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Analysis: Russian dissidents focus on corruption ahead of presidential elections

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Charles Turner

Charles Turner

"Hi Evgueni, I think you raise an ..."
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Evgueni Chepelin

"By using a term dissident author appl..."
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Cassandra Vinograd

"This seems to still have tons of edit..."

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.

Pew Research June 2017

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.

Russia is beginning to control online spaces more now. The Kremlin has removed online content that it finds objectionable. However, Google has so far fought requests to restrict YouTube in Russia.

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.

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.”


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Charles Michio Turner is an American journalist who reports on labor, politics and development. In 2016, he reported from Myanmar on the several growing social movements in the country. His goal is to find new ways to include audiences in the new reporting process. Let him know if there's an issue or question that you see as being underreported or poorly reported. Twitter: @charlesmichio

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19 January 2018

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  1. Rewrite

    By using a term dissident author applies the stereotype of Soviet times. Navalny is considered by some as an oppositional leader outside the Kremlyn control, by others as an actor in the puppet theatre of the presidential administration. In neither case he is a ‘dissident’.
    The term ‘corruption’ is also misleading, as the post 1992 history of Russia is about unprecedented plundering of country wealth. It is not ‘corruption’ but the longest and most prolific in history theft of state assets by and with cooperation of state actors. How successful it will turn to be depends not on Navalny and other ‘dissidents’ but on whether the US government has a will to disclose in a few months the beneficiaries of money laundering operations through US and UK bank systems and to freeze their assets.
    The third misleading term is ‘election’. In the current Russian context a democratic procedure called ‘election’ is impossible for the same reason as this word was an oxymoron for USSR – it was and is a totalitarian regime, not just ‘authoritarian’ as Western media and academia call its present incarnation. Ask those sent to labour camps for re-tweeting jokes and photos deemed to be ‘extremist’ by marionette ‘judges’- this is the state exercising a selective terror campaign against law-abiding citizens. It is now well rehearsed and can be scaled up at any moment.
    Thus the author’s premise that somehow the focus on ‘corruption’ by Russian non-systemic opposition actors is a part of an electoral campaign is deeply flawed. It normalises the situation in Russia which in my view cannot be normalised. The writing style of ‘unbiased’ witness used by the author (very similar to the BBC one) implicitly legitimises the regime and its ‘election’.
    In my view, the article cannot be improved by editing and must be rewritten.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Evgueni,

      I think you raise an important point about word choice. I will try my best to add more context around the term “election”, which as you point out, implies a democratic process.

      I’m not sure how to avoid the term “corruption” though. Sources on this subject have all said that the focus is on “corruption.” Navalny’s organization is called the Anti-Corruption Federation. I understand how summing several things into one word can seem like an over-simplification. I encourage you to add context where you see fit. There are several openings in this article where you could elaborate on inappropriate use of government funds… as long as you cite your work.

      Lastly, the term “dissident” has several synonyms we could use. I chose dissident because it is often used in the context of authoritarianism. I’m interested to hear more about what you mean by “stereotype of Soviet times.” Perhaps you could explain possible stigmas of being a critic of the USSR, and how that differs to from what Navalny is trying to accomplish.

  2. Rewrite

    This seems to still have tons of edit notes throughout — should not go live if edit notes have not been addressed!

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