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20 March 2017

Russia’s Opposition: Can it be Great Again?

Here’s how to unite protest voters: from anti-corruption investigations, to the local agenda

Navalny, an opposition leader, has released a video called “Don’t call him Dimon.” The video exposes various corrupt schemes involving Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister. The investigation is sophisticated and comprehensive - in line with the high profile nature of who is being investigated. Quite convoluted schemes were exposed: property formally registered to so-called “charitable organizations” is in fact owned by the second most important person in the state. Not only is the total sum of these purchases impressive – 70 billion rubles – but it is also owned according to the feudal form of ownership. In fact, the Prime Minister has no formal rights to the real estate, yachts, and land. He does, however, host tours while greeting his subjects in the manner of a real sovereign in line with fine feudal traditions.

Economy and politics

As a sociologist, I am interested in a slightly different aspect of this investigation: How do ordinary Russians, who are at the very bottom of this power pyramid, react to this? We witness a marvelous moment in the film during which ACF employees speak about the prime minister’s real estate in the Kursk Oblast: an interview with local residents who comment on the adjacency of their miserable shacks and their prime minister’splush mansion. Not a trace of a complaint, envy or indignation can be gleaned from their words. On the contrary, the situation is perceived as one which is absolutely normal; Dmitry Medvedev is a grand personnage and we are insignificant people with modest needs. Undoubtedly, the common villagers, who are Dmitry Medvedev’s neighbors, cannot believe that even given his prime minister’s salary, he is able to afford this land. And they themselves would certainly like to have a better life. According to public opinion polls conducted by the Levada-Center, the problem of unlawful enrichment of officials is second only to economic issues in terms of importance in the eyes of the people – 28 percent of respondents mention it in open-ended questions. The identified importance of economic and corruption-related problems is an indicator of the dissatisfaction with the political elite.

Data spanning several years show that indicators of economic and corruption-related topics fluctuate in “waves”. When a crisis hits, fewer Russians mention corruption and bribery; it is in times when the standard of living is relatively stable when thoughts turn actively to these matters. Today, politics is again in the shadow of the economy. Although citizens do generally notice the correlation between these two issues, the extent of the problem and the potential for improvement seem unrelated.

While Russians can still recall economically prosperous years they and their family have enjoyed, the social memory contains practically no examples of their own impact on the formation of the political elite. Changes in the history of our country are perceived toalways have been linked to struggles in the upper echelons of power and have always had a negative impact on the situation of the majority of Russians. Citizens do not want change today but, as they put it, “something a bit different” at the most. The fear of global upheavals going back to the nineties has now spread and consolidated at the state level.

Perception of anti-corruption investigations

Nevertheless, the desire for change and for the authorities to be held accountable is regularly expressed by a notable minority of Russians at the very least. The rallies at the Triumfalnaya and Bolotnaya squares coincided with Alexei Navalny being ranked highly in opinion polls. Although only Russians interested in politics had heard of him at the time, his image in the eyes of citizens of the country was better back in 2013, during his Moscow mayoral election campaign, than it is today. Negative publicity on mainstream national TV channels has contributed significantly to the decline of confidence in him as a politician. Moreover, the perception of the importance of the problem of corruption – the trademark of this politician – has faded in recent years. In 2012, 80 percent of Russians saw the investigation into Anatoliy Serdyukov’s case as a manifestation of the overall disintegration of the system, whereas in 2016, as few as 64 percent of respondents considered Ulyukaev’s case to be a sign of the deterioration of the state. Alexei Navalny’s latest investigation is hardly likely to reverse this trend, although these kind of investigations do attract some publicity.

