Russia’s political trajectory from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the present can be seen as a movement from political pluralism to ever strengthening authoritarianism. In general, elections as such were fair in the 1990s, yet the suddenly-emerged political pluralism took place in circumstances that lacked institutional foundations. A variety of democratic, liberal, nationalist and neo-Soviet ideas competed with each other without established political structures. Commonly shared democratic rules did not gain any stabilization since the parties were not convinced that political opponents would follow the same rules. For instance, the key participant, President Boris Yeltsin and his team, sought to secure their position more and more with the help of oligarchs rather than with the trust of the people. At the same time, democratic freedoms began to appear more and more irrelevant for many Russians in the midst of deepening socio-economic problems.
The current authoritarian circumstances notwithstanding, the legacy of 1990s’ pluralism remains important for Russia’s political future. It was democracy that gained the clearest legitimacy after the collapse of the USSR rather than any other political idea. Despite the authoritarian powers that were granted to the president, the ideal of democracy defined the spirit of the 1993 constitution. Although Vladimir Putin’s regime demonstrated many of the constitution’s democratic rights to be dead letters years before the 2020 amendments, they have remained in the new constitution as well. Perhaps the Kremlin is not very afraid of the opposition’s ability to demand literal compliance with it, despite the regime’s increased difficulties – diminishing popular legitimacy, economic problems, and citizens’ multiple grievances. A fundamental question, then, is why has the opposition failed to challenge Putin in demanding compliance with the citizens’ rights guaranteed by the constitution?
Paradoxically, the answer partially lies in the oppositional activism that has revolved around idealistic political principles. Instead of paying attention to the issues of popular grievances here and now, and of trying to mobilize citizens behind pragmatic tactics and solutions for solving them, the goals of the Russian opposition have been strikingly abstract. Whether it is a matter of liberals, democrats, communists or nationalists, it has been a common tradition to declare the regime in power unworthy not so much because of its actual deeds but because it does not correspond to the ideology it should follow. As a result, for instance, the potentially strong Communist Party as an oppositional player with an extensive party organization has demonstrated its inability to renew itself and attract new voters. Major political energy has been wasted on nurturing the value of Soviet-era symbols instead of dealing with acute socio-political matters. Or, the motley opposition coalition, Strategy-31, in the early 2000s was principled in demanding compliance with Article 31 of the constitution (the right to assemble) on the 31st of each month by a small group of activists. However, only a few citizens understood what the issue was about, let alone considered the demand important.
So, should the Russian people be accused of not being interested in the goals of the opposition and of the democratic opposition in particular? Hardly, and it would be wrong to claim that citizens are not interested in democratic rights. In numerous surveys, the largest group of respondents has regularly shown support for democracy. The problem for the opposition has been that many Russians have perceived democracy as a well-functioning consumer society, as the country began to appear to many citizens during the first decade of the 21st century. In other words, for a large proportion of citizens, support for democracy was associated with Putin’s policies and confidence in the president after the misery of the 1990s, rather than with the ideological and abstract principles of the opposition. Putin was able to take advantage of this popular understanding of democracy among citizens. Before 2020, this could explain his reluctance to change the democratic spirit of the constitution since Putin himself had become Russia’s most popular “democrat.”
After the 2011-12 protests, Putin’s position in terms of democratic legitimacy markedly changed. Putin was no longer the president of the whole nation. The difficulties were temporarily remedied by the patriotic euphoria that followed the conquest of Crimea as he profiled himself as the strong leader of the conservative majority. However, over the past couple of years, he has increasingly become president of the conservative half. Against this trend, the regime’s means of creating the impression of an imaginary majority have become increasingly repressive. As far as elections are concerned, Russia is moving, if it has not already moved, from an electoral authoritarian regime to a hegemonic authoritarian one, where the political change that can be achieved through elections is becoming almost impossible.
A new approach of the opposition against the increasingly authoritarian regime is to be seen in the growing importance of Aleksey Navalny as the leading figure for Russia’s democratic opposition since the 2011-12 protests. Rather than invoking the “lost opportunities” of the 1990s, he and his supporters have framed the Putin reign as a corrupt continuation of the Yeltsin regime, opposite to the actual needs of the Russian people. This kind of oppositional populist tactics is exactly what the Russian opposition needs in the current circumstances: A bold and holistic effort to seek power, not just criticize it, and which is free from abstract political principles. This new kind of political culture is not only alienated from the democratic opposition of the 1990s, which has criticized Navalny’s populist style and openness to build coalitions with all of Putin’s opponents, ranging from nationalists to communists. There is also widespread suspicion among ordinary citizens about the meaningfulness or honesty of politics as such, let alone political competition. Navalny’s ambition may evoke sympathy, yet an extensive popular belief in his chances is limited. Or, he is seen in the background of “greater” forces, be they Western intelligence services, or the view that Navalny is the Kremlin’s creation – otherwise he would have been killed years ago – in dismantling the opposition’s unity. Indeed, these widely heard conspiracy theories have been used by the Kremlin to increase suspicions about Navalny.
Russia’s tradition of social and political movements is strikingly weak. However, the recent successes of civil society in Russian regions show that forms of action and energy can be found to safeguard and improve citizens’ rights (especially protests related to ecological problems and urban planning). The personalistic nature of politics, the subsidiarity of party ideologies and the dwindling role of political parties in general can also allow space for the unpredictable organization of civil society. In such cases, previous boundaries between what is allowed and what is forbidden dictated by the regime no longer apply. The case of Sergey Furgal in Khabarovsk – who was elected as a protest candidate from the Kremlin-loyal Vladimir Zhirinovsky party – and the long-running protests that followed his dismissal from the post of governor is an excellent indication of this. The uprising in Belarus, a country that has been more authoritarian than Russia, shows that repression and political apathy can be overcome. Russia still has a long way to go from the successful organization of local protests to national-level protest coordination, but there are enough triggers for such an outcome.