When opposition politician Aleksei Navalny stood in the defendant’s cage in a Moscow courtroom on February 2, he held a sign that may have captured the Russian opposition’s most important priority at the moment.
“I am not afraid,” Navalny’s sign said, shortly before Judge Natalya Repnikova sentenced him to 2 years and 8 months in prison. “And don’t you be afraid.”
After Navalny’s team announced the suspension of public demonstrations in the wake of the state’s often brutal crackdown and thousands of detentions, many of those opposed to the continued rule of authoritarian President Vladimir Putin were disappointed and angry.
Navalny’s team was left with the task of maintaining the movement’s momentum while refocusing it on elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, that must be held by September 19. The opposition sees those elections as a real chance to expose Putin’s political weakness and loosen the ruling United Russia party’s near monopoly on power.
“One of most important messages is that Putin has nothing to offer but fear,” Leonid Volkov, who runs the network of Navalny’s regional offices, told Current Time on February 11. “That fear and political violence are the only things on his political agenda, the only things he has to offer.”
Breaking through that fear and expanding the base of active opposition supporters, Navalny team leaders say, is the movement’s top priority in the months before the elections.
However, the potential for division within the opposition was further aggravated on February 6 when longtime liberal figurehead Grigory Yavlinsky, co-founder of the Yabloko party, published a long article in which he criticized Navalny’s “populism” and “nationalism” as “incompatible” with a democratic Russia and just as dangerous to the country as Putinism itself.
Yavlinsky also repeated the unfounded Kremlin accusation that Navalny’s supporters were recruiting schoolchildren and other minors to participate in protests.
The developments cast doubt on the ability of the opposition to convert outrage over Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment into a movement capable of altering the political environment.
“Navalny’s team knows how to organize successful protests that quite effectively react to particular events in the country,” said Moscow-based political analyst Aleksandr Kynev. “But it has been harder and more complicated to come up with long-term strategies. This is not the first time we are seeing this.”
Historically, the anti-Kremlin opposition in Russia has always been fractured, with nationalists, communists, monarchists, liberals, and libertarians regularly failing to rally together. There have been many reasons for the infighting — from serious ideological differences, to interference from Kremlin political technologists, to the sometimes overwhelming egos of figures pretending to the movement’s leadership.
This time, however, Navalny’s team hopes things will be different.
On February 12, Yavlinsky walked back his assault on Navalny a bit. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio, he said that he regrets that his article “was unpleasant for some people.” He added that it was not meant as an attack on Navalny personally, but on “the political line that he is following.”
Yavlinsky also rejected the accusation that he had written the article at the Kremlin’s behest, responding to conspiracy theories that he might have been promised seats in the next Duma in exchange for helping defuse the political tensions around Navalny’s imprisonment.
Yavlinsky’s original article drew harsh criticism from within his own party, as well as from other oppositionists. Aleksei Shitov, head of Yabloko’s youth wing in Novosibirsk, which adopted a resolution critical of the article, told RFE/RL that Yavlinsky’s statement “came at the wrong time.”
Navalny is a tool to change political power…. I support him because he is the person closest to changing the political system. He is the only one capable of creating competitive elections in this country.”
“We have to all understand that Aleksei Navalny is now not just a political figure for us but a political prisoner who was illegally tried and imprisoned,” Shitov said. “There can’t be any political discussion until Navalny is free. It is wrong to beat a man when he can’t fight back.”
The youth wing in St. Petersburg also adopted a critical resolution. The group’s deputy leader, Yevgeny Timanovsky, told RFE/RL that “times like these demand maximal unity of the opposition forces, when Navalny is de facto a hostage of the Russian government and a political prisoner.”
Lev Shlosberg, a regional lawmaker from Pskov Oblast and one of Yabloko’s best-known figures, also slammed Yavlinsky’s article, emphasizing that it had not been published in coordination with other Yabloko leaders.
“We are talking about the life and death of a citizen of Russia, of the politician Aleksei Navalny,” Shlosberg wrote, referring to Navalny’s poisoning in August by a Novichok-type nerve agent allegedly by agents of Putin’s Federal Security Service. “His poisoning was not ‘strange,’ but terrifying, and his brave return to Russia brought back to our country a public politician whose main demand is simply ‘liberty.'”
Shlosberg also pointed out that Yabloko’s demands in the current situation are identical to Navalny’s: the end to repressive violence and the release of all detainees, as well as criminal proceedings against those involved in police brutality; the opening of a criminal investigation into Navalny’s poisoning and the punishment of those responsible; the release of all political prisoners and the opening of criminal proceedings against law enforcement officials who participated in the falsification of criminal cases; honest elections; and the restoration of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights and freedoms.
Even many representatives of Russia’s ethnic minorities are willing to look past Navalny’s earlier endorsements of Russian nationalist positions in a bid to secure broader political liberties, particularly after the Kremlin last year pushed through a package of constitutional amendments that could enable Putin to remain in power until 2036.
“Navalny is a tool to change political power,” said Komi activist Aleksei Ivanov, who waved a Komi ethnic banner at pro-Navalny protests in Syktyvkar in January. “He has no clear position on federalism and so I believe he can be persuaded on this issue at any time. I support him because he is the person closest to changing the political system. He is the only one capable of creating competitive elections in this country.”
Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, emphasizes that his movement is charting new territory and is implementing a multipronged strategy.
“The fact is that we are — and we are not afraid to say it — pioneers,” he said. “No one before has done the things that we are doing. I mean, major investigative reports, communication with our supporters, the transformation of our structures into a sort of media empire. I mean, the creation of an organizational structure that reaches into the regions and is not based on an existing party, despite the harsh opposition of the authorities. I mean, the smart-voting system and tactics for competing in elections.”
Yavlinsky argued in his critical article that Navalny’s sensational exposés of corruption among the ruling elite have had little impact. But Shitov, the Navalny supporter who heads Yaboloko’s youth wing in Novosibirsk, has a different take.
“Now we are seeing memes passed around with toilet brushes and ‘aqua discos,'” he said, referring to two symbols that gained traction from Navalny’s recent report on a lavish Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin’s personal use. “Laughter is the best weapon against fear. And in this way, the investigations are playing their role.”
The next move of Navalny’s team is also aimed at overcoming fear, Volkov said. He has called on supporters to come out into their courtyards on February 14 and shine the flashlight on their cell phones into the darkness as a symbol of solidarity.
“We expect that a significant number of people will feel that they are not alone,” he said. “They will feel they are overcoming…the fear that Putin is trying to sow everywhere.”
“I can imagine that in some courtyards, only very few people will come out,” he added. “But even if there are only two, each of them will experience a moment of great joy. ‘OK. I am not alone. There is another person here with me who shares my views.’ And that is not as small a thing as we might imagine.”
In cases where many people find themselves out together, Volkov added, the benefits could be even more significant.
“Neighborhood chat groups could emerge in some places,” he said. “Horizontal ties. Forms of self-organization. Maybe they will start planning something together. Maybe they will show up together at the next demonstration. That would be a huge success.”
Preliminary research has indicated that as many as 40 percent of those who participated in the demonstrations in January and earlier this month were protesting for the first time.
“As the saying goes, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” Volkov told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “For many people, I hope, February 14 will become that first step, the smallest and shortest step onto the street that a person can take: from one’s doorway to one’s courtyard. But that will mean, nonetheless, that they are on the way to further steps.”