A month after the release of the video of the investigation into the case of the family of Prosecutor Yury Chaika, the video had been watched by 5 percent of Russians while 38 percent were aware of it. The most recent poll conducted by the Levada-Center, when footage about the investigation into the case of Dmitry Medvedev was released, a 7-percentage point increase was recorded with respect to the proponents of the view that “corruption has permeated all tiers of the Russian authorities from top to the bottom”. Does it elicit shock or surprise? The scope of corruption – yes. The very fact of corruption at the top – no. Russian citizens follow the developments, discuss the situation and share their impressions. However, are these emotions strong enough to change the state of affairs or do they only serve to solidify Russians’ refusal to believe in change for the better? According to popular belief, any person in power, first of all, strives to ensure his own well-being and this is especially true of new faces coming to power who harbor a greater appetite than those who have already had some time at the trough. Actually, the idea of the transparency of the authorities promoted by Alexei Navalny can hardly play a decisive role in mobilizing the proponents of this idea since people, by and large,are not seriously concerned about the accountability of the authorities – this is an attitude typical even of many supporters of democratic parties.

Today, we can actually speak of the demoralization not only of politicians themselves but also citizens who vote for the opposition. As such, anti-corruption investigations are successful in democratic societies in  developed Western countries. Yet in Russia, however necessary corruption investigations are, their findings are more likely to debilitate and demoralise ordinary Russians today. It would be wrong to interpret my words as a criticism of Navalny’s team. But we are dealing with a situation today where any insufficiently strong opposition is interpreted as a defeat: the defeat of the Bolotnaya Square is like a shadow hovering over relations between citizens and the opposition. Every battle is perceived as the last, since people generally prefer to side with victors.

The task is to unite

It is not my task to draw up an election program for an opposition candidate. However, in an attempt to illustrate that this article is intended to constitute more than mere over-zealous criticism, let me draw readers’ attention to two extremely important issues:

To begin with, there is an extremely strong feeling of disunity among the potential electorate of opposition parties, and that  generates general pessimism. The lack of unity is perceived as an extremely significant problem by respondents themselves. It is noteworthy that suppressed supporters of the opposition do not feel the superiority of the majority of Russians. They are not regarded as rivals or beneficiaries of the strengthening of the existing government. The only possible victors today are the authorities themselves. The notion that the opposition shall unite is prevalent among protest voters. The importance of communication, including face-to-face communication with like-minded people, is vital for raising the morale of proponents of changes since, most often, these people receive emotional support only from their friends given their cognizance of their ideological otherness compared to the majority of Russians. The mobilization function was fulfilled by opposition rallies as long as there was an influx of new politicians; an inner drive displayed by participants. Today, many independent municipal deputies are involved in meetings with residents of their districts.

However, again, these events turn into soirees of an exclusive club of friends and acquaintances. Alexei Navalny’s strategy involving established headquarters for offline garnering of support and broad information campaigns appears interesting against this backdrop. However, it is obvious that communication between supporters should be institutionalized and should go beyond communication of the candidate with the people and become a form of direct control exercised over the deeds of politicians: citizens should feel that they are part of the majority.

Secondly, citizens clearly perceive the limits of their own influence; the more global the problem and the further it is from the family and one’s own backyard, the less significant the ordinary Russians’ influence is.

Presented in the  graph above are data which show the situation across the country in general. Opposition party supporters are often more active when resolving their own general problems. That is to say that they are more often interested in finding solutions to problems which affect their district or city. The willingness to work at a local level closely correlates with the feeling of responsibility and attention to changes taking place. Residents are more competent when attempting to determine whether initiatives introduced by the mayor’s office or a highway repair has met the needs of their own district or own backyard. Most probably, strategies of opposition politicians should include the linking of local issues from several districts as part of a broader agenda as well as an expansion of their geography in order to serve residents of neighboring districts. Even a federal-level politician would feel much more comfortable were he to have the support of residents of his “own” districts.

Ideal opposition is not only an emergency pressure release valve nor is it merely a community of human rights defenders. It is a force which is capable of replacing the ruling elite, uniting a major portion of society and offering constructive solutions to problems. Despite the administrative and ideologically dominant position of the authorities, a significant proportion of Russians still wants to hear a dissenting opinion. Russian citizens need a counter-balance against power, not radical protests. 

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