Major rift among Russian opposition as presidential vote looms

Serving in opposition like ‘swimming in a pool without water’, says Yabloko Party chief

With just over two weeks to go until the presidential election, Russian opposition leaders are more divided than ever on how best to challenge Vladimir Putin, who is expected to win a fourth term at the March 18th poll, extending his rule until 2024.

In a rare show of unity, they came together for a few hours in Moscow on Sunday to lead a memorial march for their comrade Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in a daring, contract-style attack on a bridge near the Kremlin three years ago.

Nemtsov had served in the reformist government of president Boris Yeltsin before going over to the opposition after Putin first came to power, and his death sent shock waves across Russia and the West.

Long sentences

Police quickly rounded up five suspects, all from Russia’s North Caucasus, who were convicted of the murder last July and handed long prison sentences. The family and friends of the slain politician say it’s more important to find out who ordered the killing, and are demanding an official investigation.


The opposition is facing perhaps the deepest rift ever over the forthcoming presidential election that, tightly controlled by the Kremlin, is almost certain to deliver victory to Putin

Nemtsov’s murder came against a backdrop of growing official intolerance to dissent in Putin’s third term that has demoralised the pro-democracy movement. Many political activists have fled Russia fearing prosecution. Yet personal rivalries and petty bickering have prevented opposition leaders from uniting to fight a common political enemy.

Organisers estimated that some 7,000 people joined Sunday’s Nemtsov memorial march in bitter cold through central Moscow, to chants of “Russia Without Putin” and “Russia Will be Free” that have become the anthem of pro-democracy rallies.

Nemtsov was a "a unifying force" in the opposition, said Ilya Yashin, an independent deputy on a Moscow local district council who was a friend and protegee of the murdered politician. "We put aside our differences to organise this march."

The Russian opposition is facing perhaps the deepest rift ever over the forthcoming presidential election that, tightly controlled by the Kremlin, is almost certain to deliver victory to Putin.

Alexei Navalny, a fearless anti-corruption crusader who rose to prominence during massive anti government protests that erupted in Moscow in 2011-2012 after a falsified parliamentary poll, seized the initiative a full year before the election campaign began, announcing he would run for president.

Police harassment

Navalny took his election campaign beyond the big cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, drawing large crowds at rallies across Russia often in the face of intense police harassment.

After the Russian authorities barred Navalny from the ballot in December, citing an earlier highly dubious fraud conviction against him, the politician launched a nationwide campaign for an election boycott to protest against the lack of genuine competition in the race.

Navalny has publicly slammed Sobchak as an 'ideal Kremlin caricature liberal', while she has accused him of trying to assert a monopoly over the opposition

Many in the Russian opposition were disappointed when their fellow liberal, Kseniya Sobchak, a TV presenter, announced surprise plans to stand for president late last year. There is widespread suspicion that Sobchak, whose late father was Putin's political mentor in the 1990s, has been co-opted by the Kremlin to give a veneer of political pluralism to the election.

Navalny was incensed, seeing Sobchak as a spoiler candidate who could well attract voters who might otherwise have boycotted the vote.

The feud boiling between Navalny and Sobchak may serve the Kremlin’s interests, adding some spice to an otherwise dull election campaign that might awaken public interest and boost voter turn out. Navalny has publicly slammed Sobchak as an “ideal Kremlin caricature liberal”, while she has accused him of trying to assert a monopoly over the opposition.

Other opposition leaders have tried to stay above the fray, but there is deep unease about Navalny's boycott campaign. Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister who leads the People's Freedom Party, has urged voters to utilise what little is left of their democratic rights and go to the polls.

Deepening the split

Disagreements over the boycott are deepening the split in the opposition. Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran leader of the Yabloko Party, who is running for the presidency, laid blame for the disarray at the Kremlin's door this week, saying a classic opposition movement could not function in "Putin's hybrid authoritarian system".

Serving in the Russian opposition was like “swimming in a pool without water”, deprived of independent media or the support of an unbiased judiciary, he said.

Realising there is little chance of ousting Putin in the near future, some young Russian activists are planning to shake up the usually dull backwaters of local politics and build a ground-upwards opposition movement.

Yashin is one of 10 independent candidates who took the Moscow city authorities by surprise last September by winning seats in local city council elections.

Open Russia, a democratic initiative launched by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian oligarch, is training candidates to campaign and present a united front at polls.

Working on this project is Dmitry Gudkov, a former parliamentary deputy who is planning to run for Moscow mayor in an election in September 2018. "As long as we are disunited, the criminals [in power] will hold on to each other," he wrote this week on the United Democrats website.