Opposition and activism in Russia have long been fraught with risks, but it has become almost impossible in recent years. Political analysts say that opposing the Kremlin and its leader, Vladimir Putin, is “extremely dangerous.” Anton Barbashin, a Russian political analyst and the editorial director of online journal Riddle Russia, notes that all of the opposition political leaders are either in jail, under restrictive measures, or outside of the country. The oppression of political opposition figures in Russia is not new, with many high-profile businessmen and opposition politicians critical of the Kremlin and Putin being harassed, detained, disappeared, or imprisoned over the last two decades.
The Persecution of Opposition Figures
Some opposition leaders 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. 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.
The Repression of Russian Opposition Figures
Mark Galeotti, a London-based political scientist, notes 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. 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.
The Danger of Criticizing the Kremlin
Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya noted that “it’s extremely dangerous” to be a critic of the Kremlin now, no matter what your background is. For those who can be classed as the “non-systemic opposition,” that is, political opponents of the Kremlin and Putin, they are not allowed to exist. Critics who are seen as pro-Western are described as enemies of the state, but those that are seen as critical but nationalist and patriotic are offered some kind of protection, ironically by Putin himself.
The Kremlin’s biggest fear is a civilian uprising and overthrowal of the regime, an existential threat that has made figures like Navalny, a potential catalyst for societal change, so dangerous in the eyes of the state. Political analysts note that the repression of Russian opposition figures has become a more urgent matter for the Kremlin with the invasion of Ukraine, with the number of arrests and criminal charges leveled at opposition figures or civilians increasing dramatically. The situation has become so dire that many political analysts, including Stanovaya, Barbashin, and Kuznetova, have left Russia, saying their work would be impossible to do and personal safety compromised if they were in their home country.
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