In general terms, why has the democratic opposition failed to establish itself as a real counterweight to power in Russia?
First of all, we must bear in mind that there are many definitions for a country like Russia, from an “incomplete democracy” to an “electoral authoritarianism”, but they all coincide in defining Russia as something different from the rest of our liberal democracies. This is logical, because the democratic system of Russia, on the one hand, holds elections, but then there is a strong restriction on civil liberties that does not allow the political opposition to organize and, in the long run, exercise a real counterweight or opposition to the central power.
The current Russian Constitution, approved in 1993, recognizes freedom of expression, opinion and association for its citizens. Yet the 2019 Freedom House report claimed that none of these freedoms can actually be fully exercised in Russia. What are its constriction mechanisms?
At present there are different effective barriers to limit the exercise of political activity in the country, both that which is carried out officially and unofficially. The first barriers we could say are the media, since no space is granted to groups or alternative proposals in the most popular Russian media. This is essential because in Russia and especially in rural contexts, a very large part of the population watches state television, which is totally dependent on the Kremlin. Then there are the electoral barriers, of course, whose main stumbling block is simply not allowing a candidate to register to run in general elections. Therefore, there are many different barriers to the real exercise of political activity, which not only occurs in the political sphere, but also in civil society groups or collectives that promote initiatives of any kind, such as, for example, environmental.
“I do not think that the majority of Russians see Putin’s management badly, his popularity is very high”
How do barriers materialize in the latter cases, for example?
Well, an example is the Foreign Agency Law, in which, if you have a single source of income that is foreign, even a small part, it automatically forces you to define yourself as a foreign agent, which, in a context like Russia, is a hard stigma. In addition, this not only happens with organizations or groups such as NGOs, but also with individuals, such as bloggers, for example. In short, making political opposition in this context is a difficult, almost impossible and, at times, dangerous undertaking. Regarding specific cases of Russia, it should also be noted that there is a systemic opposition, which perhaps functions more as a facade, since it actually participates in the entire democratic mechanism, while, later, there is an anti-systemic opposition, which basically has the Alexei Navalny’s face and that it is the one that poses the greatest risks for Putin, and that, for this very reason, suffers the most from all those restrictions we are talking about.
In February 2020, just before the pandemic was declared, the Russian opposition demanded the resignation of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a massive march in memory of Boris Nemtsov. Has this been one of the few occasions in which the main opposition leaders join forces against the government? What did this demonstration mean in this context?
This was a very obvious manifestation that, in the end, the Russian population is not as apathetic as it is portrayed. That was just one episode, but we could also mention the protests in Siberia, interrupted since last summer. What happened then was that the governor of that region was accused and imprisoned for some homicides during the 90s, and was relieved by another governor who had nothing to do with the region, who did not even know well. Then, the citizens, of course, saw that there was a political motivation for that imprisonment and, above all, they were angry that they could not exercise their right to elect a new governor. And in response, they began to take to the streets, which is also a demonstration that when fundamental rights are curtailed, Russians take to the streets. Even in the area of pensions, when the retirement age was raised by law, that also caused a lot of protests in Russia. It is true that later, when channeling these protests towards the creation of a more structured political force, such as a political party, there has been no success, but it is largely due to all the restrictions found in the political career . Even so, when you see these episodes of spontaneous protests, called through social networks, it gives you more hope for the future, but it is true that, when you try to go one step further and pose a real threat to the Putin regime, never has a tour.
“Economic management and standard of living is what affects Russians the most, according to polls”
Why does the Putin regime operate with impunity in the eyes of international law, despite suspicions by the opposition of having eliminated dissidents, critical journalists or political enemies?
It is difficult for the international community to carry out an effective or forceful type of intervention against another state, because you cannot put tanks in the Kremlin to see what happens, for example. The situation is quite complicated because Russia is a country that, above all, from the European point of view, is very important from the economic and energy point of view. Although this is not the case in the specific case of Spain, there are other countries such as Italy or Germany, for example, whose economies depend on Russia for gas or trade, in addition to needing Russia in other relational contexts such as Libya or Syria. The reality is that Russia has become a very important country on an international scale, but it is not easy for the European Union to reach a general consensus among all European countries to take very strong measures against it.
“Putin could run for a third term and, if voted for, remain in power until 2036”
Even so, there are cases of international intervention due to attacks against human rights by the Putin Regime …
Certainly, and this should also be noted, because it has been done since 2014 with the sanctions on the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia, and it is being done now for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. On the other hand, all European countries have partners who are not liberal democracies and who treat political opponents even worse than Russia. Therefore, it is also necessary to see a bit the more general context in which the EU would have to justify a stronger intervention in the internal political affairs of other countries. Furthermore, if Russia were a candidate country member of the EU, there would be more tools and more political weight to ask Russia to implement more liberal measures in its internal policies. We have seen this in Turkey, for example, where things did not go very well, and that Turkey is still a candidate country that, in theory, still wants to join the EU. In general, this is a complex question, because the EU has that image of a liberal power and defender of democracy and civil rights, but, in reality, the real tools it has for states to comply with those democratic principles are not many . And especially in a context like Russia, which is a country that is not even part of the EU’s enlargement policy.
“The February 2020 demonstration was proof that the Russian population is not so apathetic”
Would you say that a majority of the Russian population disagrees with Putin’s political management and his proposals for constitutional reforms?
The truth is that I do not think that the majority of Russians see Putin’s management badly. At the end of the day, just look at the president’s popularity ratings, which are sky-high. It is also true that you can doubt these data and that, indeed, they are falsified, but, if we analyze them well, there are always several centers of public opinion that reinforce Putin’s popularity, and that it has only diminished in specific moments, such as in the pension reform that you mentioned before or in periods where the economic and social rights of the Russian population were severely threatened. Let’s say that it is economic management and living standards that affect Russians the most; I’m not saying that civil rights don’t, but a lot of polls in Russia show us that economic concerns are more important to Russians than democratic ones, or at least as we understand them in Europe. Therefore, in my opinion, it would not be true to say that the majority of the Russian population does not agree with Putin, as well as to say that the elections are false, because of course there are barriers to the political career and there are also many cases opacity in the management of power, but it is also true that the Russians still support their president, although that support may be mediated by everything we have discussed.
“There is an anti-systemic opposition that has the face of Alexei Navalny and suffers more from these restrictions”
Looking ahead to the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2024, is it possible that Putin will renew for a third consecutive term?
Putin has already served two terms, so he could do it now if he wanted to, because there was a referendum in July last year, where the constitution was changed and basically all of Putin’s terms that he had served were canceled. Therefore, legally, he could do it if he wanted to and, if they voted for him, Putin could be in power until 2036. Now, the question is whether he does it or not, because there are people who have few doubts in this regard and, indeed, comparisons are already being made with Stalin or with the great dictators of Central Asia, which means that Putin has already become a full-blown autocrat. In this sense, many people take it for granted that they are going to present themselves, and perhaps they will, although Russia is also a country that seems very static or stable, but, suddenly, it can give you unexpected surprises. We are talking about a country where there have been revolutions and empires have fallen quite suddenly, so Russia is a country that we never have to take for granted. That Putin can stand in the next elections has already been a fact since the referendum but that, in effect, he will continue to govern until 2036, it remains to be seen. Above all, if the economic situation in Russia, which was already fragile before the pandemic, were to get worse, as the economic indices seem to suggest, because then the discontent of the population will influence this support for Putin.