Opposition Divided on How to Confront Putin’s Dominance

Today on the MBK Center Twitter feed I found a link to another strong article by Amy Knight published in the New York Review of Books, which reviews the latest works by Mikhail Kasyanov and Stephen F. Cohen and opens a discussion on the core disagreement plaguing the Russian opposition:  is the best strategy to support President Dmitry Medvedev’s statements on reform, or reject everything from the President or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as one and the same?

Knight presents a thoughtful and lucid argument as to why Putin mightnot be a permanent fixture in Russian politics, but also talks toseveral people in deep disagreement over what position the oppositionshould take.  Noting that the leadership of the country has slippedinto a Brezhnevian decline of fixed elections, tightly controlled TV,and an oppressively dominant security service, Knight writes that theopposition has undergone its own corrosion in recent years.  TanyaLokshina of Human Rights Watch even comments that “The opposition parties are not making a difference. They have adoptedan underground mentality, criticizing the government nonstop and notoffering anything positive.

While Knight’s appraisal of the Kasyanov and Cohen books is positiveand informative, the most interesting discussion was the revival of thedebate over the downfall of Marina Litvinovich, who once was a leaderof Kasparov’s United Civil Front until publishing a controversialarticle last October which argued that the opposition should backMedvedev in order to create a split between him and Putin, and generatepositive change from within.  There suggestion of an alliance withMedvedev caused her to be branded as a traitor and booted out of herposition … which doesn’t send the strongest message about thetolerance for the marketplace of ideas among the opposition.

Leaving aside for a moment the subject of whether or not President Medvedev has sufficient clout to make any meaningful moves to fulfill his reform promises (he doesn’t – though he has racked up 4-5 high level firings which have started to send a message), Knight’s article poses some interesting questions for debate – such as how important it is for elite discontent to be focused on working inside the current government, or what the opposition gains or loses by supporting or rejecting Medvedev’s rhetoric.

She writes, “Who, for example, would have expected Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speechdenouncing Stalin in 1956 and his subsequent program ofde-Stalinization, or the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroikain the late 1980s? Although Medvedev, who has been a Putin loyalist formany years, may seem an unlikely person to undertake such reforms, thepossibility that he has become a vehicle for expressing discontent withthe current course of Kremlin politics gives some grounds for hope thatPutin will not be around forever.

The only thing I might add that is missing from this article is some consideration as to the damage that can be caused by supporting Medvedev and drinking the Kool-Aid to pretend that Russia is actually reforming if, in fact, the cynics are proven right and these statements are nothing but window dressing.  That could be the functional equivalent of getting excited about Libya’s chairing of the UN Human Rights Commission, but indeed stranger things have happened in Russia.