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Can Russia's Opposition Rise To The Opportunity Of Crisis?

United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov (left) and Boris Nemtsov at Solidarity's founding congress in mid-December.
Russia's recession is turning out to be sharper and more problematic than anticipated. Just three months ago, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was convincing the public that there was no crisis in Russia. But October and November brought declining GDP, industrial output, and fixed investment -- none of which were predicted by the government.

The economic downturn has already affected ordinary Russians. About 1 million jobs were lost between August and November, and personal incomes declined. The ruble has lost about 20 percent of its value against the dollar since August, eating into salaries and savings. A sharper devaluation is on the agenda as the value of exports continues to decline with global commodities prices.

It seems evident Russia's crisis is not just a result of global economic turbulence. It also has a lot to do with Putin's failures. Foreign capital fled Russia this year more rapidly than it did from other emerging markets, due to the perceived fears aroused by the war with Georgia in August and periodic attacks on private businesses by the Russian authorities. The government has also proven unprepared to address the developing liquidity crisis and the rising pressure on the ruble caused by falling export revenues. The anticrisis measures taken so far have failed to prevent a sharp recession and gloomy forecasts for 2009 suggest a budget deficit of around 5 percent of GDP, as well as continuing declining GDP and personal incomes. The crisis appears to be shaking the very foundation of the Putin economic model.

But it remains to be seen whether the economic downturn presents a real opportunity for Russian opposition forces, in the event the money worries of average citizens metamorphose into political unrest. Moreover, if such a chance emerges, does the opposition have the capacity to seize it?

The Worm Turns

There are no easy answers to these questions. On the one hand, it is reasonable to expect that Putin's high popularity ratings will be shaken by the current troubles, which are challenging the Putin "stability" that girded his public support. On the other hand, the Russian public has a poor tradition of mass protests and, on the contrary, a strong record of individual adaptation to negative economic developments. During the 1990s, economic collapse and President Boris Yeltsin's abysmal approval ratings did not translate into full-scale nationwide protests.

Sociology also fails to offer any clear answers to these questions. Popular opinion is still largely dominated by inertia from the relatively successful recent past. Central television channels, the main source of information for most Russians, are monopolized by the state. The Kremlin is using all possible propaganda means to divert responsibility for the crisis away from Putin's government, primarily by pointing the finger of blame at the United States and other external forces.

Nonetheless, the public is becoming increasingly concerned. The latest poll by the Levada Center research group shows that the percentage of Russians who believe the country is headed in the right direction fell from 61 percent in September to 43 percent in December. The number who said Russia is in a dead end increased from 24 percent to 40 percent during the same period. But, due to the state's effective propaganda, this decreasing confidence in the country's direction has not resulted in any significant drop in the popularity of the country's leaders.

At the same time, the authorities seem bent on employing tough tactics in response to any signs of unrest. Spontaneous protests arose in various regions this month in reaction to various aspects of the crisis. In Vladivostok and other cities, police clashed with protesters and arrests were made. The Interior Ministry warned last week that the government "is committed to resisting extremists." Large-scale unrest may well transform Putin's "soft authoritarianism" into something much less palatable.
The formation of the new broad, democratic, opposition coalition Solidarity this month gives the democrats a fighting chance.

In short, the crisis has definitely created a window of opportunity for the opposition to demonstrate the systemic failures of Putin's economic model, which has made the effects of the crisis far worse than they otherwise might have been. But the systematic political and media marginalization of the opposition by the authorities has created a severe gap between alternative politicians and the majority of the Russian people. Opposition forces have no access to federal (or, for the most part, regional) media. They have little chance of being officially registered to participate in elections and, if they are registered, they have no chance of being treated even remotely fairly during the election process.

Proof In The Pudding

Opinion polls consistently show low public recognition of younger opposition figures (in addition to reduced trust in the old-timers) and a lack of public awareness of alternative proposals put forward by the opposition. At the same time, it must be mentioned that the opposition itself often fails to offer constructive alternatives, focusing simply on criticizing the authorities. This failure does nothing to build the credibility of alternative political forces among Russian voters.

The opposition's ability to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the crisis to confront Putin's regime, then, is limited by several factors: lack of access to the media; political marginalization; internal problems and divisions; and the government's anticipated harsh reaction to public demonstrations (which will keep many potential protesters home).

In addition, there is no way of telling what political ideas might prove attractive at this time. The public could well coalesce behind communist or nationalist slogans rather than calling for the restoration of a democratic path of development.

In this situation, Russia's democratic opposition has no choice but to prove to itself and to the public that it can meet the challenges of offering a viable alternative to Putinism, that it can reach out and convince people to support it despite the restrictive media environment and the growing pressure from law enforcement. And this is no easy task.

The formation of the new broad, democratic, opposition coalition Solidarity this month -- featuring prominent democratic leaders like former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, myself, and others -- gives the democrats a fighting chance. Solidarity is the first successful attempt by democrats to form a broad coalition since Democratic Russia, which helped defeat communism in 1990-91.

But that early 1990s unity was broken by differences of opinion over Yeltsin's economic reforms, the war in Chechnya, and other turbulent events of that time. Democrats have tried to unite their forces to fight Putin's authoritarianism, but the latest attempt -- Solidarity -- is the first such effort that has produced a positive result.

But there is still a long way to go, of course. We democrats have yet to prove we are capable of winning hearts and minds in Russia -- of confronting the discredited image of democratic reform that is tied in the public mind to the troubles of the 1990s. The situation is complicated further by the authorities' unwillingness to enter into any form of political dialogue with the democratic opposition. So far, they have rejected all overtures, continued marginalizing our movement, and have brought out the riot police repeatedly.

Finding a political way out of this crisis will not be easy, and we expect further repressions. But that is just another reason why the democratic opposition must strengthen itself internally and build up its credibility with the Russian people. We must be prepared for the unpredictable.

Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, is the president of the Moscow-based Institute of Energy Policy and a founding member of the Solidarity movement. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL