In 2019, Vladimir Putin declared that liberalism had “become obsolete.” Pointing to global populist movements rallying against migration and multiculturalism, the Russian President argued that people simply no longer believe in the liberal, democratic norms that have prevailed in the West for decades.
It is easy to see why the veteran leader was losing little sleep over any liberal opposition to his rule, or indeed any opposition at all. Just a year before, he had been returned to the Kremlin for a fourth term with more than three quarters of the vote. Now, with growing speculation that he is looking to step back after two decades at the helm, it is tempting to assume that Russian voters might look for something fundamentally different. But take a closer look at the country’s opposition groups and it shows that his main opposition is anything but liberal.
Recent events have drawn almost unprecedented attention to Russia’s domestic opposition. In July, protests erupted in Khabarovsk over the arrest of the then-governor, Sergei Furgal, on murder charges. His supporters, claiming the charges were politically motivated, took to the streets in their thousands calling, not just for his release, but for a “Russia without Putin.” When these events were reported outside of Russia, they were painted as a young, liberal threat to the Kremlin’s status quo.
Yet superficial appearances can be deceptive. What was missed from that analysis was that the “Liberal Democratic Party”, of which Furgal is a member, is actually a populist movement that calls for Russian territorial expansion in Eastern Europe and adheres to a vision of ethnic nationalism. Not only is it not a liberal opposition in a Western sense, it actually supports the governing United Russia Party with a confidence and supply agreement.
The narrative of an ostensibly left-wing movement trying to shake off the yoke of a veteran strongman has been deployed with varying degrees of accuracy in Poroshenko’s Ukraine, Orbán’s Hungary and, most recently, Lukashenko’s Belarus. But in Russia, the picture is far more complex.
In fact, the most consistent and organised opposition to Putin and United Russia has not been the liberals, but the communists. The Communist Party, a direct successor to the one that once wielded total power over the Soviet Union, has placed second in every Presidential election since the fall of the USSR. With more than 40 seats in the State Duma, the party is the country’s official opposition.
Defying characterisation in Western-centric political terms, the Communist Party appeals to voters who feel the country is on the wrong track and offers left-wing social welfare policies. It appeals to more conservative instincts in Russian society, fuelled by public nostalgia. Only in the former Soviet Union would this political paradigm be possible.
Outside of the State Duma, smaller opposition parties are overwhelmingly critical of the Government. These groups range from being Marxist to libertarian in stance, and a few, such as Yabloko, can broadly be considered centre-left and centre-right in European terms. But they are all united by a general failure to make significant electoral gains, nationally or regionally. In many cases, they have reported issues with electoral transparency or media bias. As they frequently form around one or two charismatic individuals with name recognition in only one local area, this is far from their only barrier to widespread support.
Alexei Navalny’s Russia of the Future is one such party. A veteran Kremlin critic, Navalny made international headlines when he was admitted to intensive care last week following what his supporters – and doctors in Germany – allege to be a poisoning. Disturbing footage circulated online of him writhing in pain on a flight to Moscow, which was forced to make an emergency landing in the Arctic city of Omsk. These events have been covered widely, generating interest in and misconceptions of Russia’s opposition movements.
In 2012, The Wall Street Journal called Navalny “the man Putin fears the most.” Travelling across the country, he has become one of the most prominent campaigners against corruption and cronyism in Russia.
Yet this has never translated into electoral success for him or his colleagues. While Navalny has encountered issues with electoral registration because of a conviction for embezzlement, which he denies, these are not the only obstacles he faces. His attempts to stand for President have been widely reported in Russia, but independent polls show the proportion of voters supporting a candidate outside of the mainstream parties has remained at only around 10 per cent.
In the West, Navalny’s focus on corruption and his young, energised support base often leads to him being portrayed as a liberal champion against the Kremlin. In reality, he has veered more towards populism, and even nationalism. He faced criticism for his calls to defund southern republics, such as Chechnya, where ethnic Russians are a minority. Other opposition figures were alarmed after he filmed a pro-gun ownership video, in which he compared citizens of the mainly-Muslim North Caucasus to cockroaches. The piece ended with him shooting with a pistol.
While Navalny is no Western liberal, Putin will know that the circumstances around his hospitalisation have the potential to be a lightning rod for all kinds of anti-government sentiment.
Putin’s view that liberalism has become obsolete appears, at least in Russia, to be right. But did it ever have a chance? In his book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, Daniel Ziblatt charts how countries that evolved centre-right political movements were able to strike compromises between the ruling and working classes, and build lasting liberal institutions. Between totalitarian Tsarism and authoritarian communism, no such movement ever developed in Russia. As a result, Putin inherited a country with few robust institutions, one where civil society organisations were treated with suspicion. It is no surprise, then, that Russia had few liberal strongholds to begin with.
Another challenge is that Putin is expert at capitalising on Russians’ political concerns. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index shows that sleaze and graft is one of the public’s main concerns. But it is a concern that the President has sought to turn into a strength, championing drives against misconduct in public office. Footage went viral of Putin taking a hard line on price gouging at the start of the pandemic. This kind of commitment inoculates him to a degree against criticism that his detractors, like Navalny, would otherwise have gained ground. For Russia’s civil rights campaigners, this might prove to be the best way to advance their important causes – by working with United Russia, rather than in opposition to it.
If Putin is now considering a transition away from governing, understanding where the Russian President’s popularity comes from, and how Russian political fault lines differ from our own, should be a priority in the West. As Putin’s role model, Napoleon Bonaparte, once wrote: “A revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets.” Looking at the prospects for domestic liberal opposition in Russia, he is unlikely to worry that its advocates are anywhere near that point.
Gabriel Gavin is a London-based policy consultant and an analyst of Eurasian politics.