Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Meaning of 'Opposition' has Radically Changed During Putin’s Years, Bilunov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Oct. 27 – Russians have continued to speak about the political opposition to Vladimir Putin from the beginning of his rule to the present time without fully recognizing that the term now refers to something entirely different than it did earlier, according to Moscow sociologist Denis Bilunov.

            “In the narrow sense of the word, an opposition includes those political organizations and politicians which are engaged in a struggle for power,” he says. At the start of his term in office, “such a struggle was taking place,” but “after several years, Putin “was able to neutralize practically all competitors” (theins.ru/history/245881).

            As a result, Bilunov continues, “an opposition in this narrow sense ceased to exist,” although “by inertia” Russians continued to refer to any group that was “formally” not part of United Russia as the opposition, even though the only “real critics of Putin” were beyond the party system and formed what has come to be known as “the non-systemic opposition.”

            But the key fact is that “there were very few politicians in the traditional understanding” in this group. “There were only a handful of such people and “they did not have a chance to struggle for power.” Instead, they relied on “the explosive growth of the Internet” to reach people, a phenomenon which left “traditional forms of opposition activity” in the shadows.

            What such people did represent was less an opposition in the traditional sense than a form of resistance to the regime, a shift which simultaneously limited the direct threat such people posed to Putin but made opposing him and his regime more acceptable to more people because those involved were not primarily politicians as such, Bilunov argues.

            Consequently, “if one compares Russia at the beginning of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2020s, the difference in the understanding of the word ‘opposition’ is enormous and its result is the willingness of the majority if not to take part in protest actions but at least to sympathize with them.”

            The change in the nature and meaning of opposition has taken place in parallel with Putin’s evolution from a populist to a leader who generally refuses to make the kind of appeals to “the people” that are most commonly associated with populism, a trend and a division that has only deepened during the coronavirus pandemic.

            At the start of his reign, Putin was viewed “by the majority of voters as cruely speaking ‘our guy against the oligarchs’ but in recent years in the eyes of the people he has become ever more and more ‘the president of the rich.’” What is called the opposition draws its strength from that but has not been able to convert it into political power.

            And that suggests, Bilunov concludes, that it is better to think of these groups who promote disagreements with Putin and the increasing number of Russians who support them less as “the opposition” than as “the resistance” to him and to recognize the path from the latter to the former is still one that they have to cross and that Putin will do his best to resist.


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