Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Marathon for Navalny: How Should the Russian Opposition Act in Order to Succeed?
Marathon for Navalny: How Should the Russian Opposition Act in Order to Succeed?

Marathon for Navalny: How Should the Russian Opposition Act in Order to Succeed?

anti-Putin protests in Russia in 2013 (Source: putnik/WikiMedia Commons)

Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a political consultant in Russia, and comments on Russian domestic policy in Moscow’s leading daily newspapers as a political scientist. Mr. Gallyamov previously held the position of deputy head of the Rustem Khamitov administration in Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia. This article was originally published in Russian by Republic on May 8, 2017 and has been translated into English by Maia Otarashvili, Research Fellow in the Eurasia Program at FPRI. To view the article in its original form, visit Republic’s website here.

The growing protest movements in Russia and the recent gains of the opposition, such as the anti-corruption marches led by Alexei Navalny, did not lead to a radical weakening of the Putin regime. The government’s power is not currently under threat. The state apparatus controls all components of the electoral system, so the regime can only lose elections in special cases—in one or two regions, no more. And if those dissatisfied with the results try to protest, the authorities can also stage street demonstrations using crowds of their own supporters. The regime already demonstrated its willingness to do this, during the rallies in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow.[1] It is now obvious that the capacity of the state to mobilize demonstrators in its support exceeds the opposition’s ability to do the same.

Real Tasks

Once it is clear that the regime cannot be overthrown, the opposition must fight for its transformation. Most do not believe that it is possible, but they are wrong. American political scientist and sociologist Samuel Huntington, who proposed the theory of waves of democratization, said that the third wave (1974-1991) differs from others in that it demonstrates how the authoritarian regime can change to a democratic one as a result of a peaceful transformation, and without violent means.

A classic example of this is Spain. Selected by General Franco as his successor, the young King Juan Carlos was initially perceived as a mere puppet of the outgoing dictator. The new Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez also seemed like a hard-core Francoist. However, they launched reforms, which forced the authoritarianism in the country eventually to give way to democracy.

This happened because there was a consensus in the society and among the elites; everyone shared the feeling that “it’s no longer possible to live like this.” This consensus was what led to the end of Francoism. The formation of such a consensus is also the main task for Russian oppositionists. If they can put up with the regime until 2024, then no revolution will be required: whoever ends up becoming Putin’s successor, that person will begin democratic reforms. But for this to happen, the opposition must effectively discredit not necessarily Putin or Medvedev personally, but the characteristics of the regime: the authoritarian practices of the government disguised as ideas of traditionalism, the “iron fist,” the thug-like approach to politics, and the general attitude of resentment towards the rest of the world as a whole.

Here, the opposition has a paradoxical ally: the regime itself. Deep down in their hearts, for everyday Russians, the crude language, which the regime has chosen as a means of communicating with its constantly multiplying external and internal enemies, is actually unpleasant. These everyday Russians value comfort above anything else, and what comfort can one experience next to a boor and a thug?

The regime is making an increasing amount of political errors. The number of development projects in the country is growing. These projects encourage the image of the country as one beholden to the will of the oligarchs, who are trying to thrive at the expense of the ordinary people. This is what all modern-day stories look like – from the “Platon” [toll system] project[2] to the program of tearing down the Khrushchovka buildings in Moscow and resettling thousands of residents.[3] All this, of course, contributes to the growing protest waves and increases the number of Russians who are willing to listen to the opposition politicians.


Rejecting the idea of ​​immediately replacing Putin will help the opponents of the regime to reduce the degree of anger and confrontation, thereby increasing the chance of a compromise. Compromise is the most important characteristic of a successful democratic transition model of the “Third Wave.” In this model of transition reforms increasingly begin to be implemented as a result of negotiations between the regime and the opposition leaders, not as a result of the opposition’s victory over the regime.

