Russia's Opposition Must Make a Decision on Their Future

Now the euphoria of the protest movement in Russia is abating, the opposition must choose between pragmatic unity or a foothold approach.

Now the euphoria of the protest movement in Russia is abating, the opposition must choose between pragmatic unity or a foothold approach.

Since Vladimir Putin's victory in the 4 March presidential election there have been signs that the street protests of recent months were losing their lustre. Yet even before then there were signs of divisions within the protest ranks as the strains of a union between nationalists, liberals and leftists began to tell.

Part of this reflected a disappointment in the failure of the movement to achieve its immediate aims of a re-run of the disputed Duma elections or a significant dent in Putin's ambitions to return to the Kremlin. However, it also reflects attempts by would-be protest leaders to organise themselves into more homogenous political factions.

The news that A Just Russia, one of the few opposition parties to gain Duma representation in December, appears on the verge of collapse can be understood in this light. Sergei Mironov, the party's chairman and presidential candidate, has been criticised by members of his own party for his failure to strongly endorse calls for fair election and to capitalise on growing dissatisfaction with the ruling United Russia party.

These critics included Gennady Gudkov and Ilya Ponomaryov, prominent Just Russia deputies and regular features of the protests in Moscow. They have now announced plans to join with Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front movement, to form a Social Democrat Union.

Meanwhile veteran opposition leaders Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov continue to push for the registration of their Parnas coalition. No doubt the nationalist factions are planning similar moves.

From the Kremlin's perspective this may well be seen as good news. President Dmitry Medvedev is busy trying to push through reforms aimed at easing the process for registering political parties, which some have seen as having as much to do with securing a legacy for himself as appeasing public anger.

Yet the measures fail to address is the problem of the 7% threshold for Duma representation. Since the threshold was adopted in 2005 representation of minority parties in the Duma has been all but wiped out. After the 2003 elections, for example, the 450-seat Russian parliament consisted of 12 separate parties and 67 independent deputies whereas in both 2007 and 2011 only four parties made the cut.

Gudkov has already warned that the new laws could pave the way for "spoiler parties" and "mini parties" to dilute opposition votes, a tactic that the Kremlin has attempted in the recent past.

So the question now is whether the opposition will attempt a pragmatic reunification under a general anti-corruption banner or whether they will attempt to gain a small number of deputies each and build support from there. If they pick the latter they will likely come up against legislation that appears designed precisely to block this type of gradualist foothold approach.

A period of rebuilding following election season is to be expected but the question of whether an ideologically diverse opposition can ever present a unified front remains as pressing as ever. Perhaps, however, the events of recent months have demonstrated the value of doing so.


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