By Kelvin Bras
WHILE bombs fall on Ukraine, Russia is turning its attention to those who oppose the war domestically.
After Alexei Navalny was arrested in January 2021, the opposition movement fractured.
Where there once was a semi-organized opposition with several political parties opposing Vladimir Putin’s rule, the movement currently holds no clear political leader. As a result, it has fallen onto civilians to self-organise.
“Right now the entire opposition has been dispersed, there are no physical leaders,” Victor*, a leading civil organiser of the Novosibirsk opposition, told Redaction Report.
“There needs to be some form of self-organization.”
Novosibirsk is a Siberian city in the south east of Russia, with more than 1.5 million inhabitants. The city is historically known as a haven for progressive thinkers and has several well-established colleges attracting many Russians looking for higher education.
But after Putin’s office passed a law on March 6, outlawing any mention of anti-war sentiments, authorities have come down on opposition members in full force. Arrests during protests, house searches and even allowing officers to look through the phones of civilians’ while they’re walking the street.
Hugh Williamson, director of Human Rights Watch, said: “What Russia is doing at home involves many grave violations of human rights.”
OVD-Info, an independent human rights organisation tracking arrests, estimates more than 15 thousand Russian citizens have been arrested since the beginning of the war.
Although Russia’s new legislation has made it exponentially more dangerous to vocalize any anti-war sentiment people inside Novosibirsk’s opposition feel the need to organise.
‘’Because fuck the war,’’ Victor said.
‘‘Only because of this.”
Yet it is difficult to organize any protest actions without the danger of arrest. Without political backing many civilians are left to their devices when arrested.
But Navalny’s team and other opposition figureheads have been regularly calling for mass protests against the Russian invasion.
Most of this is done through social media, and after the blocking of Instagram and Facebook, the only (reasonably) safe form of communication is Telegram.
The recent blockade of social media servers and extremist websites has led to stringent communication. Russia’s government is trying to undermine any form of communication between the politicians and its constituency. Closing down opposition party’s offices and arresting anti-governmental vocalists.
“If we talk about the Russian opposition until recently, it consisted of the headquarters of Navalny’s organization,” Nina*, Victor’s wife, says.
At the beginning of 2020, the Russian government outlawed Navalny’s FBK, Anti-Corruption Agency, labelling them as an extremist organization.
Many of its offices were subsequently shut down.
Nina added: “Here in Novosibirsk, the head of the FBK office almost became mayor. Now he is abroad because a criminal case has been opened against him.
“He has a choice now, either go back to Russia and straight to jail, or continue his activities – at least from abroad.”
The stringent communication didn’t affect the movement’s coordination at first. But with the lines of communication decreasing, authoritarian intimidation makes the civilians hesitant.
With Putin’s new law in place, authorities began actively targeting civilians.
“The police used to at least try to stay within the law. Now they don’t, and that’s really scary,” Megera*, a civil leader of Novosibirsk’s opposition, told Redaction Report.
“The opposition has been squeezed out of Russia for the last 15 years. Since Boris Nemtsov’s murder, the flywheel of repression has been spinning like mad.
“Now all the leaders of the real opposition are either in prison or in exile.”
Although there are politicians who disagree with Putin’s regime, their voices are either undermined or have much too radical views according to civilians inside the opposition.
One of the politicians with radical views is Yevgeny Roizman, former mayor of Yekaterinburg and leader of ‘A Just Russia.’
“Roizman has always been a controversial character. I don’t accept his wild views on the treatment of drug addicts for example,’’ Megera says.
Roizman ran a drug rehabilitation organization back in 2013 that used to chain patients to beds and deprive them of food according to the BBC.
Only after human rights organizations complained about their treatment did they soften up. It is unclear if his organization City Without Drugs is still active, however.
Generally, there is always going to be an uphill battle when it comes to opposing Putin – in or out of war times.
Most of the political voices reside far from the borders of Novosibirsk. The Siberian city is isolated. And the voices that held some sway in town hall have left.
“In my opinion, there is no opposition in Russia,” Zed*, a civil member of the Novosibirsk opposition says.
“If we are talking about some real political force, then this is practically impossible in modern reality, because there is no dialogue with the authorities at all.”
Kelvin Bras is a freelance journalist.
*The names of the organisers have been changed to protect their identities.
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