They’ll arrest you even if your sign says nothing. As Russian police haul away demonstrators against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the arrests include people holding nothing but blank white posters. More than 14,000 protesters have been arrested in Russia since the war began. One of the most emphatic voices encouraging activists is the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny—a charismatic young politician who became his country’s leading critic of President Vladimir Putin, survived an assassination attempt by poisoning, and was imprisoned last year on fabricated charges. “You need to go to anti-war rallies every weekend,” Navalny told his followers on social media last week, “even if it seems that everyone has either left or got scared.” He calls his supporters "the backbone of the movement against war and death” and describes the war in Ukraine as “unleashed by our obviously insane tsar.” What is the war doing to the politics of opposition in Russia?

Morvan Lallouet is a doctoral candidate in comparative politics at the University of Kent and the coauthor of Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? Lallouet says that—despite the protests and Navalny’s calls to action—prospects for meaningful political opposition in Russia are bad and getting worse. With Navalny’s political organization banned last year and Putin now taking unprecedented steps to quash free speech and the free press, Lallouet says most Russians are likely to rally around their leader, at least for a while. The war may even create dynamics that undermine opposition efforts, including an exodus of young, educated people and a rise in anti-Western sentiment caused by the imposition of sanctions and perceptions of “Russophobia.” Lallouet is reluctant to speculate about the likelihood of Putin being removed from power in the current crisis, but if that were to happen, Lallouet says, it’s far from certain what kind of leadership would replace him.

Graham Vyse: What do we know about the anti-war demonstrators we’re seeing in Russia?

Morvan Lallouet: Ultimately, it’s not a lot of demonstrators—probably a few thousand in Moscow and Saint Petersburg plus a few hundred or a few dozen in other cities. Many of them seem to be fairly young, though we have very little indication of their demographics. The protests seem mostly to be spontaneous, not expressions of a mass movement. In fact, the political infrastructure to organize a mass movement doesn’t really exist in Russia today. Several groups have urged Russians to demonstrate, including one of the last legal liberal parties in the country, Yabloko—along with Alexei Navalny and his supporters, but Navalny’s movement has been outlawed and essentially dissolved.

Vyse: What’s happening with broader Russian political opposition?

Lallouet: The first thing to understand is that Russia has what’s called systemic opposition as well as non-systemic opposition. Systemic opposition is tolerated, able to participate in elections, and has members in the Russian parliament. Most parties in the systemic opposition are generally supportive of Putin’s foreign policy toward Ukraine. Non-systemic opposition, by contrast, isn’t allowed to participate in elections or appear on television. It’s been fairly repressed in recent years.

Valery Tenevoy

Navalny’s was the most important movement within the non-systemic opposition. Navalny is fairly young, born in 1976. He rose to prominence in the late 2000s, as he investigated corruption. He published his findings on his blog—at a time when there was a very lively Russian blog scene—and gained standing in the opposition, becoming one of its leaders. In late 2011, he was arrested as part of a mass movement against “fraud” in parliamentary elections. In 2012, he helped lead a protest against Putin’s return to the presidency.

Vyse: Then he ran for mayor of Moscow, yes?

Lallouet: He ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, and he started building a political movement. When he tried to be a candidate in the 2018 presidential election, he created a network of what he called “headquarters” to support him—and to support activism in general. Other liberal movements declined or stagnated, and he became the most prominent leader standing for the rule of law, democracy, and fighting corruption. [At the end of 2017, Russia’s Central Electoral Commission barred Navalny from running in the election, citing a previous fraud conviction.]

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