A storied Russian liberal politician has sparked an outbreak of infighting among the country’s opposition groups after mounting a scathing attack on Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, arguing the path he would take the country down wouldn’t lead to a life free of repression.
“Everyone must decide whether to support Navalny or not,” Grigory Yavlinsky wrote this week. “But you need to understand. A democratic Russia, respect for people, and a life without fear and repression are incompatible with Navalny’s policies,” he added.
Yavlinsky, who ran twice for the Russia's presidency, in 1996 against Boris Yeltsin and in 2000 against Vladimir Putin, founded the Yabloko party, which favors free-market economics and social liberalism. He’s been critical of Navalny in the past and this week repeated his accusation that Navalny, Russia’s most high-profile opposition politician, is xenophobic and an authoritarian nationalist.
The attack by Yavlinsky has split the party he founded and triggered broader opposition infighting. It comes amid signs the recent protests against the Kremlin, and demands for Navalny to be freed from jail, are not resonating with most Russians, and that the paramilitary style crackdown on the dissenters is deterring others from considering protesting or enlisting in any future political action.
A poll conducted by the independent Levada Center carried out between January 29 and February 2 suggests there is little public appetite for agitation. Navalny survived a near-fatal poisoning, which he blames on the Kremlin and was arrested last month in Moscow on his return following life-saving treatment in Germany.
In the past two weeks, pro-Navalny supporters were on the streets in more than a hundred cities across Russia’s 11 time zones, with the largest protests mounted in the Russian capital and St. Petersburg. More than 11,000 people have been arrested at rallies opposing the jailing of Navalny, who started out as a blogger and became known as an anti-corruption campaigner.
The poll found that just 15% of Russians would be prepared to participate in future pro-Navalny protests, four percent less than the pollster found in November 2020. The percentage rose to 17% when asked if they would join rallies to protest economic conditions. Those figures represent Russians’ lowest willingness to protest since March 2018, according to the pollster.
The pollster also found that only 22% viewed the recent political protests positively. Younger respondents, who tend to get their news from the Internet and non-government media sources, viewed the protests slightly more favorably than older Russians, who generally receive their news and views from government-owned or controlled channels.
Government-sponsored channels have mounted unrelenting scorching attacks on Navalny and his allies, accusing them of being agents of foreign powers.
Among all respondents, two out of five said they view the protesters negatively. Another 37% expressed indifference to the political protests. Nonetheless, Russians do expect more political agitation in the future with 45% of people expecting more trouble, a jump from 23% last November, the highest it has been since 1998.
The poll findings are dismaying for Navalny supporters, who are in the process of taking stock and reorganizing to adjust for the high number of dedicated activists currently in detention. Navalny’s team last week said it intends to shift tactics and mount neighborhood flash mobs this Sunday instead of urging large numbers of supporters to take to the streets, risking more detentions and giving the security services an easy target to hit.
Neighborhood flash mobs is a tactic pro-democracy activists have been using in recent weeks in neighboring Belarus.
Navalny’s key aides are urging Russians to gather near their homes on February 14, Valentine’s Day, to shine torches and light candles in heart shapes. Navalny made multiple heart gestures to his wife Yulia in the courtroom where he was sentenced to two years and eight months on February 2.
He was convicted of violating the terms of his parole from a 2014 sentence for fraud in a case his supporters, international rights groups and Western governments say is spurious and politically motivated.
Opposition infighting is par for the course. President Vladimir Putin’s foes are drawn from across the political spectrum, from right-wing ultra-nationalists to old-school Communists, and with a variety of liberal groups in the middle. In 2016, an effort to stitch together a broad alliance of opposition groups, called the Democratic Coalition, was short-lived.
It fell apart when the leaders, who were meant to be working together to try to gain political influence, resumed their competition and tried to elbow each other out of the way.
The Kremlin gave it the coup de grace when it leaked to the government-sponsored NTV channel a video of former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a key liberal opposition politician, and one of the founders of the Democratic Coalition, in which he was heard disparaging his political partners.
Different coalition configurations were tried before and have been since, too, but keeping opposition groups marching, agitating and campaigning as one also has always been difficult and temporary. Yavlinsky’s public criticism of Navalny this week has exposed once again the splits and political animosities.
Navalny’s allies have urged Yabloko to expel Yavlinsky, and opposition social media forums have seen acrimonious exchanges, raising the prospect that opposition groups once again will end up squabbling and taking off in disparate directions in the run-up campaign to parliamentary elections in September.
Navalny was himself a member of Yabloko, but he was expelled in 2007 over what other members saw as unacceptable “nationalist” views. In the past, the Kremlin critic has participated in ultranationalist rallies and has been critical of migrants, using language his critics say make him unsuitable to be the figurehead of the opposition to Putin.
Navalny denies he is a xenophobe, and says he was expelled from Yabloko because he made little secret he wanted to replace Yavlinsky.
But some Yabloko leaders are infuriated with Yavlinsky’s attack, which they say is ill-timed and will put off voters. Other opposition figures say Yavlinsky shouldn’t criticize someone now in jail as a political prisoner and unable to defend himself.
Last week, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former oil tycoon who emerged as a prominent critic of Putin after a 10-year spell in a Russian jail, said he disagrees with Navalny on some issues, “But when a person becomes a political prisoner he must be supported.”
In an interview on Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station, Yavlinsky noted he had also participated in the past in prohibited rallies. He added: “I support everyone who is in prison.”
But on Navalny’s Twitter account, which is handled currently by his team, Yavlinsky’s criticism was put down to “envy.”