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In the Shadow of Navalny affair, what remains of the Russian opposition?

MOSCOW – A legal ban on the main Russian opposition group. Attempted assassination of a critic of the Kremlin followed by his imprisonment. Almost general bans on street demonstrations. A tightening of the repression against the independent media.

Russian domestic politics have taken a difficult turn over the past year – perhaps, as some say, because of leaders’ fear of economic discontent or, as others suggest, of a consolidation of the power in the Kremlin by a clan of security officials.

President Biden has said he will oppose the crackdown in Russia when he meets with President Vladimir V. Putin for the first two leaders’ summit next week in Geneva.

Mr Putin, for his part, said that Russia’s internal affairs are not open to discussion, and certainly not that different from political turmoil in other countries.

“Views on our political system may differ,” Putin told officials of international news agencies last week. “Just give us the right, please, to figure out how to organize this part of our life. “

Prior to this year, the Russian political system had been described as “soft authoritarianism”. This allowed space for criticism and a mostly free internet, unlike China, but left no viable path for opposition figures to gain power through elections.

Russian analysts and politicians have divided the opposition into two categories: “systemic” and “non-systemic”.

The “systemic” opposition includes parties in parliament widely recognized as being controlled behind the scenes by Mr. Putin’s national political advisers in the Kremlin.

They champion local causes and even campaign aggressively against ruling party politicians in local, regional and parliamentary elections. Politicians from these parties have at times swung to boldly challenge the Kremlin – but this usually leads to their expulsion from parties, arrest or exile.

The smaller and besieged “non-systemic” opposition, by contrast, openly challenged Mr. Putin’s regime and demanded that he be removed from office. Its members have struggled to get candidates at the polls and have been blacklisted by state media.

What has changed this year is the ousting of the “non-systemic” opposition and its leader, Aleksei A. Navalny, who narrowly survived a poisoning attempt last year and was subsequently imprisoned.

Russian government officials usually nominate nominal opposition parties in parliament that actually support Mr Putin. They flourished. These parties hold 114 seats in the 450-seat Russian Parliament.

The Communist Party, for example, openly espouses an even deeper return to Soviet-style rule. The Liberal Democratic Party and its lightning rod leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky are promoting a populist and nationalist program.

Such “systemic” parties also occupy right-wing and pro-business niches and even promote policies that overlap with those promoted by the real repressed opposition.

A new party called New People, for example, has promoted reforms appealing to Russia’s emerging urban middle class in much the same way as Mr. Navalny’s group, with the distinction that it does not directly criticize Mr. Putin or does not call for the end of his 20-plus-year reign as president or prime minister.

In his comments to news agencies ahead of the Geneva meeting, Mr. Putin hinted that he also saw signs of the opposition being marginalized in America.

“Take a look at the sad events in the United States where people refused to accept the election results and stormed Congress,” Mr. Putin said. “Why is it only our non-systemic opposition that interests you? “

For years, prosecutors had harassed Mr Navalny and other opposition leaders and detained them for short periods under pretexts such as violating the rules on public gatherings or under laws unrelated to their own. political activities.

These legal screws have been tight for years. Mr Navalny, for example, has faced so many serial detentions for minor offenses that when he was released from prison he found police officers waiting to arrest him on another charge.

Behind the scenes, according to governments and Western rights groups, the Kremlin went further: assassinate or exile journalists, dissidents and political opposition leaders.

Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, for example, was twice poisoned with as yet undetermined toxins that plunged him into a coma that lasted for days and left him with lingering neurological disorders.

Mr Navalny narrowly survived an assassination attempt with a chemical weapon last summer. In 2015, another opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Boris Y. Nemtsov, was shot dead with a pistol. Officials deny any role in these actions.

Not in the near future. Opposition members view the prospects for short-term political change as limited, but they keep the post-Soviet promise of a democratic Russia alive.

Mid-level opposition figures, including several in Mr. Navalny’s organization, remain active and rebellious. Mr Navalny himself opted for imprisonment in Russia over exile when he returned from medical treatment in Germany this year, facing certain arrest.

A severe blow to Mr. Navalny’s move came on the eve of the summit between Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden, almost certainly with the approval of the Kremlin, in a signal that Mr. Putin will not give in to foreign pressure. A Moscow court this week banned the national political organization of Mr. Navalny as an extremist.

This decision will lead anyone supporting Mr. Navalny to cease his political activities, go into hiding or go into exile. This legal dismantling of an opposition group marked a new phase in the suppression of dissent, relying on a formal process rather than pretexts as before.

Mr Putin remained popular with many Russians, although independent polls showed some decline in his ratings from 2018 as the economy stagnated.

Hard-line supporters then sought to secure stability with an iron fist, some analysts say, a task made more urgent last year by the possibility of pandemic-related unrest and looming parliamentary elections slated for September. .

Yet the current crackdown, which is expected to come at next week’s summit, is not a brutal break with history: Russia held its last national elections deemed free and fair by international observers nearly 20 years old, with a parliamentary vote in 2002.

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