Friday, June 29, 2018

Putin Regime Keeping Opposition Divided and Isolated from the Population, Kirillova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – Many complain that the Russian opposition has failed to unite to fight the Putin regime, Kseniya Kirillova says; but they forget two things: On the one hand, a pluralism of opinions is natural among democrats; and on the other, the Putin regime has taken specific steps to keep the opposition divided and isolated from the population.

            In many ways, the US-based Russian analyst says, the opposition has progressed since the 1990s. At that time, being a liberal or a human rights activist was “’fashionable’” and many identified with those terms without being committed to the ideas behind them. Now most of those people have fallen away (

            Some remained at least until 2012 while it was still possible to be “’a career liberal,’” but in the main, these people have shifted and either exited from politics altogether or become government loyalists.  That reduced the size of the opposition and divided it, but fortunately, these “accidental” people have been replaced by others genuinely concerned about their country.

            The exit of the one was accelerated by increasing government repression, especially after 2014 and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Kirillova says.  And that repression took the form not only of harassment and arrests but of the regime’s active measures to discredit “not only individuals but the [democratic] movement as a whole and even the terms ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy.’”

            Unfortunately, she continues, “the majority of opposition activists noted these trends too late and turned out to be unprepared to counter them.” And thus they were not able to build on the influx of new supporters among Russians who were sincerely against Putin’s wars abroad and totalitarianism at home.  

            “These ordinary homemakers and sales clerks, who were prepared to go to court for their convictions, students and pupils who participated in meetings along with famous dissidents and risk their lives for their unwillingness to go alone, it appeared, appeared to be capable of establishing a new core of the democratic movement.”

            That was all the more so the case, Kirillova argues, because “many protest leaders in recent years have recognized their former errors and begun to speak with the population about serious social problems, in a number of cases, with success.” But the Putin regime has responded in ways that have limited this possibility

            On the one hand, it drove into emigration or silence almost all those who weren’t prepared to compromise with it on foreign policy at least; and on the other, it left “’alive and free’” only those who were prepared to try to find some common ground, a combination that divided the opposition in new ways.

            The Russian state’s repressive actions “radicalized and marginalized” some in the opposition, but they also led others to seek a modus vivendi that would allow them to continue to work and still a third group to exit from protests altogether. In combination, these things helped keep the opposition from uniting against the Putin regime.

            “Today, those who are dissatisfied in Russia are divided by their views, their goals and by their methods of action,” she says. “The overwhelming majority of protest actions today are organized by the Aleksey Navalny’s command.” They typically focus on corruption and do not mention foreign policy, a compromise of a sorts.

            But “a segment of Russian citizens inclined to protest still have not accepted compromises on issues like Crimea, the Donbass, and other crimes of the Russian state. Many of them react negatively to those who participate in anti-corruption protests” for that reason. They see the latter as having sold out.

            But this group has its own problems. It is the chief target of repression and it does not have a leader because all those who were most prominently associated with this position have been “forced to emigrate.”  Even among these, however, there is no unity among its members about how to conduct opposition activity.

            “Under conditions of constant pressure by the secret services, by provocations and by arrests, the level of mutual distrust among opposition figures is growing at all levels.” Often, members of one group view members of another “not as opponents but as hired agents of the FSB,” a plausible charge in some cases because the FSB does put its agents in opposition groups.

            Russian opposition groups are also divided on how to proceed. Some favor boycotts of elections while others insist that they can only succeed by taking part; and that difference in opinion also has become “a catalyst for mutual suspicions,” Kirillova suggests.

            But there is yet another division which the regime works to exploit in order to keep the opposition divided and isolated.  Increasingly, protests are undertaken by specific groups seeking to improve their own situation. And the government uses this to try to suggest that all protesters are engaged in essentially selfish actions and that others should turn away from them.

            As yet, very few Russians are ready to show solidarity to others especially if by avoiding doing so they can avoid being targets for government repression.  They feel pleased that they have escaped punishment because “they are not supporters of Ukraine, not opposition figures, not long-haul drivers, not Jehovah’s Witnesses” and so on and on.

            They are thus the latest in a long line of those Pastor Niemoeller described as being pleased that no one had come for them because they weren’t members of one or another group only to discover in the end that when the state came for them, there was no one left to speak out on their behalf.

                As a result of all this, Kirillova says, the Russian democratic movement today finds itself in “a paradoxical situation.” It has far fewer hangers on than it did 25 years ago, but it remains even more divided as a result not only of government policies directed against it but also the as the regime’s efforts to undermine the moral values behind such a movement. 

            “The fear, cynicism and distrust” the regime has promoted, she concludes, “has led the majority of the population to cling to the false stability” the Kremlin claims it has created; and “the opposition as before doesn’t have the strength to overcome the divisions” natural and otherwise that the situation in Russia today promotes.

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