Leonid Volkov on the Future of Russian Opposition

By: Yana Gorokhovskaia

Leonid Volkov, campaign manager and chief of staff for Alexei Navalny’s 2013 campaign for mayor of Moscow, spoke on November 27th at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute in New York. He touched on his political history, the opposition’s grand strategy, and the nature of Kremlin decision-making.

Volkov entered organized politics exactly ten years ago in November of 2009 when he decided to run for municipal office in Yekaterinburg. He was working in IT and blogging about politics when a friend suggested that he run in the upcoming municipal election. After a fairly modest campaign that focused on making neighborhood stump speeches, Volkov was elected as the only independent member of the city duma. Shortly after that, he met Alexei Navalny at an opposition conference.

Volkov’s pathway into politics is relatively typical. Over the last few years, oppositionists have increasingly focused on local elections where the barriers to entry are lower, there is less electoral malpractice, and voters pay attention to neighborhood issues rather than programmatic policies. Since 2012, when the Kremlin resurrected gubernatorial elections in response to anti-regime protests, municipal elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg have taken on new significance. The law on gubernatorial elections introduced a “municipal filter” that required candidates for governor to gather nomination signatures from local deputies to register and  made municipal politicians in Russia’s two largest cities important gatekeepers to key elected posts – a factor which brought local elections to the attention of oppositionists. The 2017 municipal election in Moscow was the most competitive ever with, on average, 67 candidates per seat, up from an average of 39 in 2012.

Volkov also spoke at length about his and Navalny’s strategy for expanding their base of support. First and foremost, Navalny and his team choose issues that resonate with people in both Moscow and the regions, which means staying away from advocating for abstract liberal democratic values and instead focusing on corruption, injustice, and inequality. This is a good strategy in light of what we know about which topics tend to get Russians on to the streets to protest. Data on the volume and frequency of protest across Russia has shown that socio-economic and environmental issues, often local, tend to be the most effective at mobilizing people. Political protests make up less than 40% of all protests in Russia. Volkov described their approach to the selection of issues as “opportunistic,” meaning that they tend to take up causes that emerge and seem to resonate with the population, like pension reform and renovations. The timing of protest actions is also strategic. For example, Navalny avoided organizing protests during the World Cup when they were unlikely to receive permission because he wanted to attract new supporters who were inexperienced with protest and would be fearful of participating in unsanctioned rallies.

Navalny’s ability to reach people is growing. Volkov estimated that they now have a viewership of about four million via their YouTube channel and probably another three million followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram combined. Elections too are an opportunity to expand their network and increase name-recognition for Navalny, who is barred from state-television. Volkov views the 2013 campaign for mayor of Moscow as a great success in raising Navalny’s profile. Levada Center survey data seems to confirm this, showing that 47% of those surveyed in 2017 said that they knew who Navalny was as compared to only 6% in 2012, although the vast majority of Russians continue to have a negative opinion of the oppositionist.

The goal of all of this campaigning, mobilization, and network growth, according to Volkov, is to be the largest and most influential political organization in Russia when the political opportunity structure in the country changes – meaning when Putin eventually leaves office. In the meantime, the practical benefit of an extensive network is financial support. Crowdfunding campaigns have enabled Navalny and Volkov to improve the quality of research and production values of their various investigative projects. Crowdfunding has also emerged as a lifeblood for other organizations and outlets facing the Kremlin’s repressive tactics. Just this month, The New Times was able to crowdfund 338,000 USD in four days to pay a fine leveled against them by a Moscow city court.

The degree to which the Kremlin can be described as a strategic actor has been the subject of much debate among scholars and analysts. While the Kremlin manages some affairs carefully and it also seems unable to anticipate others. Volkov repeatedly claimed that the Kremlin believes in data and conducts surveys and opinion polls to keep abreast of public opinion. This is why, Volkov thinks, certain oppositionists like Navalny are allowed to participate in elections and are harassed but not indefinitely imprisoned. On the other hand, when asked about concerns for his safety, a question Volkov dislikes, he pointed to the opaque nature of decision-making within the Kremlin and unexpected events like the death of Boris Nemtsov. To make things more complicated, despite a general disregard for the preferences of voters, as demonstrated by the prevalence of fraud in Russian elections, the Kremlin is very responsive to public discontent and willing to reverse course on policies when the public disapproves.

The Kremlin, then, is a strategic but not unitary actor pursuing multiple goals and sensitive to shifts in public opinion. In response, Volkov’s strategy for the opposition is to continue to build grassroots support and a nation-wide infrastructure to be ready to exploit any political openings when and if they come up.  

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