Russia’s liberal opposition has been subjected to all kinds of pressure in the last few months, from leaked clandestine sex tapes to dubious court cases and physical violence. As parliamentary elections approach in September, the authorities appear to be throwing every dirty trick in the book at them. But the opposition is also engaged in a fight with enemies who are proving even more destructive than the Kremlin: each other. Parliamentary elections on 18 September will set the tone for a presidential election in 2018, in which Vladimir Putin is expected to stand and win another six-year term in office. Currently, the Russian Duma is made up of just four parties: the pro-Kremlin behemoth United Russia, and three smaller parties known as the “systemic opposition”, which provide a semblance of competition but do not oppose the Kremlin on any substantive issues. Lying outside the system are the other opposition parties, ranging in spectrum from liberals to nationalists. They are not given airtime on television and are often struck off the ballot in elections. With the political system carefully controlled and state television only ever covering the opposition in negative terms, there is little public support for rocking the boat. However, when the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was allowed to stand for mayor of Moscow in 2013, he won 27% of the vote, showing there is appetite for new faces among a certain section of urban Russians.
Since then, the screws have tightened, and the Kremlin is determined not to allow any opposition parties to gain the 5% of the vote that would see them into the Duma and risk argument and controversy in the parliament. It would prefer the Duma to remain a rubber-stamp mechanism with almost no dissent. Authorities are also determined to avoid a repeat of the parliamentary elections in late 2011, when allegations of electoral fraud led to huge protests across Moscow.
“The Kremlin is taking a careful line: it has shown a small amount of tolerance but has also used violence and threats to warn people they really could lose their freedom if they protest too much,” said the political analyst Masha Lipman.
Navalny’s brother was jailed in a case that many saw as a way to get leverage over the opposition leader, and Boris Nemtsov, one of the better known and more charismatic of the opposition leaders, was gunned down outside the Kremlin last February.