As the world focuses on Russia’s alleged interference in U.S. elections, Russian dissidents are focusing closer to home – their own presidential elections.
Their goal is to prevent President Vladimir Putin from serving a fourth term. Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption advocate, has emerged as the opposition’s candidate for the upcoming 2018 election. However, he is currently barred from running for the presidency.
Russia’s electoral commission disqualified Navalny for an embezzlement conviction that his supporters claim was politically motivated. Navalny continues to campaign for Russia’s top office in hopes that his following will pressure the Kremlin to include his name on the ballot.
Russia’s political opposition has been bolstered in the past year due largely to Navalny’s activism, with tens of thousands of people protesting against President Putin despite the risk of detention.
The largest demonstration occurred this past March, when over 60,000 people marched through Moscow with chants that included “Russia without Putin.” The protest was sparked by a YouTube video produced and narrated by Navalny, entitled: “Don’t call him ‘Dimon’.”
The 50-minute video takes a light-hearted tone as it details the lavish lifestyle of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who is supposed to live off of a government salary. It ends with Navalny, the director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, saying: “This is the main reason why our country as a whole is very rich, but people who live here are very poor.”
As of October, the video has gathered over 24 million views.
The March demonstration is considered to be the largest in Russia since allegations of election fraud in 2011. Reports of ballot stuffing led to a string of rallies throughout the country. Leaders of the opposition are now trying to sustain this momentum on social media, and keep the national narrative focused on the issue that generated the recent episode of public outrage: corruption.
President Putin continues to enjoy strong support among Russians. But there has been a shift in public opinion in the last two years, specifically related to corruption.
A Pew Research poll in June revealed that 45 percent of Russians disapprove of his regime’s handling of government corruption. That’s up from 29 percent in 2015 Pew poll. This comes while 53 percent of the population view wealth inequality as a serious issue.
Navalny’s viral video was not reported on by the major broadcast and print media outlets in Russia, nor were the subsequent protests. Russia ranks 148 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Russian journalists have reported government interference in newsrooms. Foreigners cannot own more than 20 percent of a Russian-based media ventures, limiting the ways independent journalism can survive in Russia.
Social media and online messenger services have become the preferred channels for activists to disseminate information to the estimated 84 million Russians with daily internet access.
The internet in Russia has remained relatively unrestricted compared to other authoritarian regimes. International social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, are still accessible in Russia, which is not the case in China.
Opposition Looks for Help Abroad
The Kremlin has yet to announce any punitive action against Prime Minister Medvedev or other officials who may use government funds for personal gain. Some activists believe that the international community has a role in their push for anti-corruption reforms.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is the vice chairman of Open Russia, a foundation that assists young democratic activists. He often conducts what he refers to as “international outreach”, lobbying foreign governments and human rights advocates to diplomatically and economically isolate President Putin’s government. Kara-Murza specifically advocates for tightening any sanction that targets oligarchs and others associated with the Russian government.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian patriot who will never stop fighting for a future in which his beautiful children can live in freedom. pic.twitter.com/BLD9zVWoB1
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) September 15, 2017
In 2012, his testimony to the U.S. Congress contributed to the passage of the Magnitsky Act, which established a blacklist for Russian leaders associated with human rights abuses. Kara-Murza firmly believes that his lobbying effort led to him being poisoned twice by the Kremlin, who is dependent on using oligarchs to reach the global marketplace despite sanctions.
“If you violate the most basic norms and principles of the democratic world, you shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy the privileges that the democratic world has to offer,” Kara-Murza told WikiTribune. “And these people want to steal in Russia but spend in the West.”
The challenge is keeping the sanction efforts tied to the opposition’s larger focus corruption. While President Putin has mixed support on domestic issues, public approval on foreign policy remains extraordinarily high. The same 2017 Pew Research survey that found a spike in public concern over corruption in Russia also revealed that 87 percent of Russia had confidence that Putin was doing “the right thing in world affairs.”
The international community is divided on whether to further isolate President Putin’s government. President Donald J. Trump has advocated for improved relations with Russia but also signed a bill in August that applied additional sanctions against it. Leaders of the European Union have also voiced opposition to increased sanctions on Russia, considering Europe’s dependence on Russia for energy needs.
Kara-Murza is frustrated by the assumption that geopolitics and economics always overshadow a country’s human rights record. In this way, he yearns for U.S. leadership during the Cold War.
“Ronald Reagan could at the same time negotiate arms control with the Soviet Union and begin every meeting with the Soviet leadership with a list of Russian political prisoners,” he says.
“I mean we live in the 21st century now. I think it’s generally accepted that the only real form of government, of legitimacy of a government is democratic election.”