals – what Vladimir Gel’man famously called “the politics of fear”, which include overt intimidation, harassment, and public discrediting of the regime's critics – Lassila also looks at the "bright side," that is, the recent successes of civil society in Russian regions and how these can energise a traditionally weak political opposition. Andrei Kolesnikov and Maria Chiara Franceschelli further analyse Russia's civil society. In particular, Kolesnikov describes the rise of civic consciousness/resistance, especially when it comes to the defense of their habitats – what he calls “backyard sovereignty”; at the same time, he also signals two worrisome trends, such as the government's increased repressions (by riot police, the Federal Security Service, prosecutors, and courts) and efforts to create parallel forms of state-controlled “civil society”. Environmental disasters as well as pollution and poor waste management are serious issues facing Russia, not to mention the country’s high exposure to the consequences of climate change. This is especially felt in the Siberian Arctic, where human-caused climate change increase the likelihood of record-breaking heatwaves by at least 600 times, according to a study. Franceschelli dives into Russia's environmental civil society groups and NGOs particularly, explaining how Russian environmentalism can either have a contentious nature when part of the political opposition or a non-contentious one when pragmatically lining up with the authorities to achieve specific goals.
But what are the opposition’s main political tools? According to Sofya Glazunova, to effectively communicate with their electorates, all activists need to rely extensively on various digital strategies. Navalny, the most popular opposition figure and an able online communicator, has managed to create a digital communication template that serves to express activists' sentiments, hold their electoral campaigns, encourage and facilitate protest activities, and, most importantly, secure the opposition's survival in the political communication sphere. At the same time, Navalny also had to come to terms with a political reality in which the role of nationalism is powerful. Anna Zafesova argues that in a country where many people still look at liberal values and politicians with suspicion, "patriotism" and "nationalism" come to be almost synonyms, and no opposition leader can hope to get to voters' hearts and truly challenge Putin without being more or less "patriotic". Some degree of versatility has apparently characterised the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) as well. The party has long been considered little more than part of the country's "systemic opposition," playing by the Kremlin's rules. However, Mark Galeotti claims that the KPRF seems to be re-awakening, being at least one group that did not join the party out of Soviet nostalgia or simple careerism, but is made up of younger and actually angry politicians, who are unhappy with the status quo, and are even ready to partner with Navalny.
While the shrinking of Russia's oppositional forces' political space and opportunity structure is evident and undeniable, it is still not time to write Russia's opposition off completely. What was defined "a dying species" already back in 2005 may look pretty battered indeed, but is also proving to be more resilient than the Kremlin and, possibly, foreign Russia watchers may have expected.