Russia’s beleaguered opposition today announced the outcome of voting for a shadow government that aims to unite its disparate and often antagonistic voices. More than 100,000 supporters took part in voting for a 45-member “coordination council” that will include anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, chessmaster Garry Kasparov and other prominent opposition leaders.
The leadership council comes almost a year after Vladimir Putin’s announcement he’d return for a third term as president prompted a wave of public dissatisfaction — and two weeks after pro-Kremlin candidates swept a series of regional elections, dashing hopes the contests would translate the popular unhappiness into political gains for the opposition.
The poor showing prompted the latest round of criticism about the opposition’s failure to present a credible alternative to Putin. But although infighting has undoubtedly set back previous attempts, blaming Putin’s opponents for failing to effectively challenge the Kremlin isn’t entirely fair.
There have been various attempts to consolidate the opposition since he came to power a dozen years ago. An early one, a movement of former Yeltsin-era reformers called Union of Right Forces, or SPS, was fatally flawed for having backed the president, who emerged from the same camp. Among other tries, Garry Kasparov later led a loose alliance of organizations called The Other Russia, which drew thousands onto the streets in 2007 for protests that produced the first images of the state’s riot-police brutality.
Navalny since emerged as the most popular opposition leader for his grassroots anti-corruption crusade, which enabled ordinary Russians to bring official wrongdoing to national attention by reporting it on online. Boris Nemtsov, one of the original SPS leaders, has compiled well-researched reports publicizing corruption surrounding Putin and other prominent politicians. Others have continued to write and speak about the president’s seizure of power.
All this is to say that opposition leaders have long fought to publicize official wrongdoing and campaign for democracy. Unfortunately the odds have been very much against them, as elections to the coordination council illustrate. They were prolonged for an extra day because hackers’ DDOS attacks against an online voting site prevented many from casting ballots over the weekend. Opposition leaders have blamed the attacks on pro-Kremlin forces.
The attacks were just the latest obstacle for an opposition movement whose leaders have faced searches, summons and lawsuits from the authorities since Putin’s re-election in May.
The president, meanwhile, has been busy fulfilling his decade-long drive to consolidate power by overseeing its latest major step: a deal by the state oil company Rosneft to acquire the TNK-BP joint-venture, which would make Rosneft the world’s largest publicly traded oil company and put more than 60 percent of the oil industry back under state control.
BP announced on Sunday that it had agreed to sell its stake for about $26 billion.
Rosneft will buy the firm’s other half from a consortium of Russian oligarchs known as AAR.
They have fought BP bitterly for control over their lucrative venture. Rosneft’s newest acquisition puts into question the conventional wisdom that the Kremlin largely stood by on the sidelines, including when BP’s CEO Robert Dudley was forced to flee Russia in 2008 — when he was TNK-BP head — after what he characterized as “sustained harassment” by the authorities.
Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin is no stranger to applying pressure against rivals. A close Putin loyalist who many believe to be Russia’s second-most-powerful man, he masterminded the arrest of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and Rosneft’s subsequent takeover of most of his Yukos oil company, once the country’s largest.
BP now claims to be “laying a new foundation” for its work in Russia. In fact, its sale to Rosneft may be the fruit of a long campaign to convince the company to sell one of its most profitable operations. That would fit a pattern in which other foreign companies have been hounded into selling their Russian investments to state-controlled firms.
Control over all Russia’s branches of power, its gas industry and now the bulk of its oil industry makes Putin a very powerful man indeed.
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Meanwhile the authorities are stepping up their attacks against Kremlin critics. Today they announced the arrest of an opposition activist accused of helping organize a protest in May that turned violent after police blocked the entrance to a sanctioned meeting-place.
The Investigative Committee, an agency that’s headed by another close Putin crony who is spearheading the Kremlin’s campaign against its opponents, said Leonid Razvozzhaev, an aide to an opposition member of parliament, turned himself in voluntarily and confessed to organizing violence.
But Razvozzhaev’s supporters say he was kidnapped in Ukraine last week after applying to the UN for refugee status, then sent to Moscow and tortured into making a confession.
He was elected to the coordination council on Monday.
The new body offers the latest hope the opposition will maintain its fight, however great the odds. Weathering infighting will be the easy part. Fending off attacks by a regime that sounds more like its Soviet predecessor by the day would challenge even the best-organized political force.