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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.