Russia after Navalny

The Russian opposition doesn’t have the capacity to mobilise on the ground, but there is an alternative path.

A hearse, which reportedly transports a coffin with the body of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, is parked outside the Soothe My Sorrows church before a funeral service and farewell ceremony in Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2024
A hearse, which reportedly transported a coffin with the body of Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny, is parked outside the Icon of Our Lady Quench my Sorrows church before a funeral service in Moscow, Russia on March 1, 2024 [Reuters]

In the first days of March, thousands of Russians flocked to Borisovskoye Cemetery in a far-flung corner of Moscow to pay their respects to the late opposition leader Alexey Navalny. He died in February in an Arctic prison from a blood clot – according to the official version of events.

In recent history, there has been no funeral of a Russian public figure of this scale, except perhaps that of the Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov in 1989. The funeral processions of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin also drew public attention, but the crowds in attendance were smaller.

There is even less basis for comparison with the funeral of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the maverick leader of the nominally opposition party, LDPR, in 2022. The crowds at Navalny’s grave clearly demonstrate who led the opposition in Russia. Not that this wasn’t obvious while he was still alive.

President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to destroy his movement, had Navalny been a mere nuisance who lacked support among the Russian public. He spent much of the last 10 years of his life in prison; he was barred from running in presidential elections; his supporters, close relatives and even lawyers were arrested and threatened. Then, on top of that, he barely survived an assassination attempt with a chemical agent.

That said, it is also true that the Russian opposition is unlikely to effect political change now that Russia is tied up in a hair-raising confrontation with the West over its war in Ukraine.

The opposition movement against Putin peaked in 2011-12, at a time of peace and relatively good relations with the West. But he managed to successfully reframe his domestic political conflict in geopolitical terms during Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution two years later which ended with the Russian occupation of Crimea.

The ambiguity of the US-led West about its strategic goals with regard to Russia, its salami tactics of expanding its sphere of influence into the post-Soviet space while barring Russia from European integration, and its tacit support for ethnonationalist forces and policies in Eastern Europe helped Putin to polarise the Russian population and justify repression against the pro-Western opposition.

Years of methodical suppression have taken their toll. In 2014 and 2015, Moscow still saw large marches against the war in Ukraine. These are impossible to imagine now that any criticism of the Russian military’s actions can be punished with a jail sentence.

The vast majority of opposition politicians, activists, independent journalists and civil society leaders have fled the country in the wake of Russia’s full-out invasion of Ukraine. There are too few people left in the country who are experienced in organising public protests.

The high attendance at Navalny’s funeral may very well have been a one-off event spurred by the emotional shock at the perceived loss of hope for a better Russia which the ever-so-optimistic and stoic Navalny represented. The authorities are watching closely and will move quickly to suppress any sign of mobilisation. There are already reports about several people who attended the funeral getting arrested after being identified with the help of facial recognition technology.

The widow of the late politician, Yulia Navalnaya, has called on Russians to disrupt the presidential election, due on March 17, by showing up at polling stations en masse exactly at midday and voting for other candidates or spoiling their ballots.

At a relatively low risk for the participants, the organisers hope, this would allow to demonstrate the scope of anti-Putin sentiment and cast even more doubt on the legitimacy of the election.

However, there is no guarantee that many people will turn up and that is not just due to fear of reprisals. Russia’s conflict with the West leaves the pro-Western opposition with no strategic narratives that could fire up not just its staunch supporters, but – crucially – the conformist and apolitical majority of Russians.

People would only rally to defend their own interest, not someone else’s, in this case, that of the West or Ukraine. Claims that a Ukrainian victory will somehow improve the lot of the Russian people is going to fall on deaf ears unless it is backed up by a viable plan for integrating a democratic Russia into Euroatlantic structures, such as NATO and the EU.

Otherwise, Russians, who experienced turmoil and extreme insecurity at the time of close friendship with the West in the 1990s followed by a very significant improvement in the quality of life during Putin’s decades in power, will remain perpetually mistrustful of the West. They will continue to suspect the West of attempting to turn their country into an impoverished wasteland in the European periphery, as the Kremlin’s propaganda keeps asserting.

As Ukraine’s, Georgia’s and Serbia’s revolutions clearly showed, integration with the West is the only prospect that can mobilise millions and bring about tangible political change in Eastern Europe. But Russia was explicitly excluded from that process and the Russian opposition doesn’t have a satisfactory answer why.

To develop a logical and coherent narrative for its supporters in Russia, it will have to tackle the dangerous tilt of the West to the far right and the creeping securitocratic takeover of the political discourse that has been going on over the past two decades, since 9/11. Without that component, it will be impossible to offer the Russian population an explanation of the war in Ukraine that it would find convincing and objective.

Essentalist narratives about Russian “imperialist” mentality, often employed in the Western and Ukrainian discourse, just won’t work. People will point to Western imperialism manifested, as they see it, in its divide-and-rule policies in Eastern Europe and the support for toxic ethnonationalism. This fruitless argument can go on forever.

The West spends considerable amounts of money on Russian-language media, hoping to deliver news coverage and political messaging free from the Kremlin’s propaganda. But what happens in real life is that when Russians go online in search for news, they get swamped by insanely xenophobic messaging in the Russian language coming from pro-Ukrainian infowar outfits and troll farms. That’s before they even get to read about Western politicians calling for a total strategic defeat of Russia and the dismembering of the country into a bunch of Western client states. The message they get is – once again – don’t trust the West.

In this context, the best thing the Russian opposition activists can do at the moment is to help the West understand the dangers of its shift to the far right and the need to repel its own version of Putinisation, whether in the shape of Donald Trump or East European illiberals. They can also advise the West on how to right the wrongs in its badly miscalculated policies towards Russia and its neighbours, which contributed to the conflict.

As Ukraine’s victory looks more implausible than ever given the way things stand on the front line, this is emerging as the only viable strategy which could eventually bring about democratic change in Russia and thus help Ukraine restore its sovereignty.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.