Kremlin critics say there’ll be no change in Russia until Putin dies

An employee walks past TV screens in a shop in Moscow showing a broadcast with President Vladimir Putin.

Alexander Nemenov | Afp | GettyImages

Political opposition and activism within Russia has always been fraught with risks but it has become increasingly impossible in recent years, with political analysts saying it is now “extremely dangerous” to oppose the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Being a politician and openly against war and Putin’s rule in Russia is close to impossible,” Anton Barbashin, a Russian political analyst and the editorial director of online journal Riddle Russia, told CNBC.

“All of the opposition political leaders are either in jail or under restrictive measures or outside of the country. I would not say opposition is dead. Opposition is fully illegal,” he noted.

The oppression of political opposition figures in Russia is nothing new. A number of high-profile Russian businessmen and opposition politicians critical of the Kremlin and Putin have been harassed, detained, disappeared or been imprisoned over the last two decades.

Some accuse the Russian state of trying to poison them, while others have died in suspicious circumstances. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in such cases.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via video link from the IK-2 corrective penal colony in Pokrov before a court hearing to consider an appeal against his prison sentence, in Moscow, Russia May 17, 2022.

Evgenia Novozhenina | Reuters

The persecution of political opposition figures attracted global attention in 2020 when the high-profile Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. The Kremlin denied any involvement in the poisoning and Navalny survived, only to be imprisoned shortly after returning to Russia following life-saving hospital treatment in Germany.

He is currently serving nine years in a maximum-security prison for fraud and contempt of court, charges he and his allies decried as politically motivated and designed to get him out of the public eye in Russia.

“Unfortunately, the Russian state is very good at that very methodical and unimaginative campaign of repressions, arrests and intimidations,” Mark Galeotti, a London-based political scientist, lecturer and author of several books on Russia, told CNBC.

In terms of an organized political opposition [in Russia]essentially, it’s gone,” he said, adding: “Its main figures are either in prison or, more likely, pushed out of the country.”

The Kremlin’s biggest fear, Galeotti noted, was a civilian uprising and overthrowal of the regime, an existential threat that he said had made figures like Navalny, a potential catalyst for societal change, so dangerous in the eyes of the state.

The war has made it worse

Political analysts note that the repression of Russian opposition figures has become a more urgent matter for the Kremlin with the invasion of Ukraine.

The war — with its innate potential to cause domestic unrest and protest at home — had also enabled Putin’s regime to shed itself of “the pretence of political pluralism” and to become more unashamedly authoritarian, Galeotti noted.

“What for a long time was essentially an authoritarianism that was flirting with the appearance of legitimacy… I think has now just decided to bite the bullet and simply devolve into a much more conventional dictatorship,” he noted.

The process of becoming a one-party state, or autocracy under Putin, was already clear before the war, according to Maria Kuznetova, a spokesperson for OVD-Info, an independent Russian human rights media project that documents political persecution in the country.

Even before the war, the government tried to do everything to prevent people from forming any coalitions or creating big organizations. Then in 2021, after the arrest of Alexei Navalny, basically all organized opposition was destroyed,” she noted.

Kuznetova said that Russia’s crackdown on civil society escalated after this point, with the number of arrests and criminal charges level at opposition figures or civilians increasing dramatically.

Since the war in Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022, until March 2023, OVD-Info estimates that the Russian state has detained almost 20,000 people for their “anti-war” stance, with the harshest crackdown in the month the war was launched. Since then, Russia has also charged more than 450 individuals in criminal cases related to perceived “anti-war activity,” many of whom are falling foul of new laws targeting what the state sees as the spreading of “fake news” about its “special military operation” in Ukraine and “discrediting” the Russian armed forces.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, the former mayor Yevgeny Roizman and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza have all been detained or imprisoned in recent months after being found guilty in Russian courts of charges ranging from the spreading of “false information” about the war, to treason. Global human rights’ organizations and Western governments have condemned what they see as “politically motivated” convictions.

Russian opposition figure and former mayor of Yekaterinburg Yevgeny Roizman, accused of “propaganda or public display of attributes or symbols of extremist organizations” over sharing a post of opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s foundation – labeled “extremist” in 2021 – on the social media platform VKontakte In May 2022, he appears in court in Yekaterinburg on March 16, 2023. He was sentenced to 14 days in prison for sharing “extremist” symbols, Russian news agencies reported.

Anna Yurieva | Afp | GettyImages

It’s not only high-profile figures that have to be careful now, with the number of cases against civilians rising too — perhaps the most infamous so far being the father sentenced to jail after his daughter drew an anti-war drawing and was informed on it by her school principal.

“For ordinary people who share anti-war views, everyone really clearly understands that you can be arrested and go to jail for five, 10, 15, 20 years. Everyone understands that very well,” Kuznetova said.

Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya agreed that “it’s extremely dangerous” to be a critic of the Kremlin now, no matter what your background is.

“The difference between today’s Russia and Russia before the war is that before the war, the regime targeted mostly activists and professional politicians. Now, they target anyone with suspicious behavior. You can be a civilian, you can be a teacher, you can be a professor, you can be just anyone,” Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and the founder of political analysis firm R. Politik, noted, adding that the number of cases involving “informants” had risen dramatically, anecdotally.

Stanovaya, Barbashin and OVD-Info’s Kuznetova are all based outside of Russia now, saying their work would be impossible to do, and personal safety compromised, if they were in their home country. Russia banned Barbashin’s online journal as an “undesirable” organization in late 2022, accusing it of “posing a threat to the security” of the country.

What the Kremlin says

The Kremlin is keen to stress that political pluralism does exist in Russia. When contacted for this story, the Kremlin’s Press Secretary Dmitri Peskov told CNBC in a statement that “in Russia there are politicians with different views and positions.”

That may be true in theory but Tatiana Stanovaya noted that while there are “systemic opposition parties” in Russia, such as the Communist Party, Liberal Democratic Party or A Just Russia — for Truth, in reality these parties generally support the government and have acquiesced even more since the war began.

For those who can be classed as the “non-systemic opposition,” that is, political opponents of the Kremlin and Putin, Stanovaya said “they are not allowed to exist.”

“We can say that, today, non-systemic opposition has been completely destroyed and outlawed in Russia. Everything that can be related to political forces who argue against Putin may face criminal risks. I think, most of those who were not just in conversation, that they had to leave Russia or they stayed but had to be silent. They can’t take risks to speak out,” she said.

Nonetheless, Stanovaya said there were gray areas for the Kremlin. Critics who are seen as pro-Western are described as enemies of the state, but those who are seen as critical but nationalist and patriotic are offered some kind of protection, ironically by Putin himself.

This was particularly evident with the rise to prominence of ultra-nationalist Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group private military company which is fighting in Ukraine. Prigozhin has been overly critical of Russia’s defense ministry and its tactics in Ukraine, although he has steered clear of any criticism of his ally Putin.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner private military company

Mikhail Svetlov | GettyImages

“Often Western observers think so [the Kremlin cannot tolerate opposition figures] Because Putin is afraid. It’s not because he is afraid. It’s all about intention,” Stanovaya said.

“For Putin’s regime, critics who stand on a pro-Western position are seen as a tool in the hands of Western countries to destabilize the situation inside of Russia, they are seen as weapons of the West… and must be neutralized. But if you stand for patriotic intentions then you won’t be touched.”

Ironically, Stanovaya noted, Putin was the main protector of figures like Prigozhin, figures that Russia’s security agencies would ideally like to sideline. “The regime could become much worse, without Putin,” she said.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo