The protest leaders took Kiev’s side on Crimea and quickly became marginalized and lost what little public support they had enjoyed. Now the leaders of Russia’s unelected opposition are looking for weaknesses in the government that they can exploit to regain the public's attention.
Opposition leaders discredited themselves in the run-up to and during the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. You might say that their reputations went up in smoke in the Olympic flame. Their attempts to discredit the Games were condemned by most Russians. Oblivious to the warning signs that public opinion was against them, the protest leaders took Kiev’s side on Crimea and the situation in southeastern Ukraine. As a result, protest groups quickly became marginalized and lost what little public support they had enjoyed. Now the leaders of Russia’s unelected opposition are looking for weaknesses in the government that they can exploit to regain the public's attention.
The so-called “Navalny factor” has come and gone: the leader of the Progress Party is not cut out for the grind of working for the good of constituents. He claims that everything is terrible and will only get worse instead of trying to come up with a positive, constructive agenda.
In fact, Alexei Navalny and his supporters are no longer part of the protest movement that spawned them. They pushed aside former allies and attempted to launch their own political brand with the help of outside actors, particularly the United States and the EU. This explains their reluctance to form a stable political alliance inside the country. They prefer to stick mainly to foreign policy issues and deal in abstract political concepts. They believe that this is the best way to avoid getting caught in lies and distortions.
Sergei Udaltsov said back in March that he “supports the will of the people of Crimea and the policy of reunification with Russia.” Unlike the Communist Party and Civic Platform, RPR-Parnas stated categorically that the party would not run in the elections to the State Council of Crimea and the Legislative Assembly of Sevastopol this fall. Yabloko believes it “can participate in the elections, if Crimean residents ask them to do so.”
These are sober political calculations. The protest leaders and the unelected opposition are fully aware that they can’t gain any traction in Crimea or Sevastopol after supporting Kiev’s line, and are just trying to put a good face on things. Not wanting to burn any bridges, Yabloko engages in a political flirtation with the people of Crimea, well aware that the decision of other opposition parties not to run has created a unique opportunity for it.
The split in the opposition caused by Crimea’s reunification with Russia reflects the internal divisions and the simple human failings of its leaders and activists. It turned out that it was no easier to work together in regional elections than it is to unite around a single presidential candidate. Because of the narrow political space the opposition leaders occupy (a problem of their own making), they have to compete not with the ruling party or the formal, parliamentary opposition, but with each other.
Many protest leaders would probably love to change their stance on Crimea. But any attempt to walk back their position would cause a total collapse of their political standing with the shrinking part of the electorate that votes for them. As a result, they’ll have to radicalize their protests and either sink or swim.
The protest groups angling for foreign aid to support their projects, such as “Siberian separatism”, will use that money to fertilize the soil around themselves. However, as the cases of Georgia and Ukraine show, the money runs out sooner or later, while the label of “foreign agent” hangs around forever. That’s why some have to move to the West to give lectures or provide consulting services to the organizations that furnished them with grants in the past.