If you oppose Vladimir Putin, is it even worth voting? This basic question over how much remains of Russian democracy is driving an emotional and divisive debate in the ranks of this country’s political opposition. Barred from the ballot in the March 18 presidential election, Russia’s most prominent Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, is staging rallies across the country this Sunday to call for a boycott of the vote. Other opposition politicians are furious over Navalny’s effort, arguing that convincing anti-Putin voters to stay home would be a gift to a Kremlin looking to the election as affirmation of its power.
The tussle underlines the lack of a unified strategy among those Russian politicians who are still trying to chip away at Putin’s authority. It also reflects the soul-searching among Russians unhappy with the regime over whether, more than 18 years into the Putin era, a gradual shift to a more democratic form of governance is still possible.
“The whole problem is that people don’t believe in the very possibility of change,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal politician who rejects Navalny’s call for a boycott. “Navalny, unfortunately, is boosting this apathy.”