international analysis and commentary

How a new leadership could emerge in Russia


The Russian opposition is a disoriented, closely-knit community of activists and leaders, many of whom have discredited themselves in recent years. The opposition has indeed failed to offer a cohesive alternative vision of the country’s development with its main ideas revolving around the failures of the current regime and of President Vladimir Putin in particular.

The lack of a set of competent leaders, who will be able to see beyond their own personal ambitions, is one of the main reasons for the ongoing stagnation of the Russian economy and the country’s overall sluggish development. Russia will need a completely new array of leaders (not just at the very top of the state), capable of finding ways to implement crucial reforms. Most of all, these leaders will have to persuade the population that Russia’s growing international prowess is not a substitute to modernization at home.

As Putin is using his assertive foreign policy to consolidate popular consensus around him, the Russian opposition has to better identify and emphasize the country’s internal vulnerabilities: a weak monopolized economy, under-reformed institutions, lavish defense expenditures at the expense of education and healthcare, among others, and formulate specific answers on how to tackle them.   

Most of all, the Russian opposition has to think beyond Putin. The fixation on the current President, who enjoys overwhelming levels of public support, makes any alternative weak. The opposition has to admit that Putin made his contribution to the Russian state, but it is now time to move forward.

The more support this new opposition will receive from the Russian society, the more likely members of the Russian elite will want to back it too. Many prominent Russian politicians, economists and executives realize that the country is facing a dead end, but they don’t see an alternative powerful camp that they would join. At the end of the 1980s, many members of the Soviet elite defected to the liberal democratic camp because they realized that the system was undergoing fundamental changes. The new Russian opposition will have to create a new alternative pole of power in order for at least some members of the elite to change sides.

It is true that the political system in Russia is authoritarian and oppressive and does not allow for much dissent. However, it is also true that it has become such, at least in part, because a feeble civil society and opposition have allowed it to do so. One of the first steps for the new leaders will be to recognize the past mistakes of the old guard.

As of now, Russian opposition leaders can be divided into three types: 1) competent executives who are afraid of labeling themselves as “political opposition” (despite being critical in private) due to their long-time loyalty to Putin and due to their fear that in case they show dissent they will be deprived of their lavish lifestyles or access to powerful networks; 2) competent civic leaders who are not charismatic enough to garner widespread public support; 3) charismatic leaders who lack political experience and a “vision” that is strong enough to attract people beyond the margins.  

A profile of one of the prominent representatives of each group will illuminate the divisions.

Competent but loyal
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin is one of the few people in Putin’s immediate circle who can call the President by his first name – Vladimir. For years, Kudrin was the leader of the so-called “liberal camp” of the Russian establishment. These people carried out Putin’s most successful reforms at the beginning of 2000s. But as the Russian elite felt increasingly cornered by the West, the influence of this group has faded away. Today they do not formulate policy; they execute it. Kudrin himself resigned in 2011 after losing the battle over the defense budget: he had argued for the priority of expenditures on healthcare and education, but then-President Dmitry Medvedev decided to give the military more money.

Today Kudrin often sharply criticizes Putin and his policies. At the same time, he is not yet quite in the opposition as he seems to be waiting to be called back into government as an ideal crisis manager.

Competent but weak
Vladimir Ryzhkov can be called a “professional oppositioner.” A long-time member of the State Duma, he has never joined the executive government, even though he was always one of the main leaders of the opposition. After leaving the State Duma he was a co-chair of the leading opposition party. For a long time, Ryzhkov lived in the shadow of Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic leader who was tragically murdered in front of the Kremlin’s crimson walls in February 2015. Ryzhkov is not a substitute to Nemtsov, therefore the Russian opposition lacks a charismatic leader at the moment.

Charismatic but lacking experience
At one point opposition leader Alexei Navalny became a true Russian celebrity. Everything he did or said seemed to be alien to ordinary Russian politics: he was not part of the establishment; his political behavior was completely “Western” in style, but it was also nationalist in content. He was one of the first Russian politicians who clearly put the desire to reform Russia above not only his personal ambitions, but also above the desire to get rich. The Russian government has always been oppressive to alien elements that attempt to penetrate its system. It pressured and harassed Navalny, opened criminal cases against him and put his brother in jail. Nevertheless, this was not the main reason why Navalny has been marginalized. He is a bright and determined politician, but he still lacked the competence and the sense of scale that a Russian leader needs. Putin himself acquired it only once in the Kremlin, where he arrived largely by accident. If a new Russian leader will come from outside the government system he will have to develop all the needed skills before he enters it, or rise up through the party ranks like Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin. 

In case people like Navalny will succeed, it will be a great anomaly in Russian history. At the same time, Gorbachev was an anomaly for it too, just like Yeltsin. Moreover, due to a sort of snowball effect that we should not underestimate, it is likely that people who swear allegiance to Putin today will quickly defect as soon as the trend changes.