Future bleak for Russia's cowed opposition

MOSCOW (AFP) - After years with no real political power and a steady Kremlin crackdown on dissent, Russia's opposition was in the doldrums even before the assassination of one of its most vocal activists, Boris Nemtsov.

Nemtsov's brazen shooting in central Moscow sent tens of thousands onto the streets, prompting speculation that the ragtag opposition would try to harness the discontent to ignite a backlash against the Kremlin, which quashed the last protest movement in the winter of 2011-2012.

But analysts are deeply sceptical that the killing can unite the weak, divided opposition that has steadily slipped into obscurity during President Vladimir Putin's fifteen years at the helm.

"The idea that this murder might lead the Russian population at large to rebel against the climate of hatred and intolerance and demonisation of the liberal, Western-oriented democratic opposition is a deep illusion," said Clifford Gaddy, Russia analyst and co-author of "Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin."

Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre agreed, saying the unity seen in the capital after the February 27 shooting was "more emotional than political".

Nemtsov's political peak was seen as behind him, but for liberal-minded Russians he remained a symbol of the heady days of post-Soviet reforms and one of the last outspoken critics of Putin who managed to unite different opposition groups in occasional protests.

The psychological blow of his murder was "very demoralising for the opposition, as if they didn't already have plenty to be demoralised about," said Gaddy.

The Washington-based analyst said that whether Nemtsov was killed on orders from the Kremlin - which he believes unlikely - or by ultra-nationalists or Islamists, as other theories go, the effect was the same. "It all reflects on a very dangerous, chilling atmosphere for people who stood on the same side of the barricades as he did."

The outpouring of anger over Nemtsov's killing spurred some opposition figures to launch talks on the way forward, such as presenting common electoral lists for 2018 legislative polls.

"The chances of a union have increased after the assassination of Nemtsov," his friend Vladimir Milov told AFP, gloomily admitting that some opposition figures were seriously considering leaving the country.

"We are in consultations but the members of the opposition are divided: some want the old leaders to give way to the new and the old guard don't want to leave their business to amateurs."

While Nemtsov - who served as deputy premier under Boris Yeltsin - may not have been an influential figure in recent years, his political career waned in sync with the declining liberal opposition under Putin.

In 1999, his Union of Right Forces and rival Yabloko together held roughly 50 seats in Russia's 450-seat State Duma. In 2003 and 2007 both liberal parties failed to hit the threshold to enter federal parliament and were badly marginalised.

Nominal opposition parties in parliament such as the Communist Party are described by analysts as firmly in the Kremlin's pocket. But in 2011 opportunity presented itself, when evidence of fraud in a legislative election and an announcement by then-premier Putin that he was moving back to the presidency stirred anger among an urban middle class who "had the potential to be recruited" by the liberals, Gaddy told AFP.

He described Putin's crackdown on the protests that followed as "very selective".

The authorities jailed key figures such as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny or the Pussy Riot punk rockers who staged a protest performance in a cathedral, sending the message that political acts had a price. The movement was eventually crushed.

Nemtsov was also thrown into jail during these arrests, but some observers say that despite his criticism of the Kremlin and his damning reports into corruption, he did not pose a real threat to Putin.

Unlike Navalny, who has been dogged by various legal cases and is now under house arrest that keeps him out of the public eye, Nemtsov lacked crossover appeal, said Gaddy.

"To get broad, deep popular appeal in Russia you can't be so opposite in your fundamental views than the broad majority of the Russian population. You would have to be someone like Navalny with a populist, nationalist touch."

Making it even harder for the opposition to get a foothold, Putin's annexation of Crimea a year ago sent his approval ratings soaring above 80 percent as people responded to his nationalist rhetoric and warnings that the nation was under siege from Western plots.

Putin has energetically stoked nationalist sentiment to bolster support for his operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, referring to any dissenters as a "fifth column" of traitors and spies - a message spread by the all-powerful state media.

But if ultra-nationalists independently took their cue from the Kremlin message and assassinated Nemtsov, then Putin has a much bigger problem, said Gaddy.

"He has been playing with fire and he knows that. This is an incredibly dangerous force in Russia to play around with," he said.