There is no Russian Mandela waiting in the wings to replace the martyred Alexei Navalny. The country remains a ruthless dictatorship that has imposed a Stalin-style reign of terror to control its 143.4 million people, 11 time zones, and more than 140 ethnic groups. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s re-election in mid-March is a farce, a foregone conclusion and there is no substitute for Navalny. The Kremlin will continue cracking down on dissidents and igniting trouble and turmoil globally until its leadership is replaced, but this requires defeat abroad and dismantling the empire at home.

The tragedy is that Navalny drew attention to Russia’s corruption and injustice, but could not unite the country’s opposition or populace to overthrow Putin. Russia will only change, wrote former diplomat Boris Bondarev, who resigned after Ukraine was invaded, if opposition forces unite and elites help undermine Putin. “Without taking these steps, the Russian opposition is doomed to become nothing but mouthpieces and bloggers with no influence and agency where it really matters”. They are also doomed to die in prison or in exile.

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Only a few thousand people paid their respects to Navalny at the church then cemetery. A mound of flowers were left but there were no gigantic crowds protesting his torture and murder in the streets of Moscow. There was no widespread unrest. This is because fear and Russia’s poisonous nationalism have been force-fed to its brainwashed, hapless, and frightened populace.

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Putin’s narrative consists of just two elements: Irredentism, or a policy of recapturing former territories occupied by Russia; and revanchism, or retaliation against its enemies. Thus, former Prime Minister and Putin partner Dmitri Medvedev recently stated, without irony, that “Ukraine is Russia” and “Russia has no expansionist ambitions”. Put another way, the Kremlin does not believe that the invasion of Ukraine abrogates international law, nor does it believe that its plans to invade Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, various Caucasus and Central Asian former Soviet republics are expansions. They are justifiable repossessions.

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“Alexei Navalny was undoubtedly the brightest star in the Russian opposition. However, for all his charisma and energy, he failed to unite the entire opposition (or at least the majority) under his banner. Nor did he strive to, often taking an extremely tough and uncompromising stance. 

His associates in the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF), who position themselves as the main opposition force, take the same approach. They have repeatedly shown their unwillingness to work with or even appear alongside other opposition movements, such as supporters of Maxim Katz, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and other opposition figures and movements,” wrote the disaffected diplomat Bondarev in The Moscow Times. “If this approach continues with Yulia Navalnaya [Navalny’s widow] – and her statements so far indicate it will – it would be extremely naive to expect that she will be able to unite Russia's diverse opposition.”

Russia needs to be defeated militarily, but also needs a powerful, umbrella opposition, at home and abroad, to challenge Putin’s power and provide a viable alternative. Navalny and others have been protesters and activists, not politicians or dealmakers. They drew attention to problems, but did not to create policies, or propose platforms, that would appeal to a majority of Russians. Splintered, they were unable to overthrow the dictatorship or to work with allies to try and undermine the Kremlin.

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Yulia Navalny’s appeal to stage a protest vote on election day, in honor of her late husband, is a start, but she and others must forge a united front at home and abroad with others such as exiled oligarch Khodorovsky.

Other opposition collaborators include Russian chess legend Garry Kasparov, former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and Vladimir Kara-Murza who, unfortunately, may be heading toward martyrdom too. He also returned to Russia and now serves a 25-year prison term after criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, these people squabble or compete which “doesn’t help,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and senior fellow for Russia & Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. However, to be fair, he admits that joining forces alone cannot bring about change. “Given the instruments of coercion, repression and intimidation available to the Russian state, what difference, at least in the short term, would that make?”

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Divided into silos, Russia’s people and its opposition leaders are easily conquered. This has allowed Putin to resurrect Stalinism. In the past six years of his rule, about 116,000 people have been subjected to direct political repression in Russia, according to a recent study by the investigative outlet Proekt — the highest number of victims since Stalin's rule. And after the Feb. 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, there have been 19,855 arrests for anti-war stances. “Some have not survived. Some have taken their own lives, and some have left to fight,” said activist Masha Alekhina of Pussy Riot, a member of a music protest group who’s also been in and out of jail.

Not surprisingly, Russia’s critics also find it difficult to join forces because they have been raised under a totalitarian system and lack the skills to trust one another, work together, form consensus strategies and policies, or to be persuasive or diplomatic. “If you look closely, Russians on both sides of the war are remarkably similar in their approach to politics: They tend to cluster around figureheads rather than ideas and principles. They behave like activists, with a black-and-white perception of the world, rigid adherence to an ideology, and an intolerance of other opinions.

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Activists can only become politicians when they are ready to offer a positive picture of the future to as many people as possible. Relying on fanatically devoted supporters is a direct path to marginalization and oblivion,” noted Bondarev.

In other words, the country’s “resistance” replicates the dictatorship. “Oppositionists declare their commitment to rebuilding Russia along democratic principles. But these are the result of a complex multilateral dialog within society, between different political forces, thanks to which it is possible to take on board the interests of the most diverse social strata and groups and thus ensure the stable development of society. 

Therefore, refusing to meet with potential allies, as well as rejecting any criticism, indicates that you are not ready for any form of leadership. Unfortunately, this tactic is characteristic of many oppositionists, most notably Navalny's team. If we want to see democracy in the ‘beautiful Russia of the future’, we must start learning them now,” warned Bondarev.

Some have even suggested that Yulia Navalny be declared President-in-exile. “But this would quickly raise questions about who made the decision, and why nobody else was asked. A mandate from the people is needed, not a hereditary transfer of leadership. Such a monarchial approach is unlikely to help Russian democracy,” he added.

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The issue of governance and corruption are avoided by Russians because of the danger of arrest or worse. So they remain silent over the most outrageous incidents. The same sad fate befell Russian hero Boris Nemtsov as happened to Navalny. He was audaciously gunned down in February 2015 on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow, with the Kremlin walls and Red Square as backdrop. He died at the scene. There was a march of only 10,000 in Moscow.

Now Navalny is gone and there is no successor. But Russia doesn’t need a savior or another martyr, it needs a movement. Only a few Russians were courageous enough to pay their respects to a man who gave up his life for them. There should have been millions on the streets.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

Reprinted from [email protected] - Diane Francis on America and the World

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