How Putin Needs His Russian Opposition
By: Analysis | Stratfor.comMarch 6, 2018
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How Putin Needs His Russian Opposition
  • Though Vladimir Putin is all but certain to win a fourth term in office, he will face pivotal challenges — particularly demographic and economic — in that term, which will force the Kremlin to plan reforms for the longer term. 
  • With Russia facing difficulties, opposition factions will gain importance and advance viewpoints that the Kremlin cannot ignore.
  • The government will mold new relationships with some opposition factions, while allowing other prominent groups to provide safety valves to release pressure from a dissatisfied population. 

The result is not in doubt: Russian President Vladimir Putin will win a fourth term in office when voters go to the polls later this month. After close to two decades in power, the head of state enjoys a significant degree of popular support, and most opinion polls give him at least 40 to 60 percent of the popular vote. These days, however, not everything is going the Kremlin's way — from increasing social tensions to rising poverty, Moscow is facing a host of challenges whose solutions do not lie in flashy patriotic stunts or propaganda. And with a number of opposition viewpoints likely to become an even greater thorn in the Kremlin's side, Putin will have no choice but to address such concerns after his latest coronation. 

Problems at Home, Problem Abroad

The recent discontent on Russia's streets is profound, but the Kremlin is struggling to address the issue. Moscow faces a string of demographic changes, including a decline in the ethnic Russian population and a rise in the number of Muslims, which has led to increased social tensions. Generational change is another factor of contemporary Russia. Nearly one-third of Russians were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the generation presently coming of age knows no national leader other than Putin. The new generation has lived under a relatively prosperous and stable Russia. Savvy in social media, they have access to information and news well beyond the state messaging machines. With a majority of Russian youths (those in their teens and 20s) desiring the ability to change the political scene, they have increasingly filled the protests, in contrast to the profile of previous demonstrators, who were were markedly older.

The other major crisis facing the Kremlin is a stagnant economy. Russia plunged into recession between 2014 and 2017 due to low oil prices, Western sanctions and a decline in industry. In response, Moscow initially whipped up nationalist sentiment by annexing Crimea, by allegedly sending soldiers into eastern Ukraine in 2014 and by launching a military intervention in Syria in 2015. As the latter two military campaigns drag on with no tangible end in sight, some in Russia are voicing increasing disapproval of the foreign adventures, demanding instead a solution for the foundering economy. Impoverishment, pensions and salaries are the top concerns among many of the electorate. Poverty is rising at its fastest level since 1998, as roughly 5 million Russian have fallen below the poverty line in the past three years. Half the country's citizens have also witnessed cuts in their wages or only received their salaries intermittently, while pensioners have sounded the alarm after the Kremlin began dipping its hand into the state retirement fund. 

70/70 Vision

With few solutions to address these issues, the Kremlin decided in 2017 to move this year's elections up from September to March in an effort to forestall the worst of the expected economic stagnation and outflank the opposition. The Kremlin's initial plan was to run a “70/70 election,” in which Putin would garner 70 percent of the votes of the 70 percent of the electorate that deigned to cast a ballot. The government was forced to abandon such hopes, however, after the Russian leader's approval ratings began to dip and some opposition groups launched a campaign to persuade voters to stay home. The Kremlin does not harbor any fears that someone else could possibly defeat Putin, but a low turnout would cast a shadow over his presidency and undermine his mandate to retain power in the eyes of citizens, elites and the rest of the government. Such a mandate is a prerequisite in Russian politics to take decisive action, counter dissidence and remain the premier arbitrator among elites. 

Accordingly, the Kremlin has launched a campaign to inject some excitement into the elections, announcing plans to hold rock concerts at key polling stations, to stage fairs and to dole out cash and prizes — all typical tools in the Kremlin toolbox.

Accordingly, the Kremlin has launched a campaign to inject some excitement into the elections, announcing plans to hold rock concerts at key polling stations, to stage fairs and to dole out cash and prizes — all typical tools in the Kremlin toolbox. And in marked contrast to past years in which the same faces graced the ballots and stages, authorities are seeking to shake up the political landscape by running a variety of influential candidates. The tactic, however, has provided a platform for increased political discourse and is changing how the Kremlin will manage opposition factions in the future. 

Creating a Constructive Opposition

Russia's opposition hails from the right, left and in between, although the most pertinent differentiation between those arrayed against the Kremlin is whether they operate within the system or outside it. Members of the first group, which consists of parliamentary parties and regional governments such as the Communist Party, Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia, rarely challenge the status quo defended by the pro-Putin United Russia. Those outside the system are generally more direct in their antagonism toward Putin and tend to work on the fringes of Russian politics. In recent years, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has had pride of place in this second group, though many others have also returned to the stage, such as the liberal party Yabloko.

With the Kremlin facing stiff challenges and a disillusioned electorate, the various opposition groups have succeeded in molding a political discourse by raising the level of debate in the press, spreading their messages nationwide via social media and threatening United Russia's hold on other levels of government. All these developments would have been unthinkable a decade before. Although no candidate stands between Putin and a fourth term in office, the opposition's ideological debates have risen to a level that the Kremlin can no longer ignore. The Kremlin is thus attempting to craft a strategy to release the pressure created by widespread societal dissatisfaction, while converting the systemic and nonsystemic opposition into a so-called "constructive" opposition — meaning they would work with the Kremlin to mold policies for Russians in the next term. One presidential candidate who seems to be part of the constructive opposition, Ksenia Sobchak, even coined the slogan: “We’ll oust Putin through evolution, not revolution. 

