Vladimir Putin

At the time of writing, Russian opposition leader Alexi Navalny’s alleged poisoning has been on the news for the last few days. This isn’t the first time that Vladimir Putin’s regime has been suspected of violently targeting opposition figures -the first time being the brutal assassination of Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006. Navalny’s alleged poisoning has led to people from across the political spectrum in the West – though perhaps less vocally than what would have been expected – saying ‘Russia should be held accountable’.

In the last few weeks too, the situation in Belarus – arguably Europe’s last dictatorship – has got to a position where even parts of their police force and factory workers are joining the strikes or refusing to take orders against protesters. Consequently, the likelihood of Russian intervention in a state with which it shares a political union and sits on its border is a question of when not if. Those words, regarding accountability and international justice, ‘something ought to be done’, ring once more as the public thousands of miles of way looks on with disgust as another protester is beaten and attacked, as another true opposition leader is in hospital and surrounded by state police. What can be done?

History says immediately: what hasn’t the West tried? Reforming Russia to look more like a liberal democracy is about as difficult as it was to, allegedly, kill Rasputin. Ever since at least the Russian Civil War – when Britain and the USA sent military detachments to support the counter-revolutionary White Army in opposition to the Bolsheviks – the question of how to approach Russia has never been sufficiently answered.

Military intervention failed in the late 1910s. Supporting fascist dictatorships as a ‘bulwark against Bolshevism’ in the 1930s or getting ‘the two dictators (Stalin and Hitler)’ to fight among themselves’ as ruling Conservative MPs advocated didn’t work either. Nuclear laden threats and Cold War spying, as well as countless proxy wars were also unsuccessful, and at the cost of millions of lives in the Global South. Post-Soviet economic reform centred around marketisation and asset stripping, brought an unstable political system bought up by oligarchs, hyper inflation that led to famine, and a death rate which was comparable to civil war. As a side note, these reforms also led to a resentment of ‘Western’ liberalism and of foreign – and later domestic – human rights organisations that were seemingly obsessed with issues that didn’t effect ‘real’ people. So foreign intervention, historically, has been unsuccessful and counter productive, to say the least.

The obvious exception comes from outside the current Russian borders. In 1980s Poland, workers joined and campaigned with the independent trade union Solidarity to achieve democracy. And they, with some reformers from within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union including Mikhail Gorbachev, managed to achieve democratic reform. Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, started pushing down that East Berlin wall well before David Hasselhoff and the protesters did. And the ‘colour’ revolutions of the 1990s and 2000s in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere brought with them states more reflective of democracy. So surely the solution must be based on supporting campaigners and democrats in Russia to achieve democracy?

It’s not that simple. In 2012, the State Duma legislated to ensure organisations receiving foreign funds – likely from the USA –  you’d have to register as a “foreign agents”, a term that has a semantic field in Russia of Cold War espionage. Purely domestic opposition, such as those protests in 2011 and 2019, were crushed from having their moment when the Kremlin responded with police brutality, circumventing of the usefulness of online campaigning and the arrest of leaders. Indeed, the Kremlin now sees the internet as such a threat to Putin’s regime that the Internet Sovereignty Law requires state control of the internet within Russian territory. This essentially operates as an ‘off/on’ switch on the internet. The result is to end the impact campaigners like Navalny – who uploaded his documentary about then PM Dmitry Medvedev’s corruption on YouTube, obtaining 26 million views – would have. And even before this, the creation of online foot soldiers to defend the Kremlin from anti-Putin users on social media has meant the internet is no longer a safe haven for opposition.

The new constitution, pending popular approval from the delayed ‘All-Russia’ referendum, will reset Putin’s terms to zero but constrain him to two terms completely, ending the ‘consecutive terms’ loophole he previously benefited from. This might make it look like a ten year waiting game But even that problematic solution – at the cost of LGBTQ people, women, and democrats – forgets that the Putnisation of the Russian state may well outlive Putin himself. There are no systemic opposition political parties – that is parties with Kremlin funding and parliamentary representation. Those that do exist, exist as opposition in name only. The Stalinist rump of the old Communist Party and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, have no real prospect of taking power and no interest in building democracy. Even Navalny’s opposition has its limits. There is no quick fix solution.

Even with this in mind, we must never forget the determination of those campaigning for freedoms that, for those of us with those privileges, take for granted nearly every single day. The fact too that there is no obvious successor to Putin is encouraging. But the conditions that led to him emerging have to be addressed by a future de-Putinised government. It would need to address the ‘Two Russias’ of a relatively prosperous western Russia and the provincial Russia that lacks opportunities, doing so with sustainable, redistibutive and democratic economic and social reforms.

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Image credit: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office – Creative Commons