Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was assassinated 27 February 2015 on a bridge near the Kremlin
Since last month, the Kremlin’s extravagant lightshow has overshadowed the candles and flowers memorializing Boris Nemtsov, ironically reflecting the Russian political scene: big bad Putin versus an “opposition.”
Though Russia is technically a democracy under its constitution, most people, including the Russians themselves, scoff at this categorization. The Russian government does little to earn the title of democracy, with its record of human rights violations, rampant corruption, and aggressive censorship. Since the Sochi Winter Olympics, its transgressions have only grown in number and severity.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Russia has taken “a leap backwards” since 2014. It has passed laws to label “independent groups as ‘foreign agents,’” curtailing the freedom of action of NGOs such as HRW itself. Media censorship is also on the rise, with laws ranging from “requiring bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with Russia’s mass media oversight agency” to simply blocking social media posts. The list continues on with election fraud, anti-gay laws, and other policies that continually derail Russia’s abortive shift to democracy.
One reason this is possible is that United Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s political party, currently holds a majority of 238 seats out of 450 in the State Duma, the elected Russian legislature. Even more impressively, it occupies 2,840 seats out of 3,787 in Russia’s 83 regional parliaments, effectively maintaining a majority in all of Russia’s subnational legislatures. This is not to mention the fact that the unelected upper house, the Federation Council, and the almighty Presidency are all under United Russia’s control.
Among other institutional rigs and constitutional flaws, an unsubstantial, quarrelling minority is perhaps why draconian human rights violations are being passed, and Russia’s democracy remains so tenuous. Where things already looked dismal for the main opposition, including the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, A Just Russia, and the LDRP, and other people who do not enjoy Putin, the recent murder of Boris Nemtsov, a famous opposition politician, only adds insult to injury.
Nemtsov was a liberal reformist who got a taste of elected office. In the early 1990s, he served as “governor of the region around Nizhny Novgorod” and “ardently” supported Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin’s privatization reforms. His support was not just a political stance, however. The young governor was adamant on changing the gloomy Soviet industrial region into a “laboratory of reform,” through liberal economic policies like aggressive privatization and the encouragement of outside investment.
He also opened up political discourse during his tenure, making Nizhny Novgorod “notably friendly to journalists” compared to the rest of the country. His efforts paid off, as the province indeed experienced a turnaround from a depressed Soviet-era industrial model to free-market capitalism, so notably that Margaret Thatcher, British PM, visited and commended the city’s progress in 1993.
Glowing with national popularity, Nemtsov was elected to the State Duma in 1993 and again in 1996. Then in 1997, he was appointed Deputy Prime Minster of the Russian Federation by Yeltsin to “‘create a fresh young team for the government, from scratch.’” Yeltsin, after narrowly winning a controversial re-election, needed a political reboot with clear reformers. Nemtsov, then a popular “rising star,” was the perfect choice for a high cabinet position.
Despite his short time in that role, Nemtsov’s story tells us that Russian liberals can get elected and make policy. The opposition should take note that Putin and his party’s grip on domestic politics may be slipping. In fact, United Russia lost 77 seats to the trio of opposition parties in the most recent Duma election in 2011. It won the election, but with a sharp drop in its support, and protests calling the election fraudulent quickly followed the win.
To really put up a fight, the Russian opposition should first moderate their political positions and then unite as a bloc. Part of United Russia’s success is that it is a “catch all party,” with no clear ideology besides Russian Conservatism, its official ideology since 2009. The Communist Party, only second to United Russia in elections, for example, probably should not call for a “‘re-Stalinization’ of Russia” and “confrontation between the New World Order and the Russian people” during election season. With agreeable, yet vague ideologies, the opposition parties might then be able to unite in a more cohesive coalition. If they were to come together now, the opposition would hold a threatening 212 seats in the Duma, not very far away from a majority.
Second, the opposition must ride on the many problems that Russia currently faces under the Putin administration. Most pressing, the Russian government has predicted that “the economy will sink into recession” in 2015. This is because of plunging oil prices and soaring inflation. In January, inflation of the ruble rose to 15 percent, and is predicted to accelerate to 17 percent by March or April, the worst rate since the 2008 global economic crash. The EU’s and United States’ ongoing economic sanctions only exacerbate the effects, and regular Russian citizens are feeling the pain of losing economic choices.
The opposition can certainly use this for political capital. After all, the liberals themselves lost power because of an economic crisis in 1998. The wake of Nemtsov’s assassination is the perfect time for political action, as doubts that Chechens are behind the assassination are growing and tens of thousands of demonstrators publicly mourned the opposition figure’s death. Last time this happened was in 2012, when the protests directly called for Putin’s resignation.
The opposition can even take a page from the Americans. As Tip O’Neil, second longest serving House Speaker, said, “All politics is local,” and United Russia is clearly winning that game, being able to maintain a majority in all of Russia’s regional parliaments. Local outreach and grassroots campaigns relate most with the average voter, not Muscovite politics and ideology. The opposition must realize this and take regional elections seriously in addition to the Duma elections. Notably, the Federation Council is appointed from the regional governments, called federal subjects. If the opposition bloc has a strong regional foundation, it might even have a chance of swaying the federal government that way.
Admittedly, the State Duma and regional parliaments are relatively weak bodies compared to the Presidency, and Russian elections have a history of unfairness. Having representation in elected parliaments, however, can at least provide obstruction to draconian policies that constantly limit the rights of Russian citizens.
I am not asking the Russian opposition to gather in Red Square and start a revolution, as the country does not need more instability, but rather just to play the election game, fraudulent and difficult though it is. Evidently, it can even be life-threatening, but it must be played for the future of Russia and the Russian people.
Matt Lam is a sophomore at Cornell University studying Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences.