How is the Russian Opposition Currently Faring?

The Russian opposition faces immense challenges: its leaders are jailed, killed, or forced out, making it seem powerless against the regime. However, despite the dominance of Vladimir Putin in the media and political landscape, the opposition must lead the conversation to advocate for a democratic and peaceful Russia without Putin.

But how do we achieve this? Let’s explore the strategies the Russian opposition needs to follow, based on insights from researchers specializing in political regimes, particularly the Russian system. We’ll look at statistics on the outcomes of similar regimes and the likelihood of such changes in Russia.

One crucial reference is Grigorii Golosov’s book, “Political Regimes & Transformations: Russia Through the Lens of Comparative Analysis.” Golosov, a well-cited Russian political scientist and head of the Political Science Department at the European University, St. Petersburg, offers valuable insights. He has identified 57 regimes he calls “electoral autocracies,” with Russia being one of them. Historically, over half of these regimes collapsed, but those surviving three electoral cycles have much higher survival odds. Unfortunately, the Russian regime has surpassed this point, making its long-term survival more likely.

However, these regimes do eventually fall. Statistically, the most common scenario (14 regimes) is a military coup, followed by insider rule changes (13 regimes) and popular uprisings (seven regimes). Only one regime, in Gambia, was toppled by foreign intervention.

Barbara Geddes, an American political scientist, also studied authoritarian regimes and found that personalized regimes, like Putin’s, are more consolidated and sustainable. The silver lining is that such regimes often collapse upon the dictator’s death, although external military intervention is unlikely to result in democracy and could instead lead to another dictatorship or civil war. For Russia, a nuclear-weapon state, military intervention is off the table.

The transition from autocracy to democracy often involves insiders and elites. The theoretical studies in transitology highlight four key participants: hardline hawks and concession-seeking doves within the regime, and moderates and radicals in the opposition. A successful transition involves a deal between these groups, ensuring a peaceful and sustainable new political system. However, if the ruling class sees no benefit in democratization, they will resist the transition, potentially leading to instability and revanchism.

Golosov argues that the current Russian opposition’s misjudgment is its over-reliance on a battlefield victory to gain power, which risks being perceived as an external administration. Instead, the opposition should engage in a power struggle and mend fences with the ruling class. An example is Leonid Volkov’s controversial appeal to delist Mikhail Fridman from E.U. sanctions, which, despite backlash, was a well-meaning attempt to engage with influential political players.

Moreover, the opposition must maintain an organization within Russia, prepare to negotiate with loyalists, and run a media campaign targeting Putin. For those in exile, offline get-togethers are crucial, as online communication can cause conflicts and radicalize rhetoric, as seen with the Venezuelan opposition. Building a powerful diaspora can also influence political processes, as demonstrated by the Armenian, Chilean, Korean, and Taiwanese diasporas.

In conclusion, the Russian opposition needs unity and strategic engagement with both the ruling class and the broader public. By adopting these approaches, the opposition can prepare for a democratic transition when the opportunity arises. There will be no miraculous turn for the better, but with concerted efforts, Russia can follow a democratic path.

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