This month’s protests in Moscow over city parliament elections are proof that Russia’s non-systemic opposition has taken its struggle to be recognized by the Kremlin as a major political player to a new level. Faced with a foe that has seized the initiative, set the agenda, and brought people into the streets, the Kremlin is at a loss. Its brightest idea, it seems, is to forcibly disperse the protests and prosecute the demonstrators: an approach that risks the state’s takeover by the siloviki.
By minimizing the risks of opposition candidates running for the Moscow city parliament, the Moscow mayor’s office and the Kremlin have brought about a political crisis. The decision to refuse to register opposition candidates has turned into a symbolic event and joined the ranks of controversial plans to build a new cathedral in Yekaterinburg and a landfill site in Russia’s north, which also elicited fierce protest.
Russia’s brand of exceptionalism is not messianic. It is rooted in the isolation of an Orthodox country and its belief that it possesses the gift of a true religious faith. It has been strengthened by Russia’s successful—if costly—defense of its state sovereignty, and confirmed by Russia’s status as a major global player that refuses to take orders from anyone.
Candidates backed by the authorities are increasingly declining to be nominated by United Russia. The ruling party doesn’t fit well into the technocratic-apolitical worldview of the presidential administration’s domestic policy bloc: after all, corporations don’t need parties. United Russia is approaching the role long played by the All-Russia People’s Front, the aborted party of power from the era of Vyacheslav Volodin.
Recent demonstrations in Russia have not been led by a particular group or movement with grand political designs. Instead, protesters in Arkhangelsk – much like those in Yekaterinburg and even in Moscow – are simply people fighting for their government, finally, to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Every step taken by any state manager, including ministers within the government’s economic bloc, is limited by a maze of KPIs, over the achievement of which they often simply have no control.
Russia is reputed to be a country whose past constantly changes to suit the purposes and vision of its ruling elite. Yet few would dispute that Russian history is one of extremes.
The standoff between European pragmatists and skeptics on Russia won’t end here. The pragmatists will now face heightened political risk for a long time, both in the Council of Europe and in their own countries. Any actions or even statements by Russia that could directly or indirectly confirm the skeptics’ fears will now unleash a barrage of criticism not only of Moscow, but also of those who allowed the Russian delegation to return to the Parliamentary Assembly.
It’s ironic that a show about narratives, and the way they can turn sour, caused Russia’s own narrative machine to show its fragility.
The society of citizens and its representatives in Russia face a dilemma. One option is to cut a deal with the state and work in its interests and on its terms. The other option is marginalisation, to become outcasts destined to be in constant conflict with the state.