Five myths about Putin’s foes

They're not leaderless, they're not all middle class and they don't want a revolution.

It’s fashionable to see Russia’s opposition as the Moscow stirrings of a “global middle class” making protest waves from Brasilia to Istanbul. Forget it. Russia’s underground is not what it seems.

Myth 1 – This is a leaderless network

Rather the exact opposite. Russia’s opposition is a one-man show called Alexey Navalny. Politically he is populist, a cross between an Islamophobe and a liberal. But Navalny sells his absolute charisma before his policies. After a decade of faceless Putinist bureaucrats every night on the evening news – his Aryan looks and laugh-out-loud wit have electrified a capital bored without politics.

Navalny understood the initial December 2011 protests were his big chance. Whilst other actors dawdled – he become the movement’s orator. By the end he was its uncontested leader. Ever since Navalny has been so good at shining like a white knight fighting “the bloodsuckers” – the opposition had become the Navalny movement.

However, building proper opposition institutions failed. Online election for the opposition “parliament” flopped. The Kremlin barred their attempts to register a party. Then it frightened away a real funding base. Hamstrung, the opposition fell short in the local elections outside Moscow.

This has turned the opposition into a leader cult. The “other Russia” has pinned all its hopes and all initiative on Navalny himself. Ironically, Putin has only reinforced this. Threatening to jail Navalny has underscored his bravery and built up his legend. Polls show his name recognition and popularity soaring.

Leader cults are tricky things to kill. Mr. Putin is now in awkward position. Throwing the “hero” into a Siberian prison camp will turn him into Russia’s Nelson Mandela. Nor can he leave him ta large nibbling away at his own cult of invincibility.

Navalny’s cult of personality is troublesome for the opposition too – detracting from the hard, necessary task of building a movement like Poland’s Solidarity that could turn people power on Putin.

Myth 2 – They are middle class

Russia now has a huge middle class. But don’t think of all them as supporting radical change. As it stands roughly a third of Russians can be considered middle class – making over $30,000 a year.

But Russians are quick to remind you – being middle class does not make you “independent.” Roughly 50 per cent are state employees. Fear keeps most of them off the streets. In Russia’s enormous outback its doctors, teachers and bureaucrats would never dream of taking to the streets. They know that is a sure fire way to lose your jobs.

So forget the idea of the revolt of the “middle class.” Despite its huge size (up to 40m people) the scale of dissent is still tiny. There are roughly 80,000 hardcore Navalny supporters and no more than 400,000 loosely affiliated ones. Who are the people actually protesting and throwing themselves into the frenzy of online activism?

First, this is a Moscow affair. Almost forty per cent of the opposition leader’s almost 400,000 Twitter followers are in the capital. Not even St. Petersburg scrapes above five per cent. Second, this is something well to do. There is a snobbish tinge and an elitist, clubby feeling to opposition circles. The leading lights of the movement – like their followers – are both richer and better educated than the rest. Russians talk about them as being “intelligentsia” – from a class of professionals, intellectuals and civil servants. Their Britain equivalent would be the London upper middle class with a strong Oxbridge component.

Myth 3 – They are pro-western

Russia’s opposition movement is pro what they call “European values.” That means a free media, free speech, free assembly and visa free travel to the west. They broadly think that Vladimir Putin’s anti-American and anti-British propaganda is hysterical and faintly silly.

Just don’t confuse them for passionate supporters of NATO or the EU. These are no adulators of the west. Navalny and his team increasingly see Europe – especially British elites – as complicit in the “pillage” of Russia as stolen billions find a safe haven in London property, the French Riviera or Austrian banks. Just like Putin supporters they are irritated by European “lecturing” and American “hypocrisy.”

Navalny does not have a NATO worldview. He believes that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine should reunite into one great power. He passionately supports the “independent” South Ossetia and Abkhazia carved out of Georgia. He would even recognize the Russian enclave of Transdinestria in Moldova – something that would horrify Brussels.

Myth 4 – They’ve had no impact

It’s tempting to dismiss the Russian opposition as having had no impact. It’s also not true. They have made Russia much more repressive, xenophobic and homophobic by accident in a Kremlin crackdown.

Navalny’s campaigning has also forced policy action. Putin has started trying to shore up its public support in a frenzies series of policy initiatives – stolen from the opposition. There has been a purge of corrupt officials and billions are about to be invested in bad roads.

This is most evident in Moscow. Navalny is running for Mayor making the Kremlin throw huge wads of cash into public goods neglected for years. Putin’s candidate had stolen opposition battle cries like battling illegal immigration. He has even installed a cycle hire scheme. Before Navalny’s surge it was inconceivable the Moscow authorities would have done something like this – because people wanted it.

Myth 5 - They want a revolution

Not one bit. Russians, even those protesting, are terrified of revolution. What the opposition hopes to achieve is to delegitimize Putin and his cronies – those they accuse of pillaging Russia – amongst the rulers of Russia and their apparatchiks.

The aim is to make Putin a liability. The hope is that the closer we get to the 2016 parliamentary and 2018 presidential elections an ever increasing number of petrol barons, police chiefs and provincial governors will realize repression will cost them their positions. The hope is they will ditch Putin – and install a new leader who could legitimize them before finally hold fair elections. Of course, Mr. Navalny aspires to be that man. 

Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Love With Vladimir Putin. His full article is published by IPPR in their quarterly journal Juncture

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny delivers a speech on August 25, 2013 in Moscow during a campaign rally for the Moscow mayoral election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Love With Vladimir Putin.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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