In order for representatives of the regime to adopt democratic norms, they must understand that they are not personally under threat. The more comfortable and smooth the transition, the better. For this, opposition leaders must be willing to accept gradualism, and they must be willing to compromise. The democratic transition of Chile lasted 15 years. Even on the painful issue of the regime’s track record of human rights violations, the leaders of the Chilean opposition consciously took a moderate position.

If the Russian oppositionists want to come to power, they will have to give up their loved ones’ dreams—to transplant the current elites. Coming to power is possible only through compromise with those whom they want to remove from power, and not through a unanimous victory over them. When Suarez began to democratize Spain, he did not try to dissolve the old Franco parliament by force, as the radical wing of the opposition had been demanding. This would have given the army an excuse to intervene and stop the transition. No, Suarez convinced the deputies to seek self-dissolution. Only after agreeing with the representatives of the old establishment, he proposed the referendum on reforms. Suarez did not try to act unilaterally, he formed a consensus. Huntington called moderation “the price that must be paid to come to power.” Yes, the supporters of the opposition will be disappointed, but real politics is not a performance where leaders, like actors, gather flowers, ovations, and teddy bears at the end.


Huntington wrote that the ability of opposition leaders to subordinate the immediate interests of their followers to the long-term needs of democracy is the most important prerequisite for successful democratic transition. In this case, one cannot be a populist. One has to be prepared to remain misunderstood and even be accused of betrayal:

Few political leaders who put together the compromises creating those regimes escaped the charge of having ‘sold out’ the interests of their constituents. The extent of this disaffection was, in a sense, a measure of their success. . . . In the third waves, democracies were often made by leaders willing to betray the interests of their followers in order to achieve that goal.[4]

In general, the transformation of the regime should be a result of the broad consensus. This path is long, but the absence of stress guarantees the long-term stability of the new system replacing the existing one. The fewer the number of people who will feel defeated as a result of the regime change, the fewer the number of revanchists in the future. As one of the most prominent political scientists of the twentieth century, Seymour Lipset, said bluntly: “If, however, the status of major conservative groups and symbols are not threatened during this transitional period, even though they lost most of their power, democracy seems to be much more secure.”[5]

This is how Juan Carlos explained why, as the prime minister who was to democratize Spain, he chose to support Suarez:

Suarez was a Francoist, but one who managed to convince anti-Francoists that he can be trusted. He was a man of patience and wisdom, qualities necessary at that moment, so that the transition from dictatorship to democracy could gradual, and not by means of a one-step annihilation of all that existed under Franco.

These are the words that the Russian oppositionists should learn by heart. They must understand that they have to run not a hundred-meter mark, but a marathon that will last many years.

[1] FPRI Editor’s Note: in 2011- 2013, Russians staged series of anti-Putin protests throughout the country. The largest of these rallies took place in Bolotnaya Square, in Moscow. To counter these protests, the government paid hundreds of individuals to stage pro-Putin rallies at the same time in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. This act of staging sham pro-government rallies has since been repeated numerous times by the Putin regime.

[2] FPRI Editor’s Note: “Platon” is a highway toll system that was introduced by the Russian government in 2015. Vehicles weighing 12 tons or more are required to pay a toll, in order to be allowed to drive on the federal highways. The introduction of new toll system, which is operated by a close associate of Vladimir Putin, was met with protests and outrage by Russian truck drivers for its extreme difficulty of use, and high and rising toll rates.

[3] FPRI Editor’s Note: The “Khrushchovka” buildings are five-story buildings that were built en masse in Moscow and throughout the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev’s government. This year, the Russian state Duma, backed by Mr. Putin, decided to tear down the buildings and resettle the residents. The authorities explained that this program is necessary for replacing old housing. For the city of Moscow, this means tearing down 7900 Soviet city blocks, or more than 10% of the city’s housing stock, and raises concerns over the rights of the property owners who have lived there for generations. Many of the residents are outraged over the initiative, and are concerned that the government will make lucrative development deals on the land while pushing the residents to settle for very little in return.

[4] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, (University of Oklahoma, Press, Norman, 1991), pp. 168-169.

[5] Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review, vol. 53, no. 1 (March 1959). Available at