The Trio Who Would Challenge Putin

Of the main figures challenging Putin (whether as official candidates or not), three have emerged as faces of movements that could cause problems for the Kremlin in the post-election landscape: The Communist Party's Pavel Grudinin, Yabloko chief Grigory Yavlinsky, as well as Navalny. 


Grudinin emerged in December 2017 as a peculiar candidate for the Communist Party after the party's longtime leader, Gennady Zyuganov, declined to run a third time against Putin. In contrast to his predecessor, Grudinin has managed to appeal to broad swaths of the population. Grudinin is also a former member of the Putin-backed United Russia and is — somewhat ironically — friendly with ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party. Grudinin operates the Lenin strawberry collective outside of the capital, which marries Soviet ideals and capitalist business ethics and has duly offered high salaries and posted high productivity. In recent years, the Communist Party has attempted to revamp its stodgy, Soviet-era image, promoting Communist iconography, humorous slogans (such as a Vladimir Lenin who wears blue jeans) and embraced members of the new generation within its top tier.

Initial reports suggested that the Kremlin approved Grudinin's candidacy against Putin with an eye to enticing residents in Moscow suburbs to come to the ballot box. In recent weeks, however, the Kremlin has seemed to change its tune on Grudinin, particularly after a poll from Vesti radio indicated that he commanded a great deal of support against Putin. Admittedly, the number might have been skewed due to its polling of an unrepresentative sample, but the figure was still worrying for the Kremlin. Accordingly, Grudinin became the target of a state-backed smear campaign in recent weeks that revealed his foreign assets, even though he divested himself of them when he registered himself as a candidate. Nonetheless, the optics of a Communist candidate possessing foreign financial and estate holdings has tarnished him going into the elections. 

Yavlinsky re-emerged on the Russian political scene after years of dabbling on the fringes of opposition groups. His Yabloko party once held seats in the Duma and enjoyed strong popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s, but its ultraliberal policies have attracted little support during Putin's nationalistic tenure. Now, Yabloko has made inroads among many in the new generation who support its liberal politics, which range from a capitalism without cronyism to improved ties to the West and its rejection of Kremlin corruption and authoritarianism. In September 2017, Yabloko sent tremors through Russia's political establishment when it won a majority of districts in legislative elections in the highly coveted Moscow region. Yabloko is even bullish on its chances of unseating Moscow's mayor, Putin ultraloyalist Sergei Sobyanin, in September elections. 

The Kremlin would like to co-opt both Grudinin and Yavlinsky and convert them into constructive opposition. Speculation is rife that the Kremlin is mulling dialogue with both parties to help shape its future policies. Grudinin could assist the Kremlin in shaping reforms on pensions and poverty. Yavlinsky, meanwhile, has been vocal about changing Moscow's approach on Ukraine and the need to temper relations with the West to attract investors and international capital once more. In November 2017, Putin unexpectedly met with Yavlinsky. According to Echo Moscow Editor Alexei Venediktov, Putin challenged Yavlinsky to draw up a better plan for Ukraine — which is not to suggest that Putin is prepared to embrace liberal approaches to Russia's foreign policies but does indicate that Moscow is soliciting opposition views in an effort to temper anti-Kremlin sentiment.  

The third figure, however, is unlikely to come in from the cold. Navalny's anti-corruption campaign against Russian elites — the Kremlin included — has exposed the pressure that is building among the Russian population.

The third figure, however, is unlikely to come in from the cold. Navalny's anti-corruption campaign against Russian elites — the Kremlin included — has exposed the pressure that is building among the Russian population. The politician's platform has expanded vastly in recent years, as his team has opened 80 offices across the country that have organized and promoted many of the largest protests in recent years. Navalny was barred from running for president in February 2017 after authorities charged him with embezzlement, but the Kremlin has yet to incarcerate him since he serves as a useful figurehead for public protest without posing a direct threat to the Kremlin (yet). Nevertheless, Navalny and much of his countrywide team are likely to spend a few weeks in jail during the upcoming elections, lest they cause a nuisance to the Kremlin by organizing mass protests. 

The Kremlin is tinkering with various strategies to manage the growing discontent in the country and to address the increasing importance of opposition voices, because the days when Moscow could ignore dissenting voices are rapidly coming to an end. In the months and years to come, Russian authorities face tough decisions on how to respond to poverty, economic woes and the different expectations of a new generation of citizens, as well as calls for reforms. By bringing some dissident figures into its orbit as a "constructive opposition," the Kremlin can neutralize the threat of some of its detractors, while dialogue with such figures will help Putin shape his fourth term. And even if the Kremlin cannot co-opt all opposition voices, the dissenters who refuse to play ball on Moscow's terms will still play an important role in Putin's management of strife on the streets. In the end, a bit of opposition might never have been so important to Putin as it is now.

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