Navalny to the Russian Opposition: ‘Be Discouraged, a Little Bit’

MOSCOW — Two lonely figures kept vigil on a windswept bridge near the Kremlin on a recent day, watching over bouquets of flowers honoring an opposition leader, Boris Y. Nemtsov, as they and their allies have around the clock almost since the day he was slain on the spot on Feb, 27, 2015.

Some passers-by offered a thumbs up or a fist bump. Some cursed the pair. But most simply walked past, ignoring the little shrine to Russia’s much beleaguered pro-democracy movement.

“Welcome to the last 10 meters of freedom,” said Mikhail Kirtser, one of the volunteers, of the protesters’ stretch of sidewalk.

The vigil over the site, hallowed ground for the Russian opposition, has become emblematic of the extraordinary marginalization of a once-formidable pro-democracy movement that began in the late Soviet period. Over the past year, most of its leaders have been arrested or driven into exile.

Dismal results for the opposition in an election last weekend that was not free or fair only drove home a mood of defeat. The election underscored the grim reality that Russia’s pro-Western and pro-democratic opposition, a focus of American and other Western countries’ policy toward Russia for years now, has no visible strategy to regain relevance.

The spot where a gunman fatally shot Mr. Nemtsov on Feb. 27, 2015 — deliberately or not — within sight of the Kremlin and Red Square.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

“Honestly, you cannot call the overall result a ‘victory,’” Aleksei A. Navalny, the foremost opposition figure, wrote from prison in a statement posted on his social media accounts. He blamed fraud for subverting a voting strategy he said would have worked otherwise.

“I won’t even write the traditional, ‘Don’t be discouraged, don’t throw up your hands,’” he wrote. “Be discouraged, a little bit.” Offering a glimmer of hope, he did say indications of what the results might have been without fraud were encouraging.

The Central Election Commission reported — as usual after Russian elections — a landslide for parties and politicians loyal to President Vladimir V. Putin. The vote in parliamentary elections cleared a seemingly easy path for Mr. Putin to seek a fifth term as president in 2024.

The pro-government party, United Russia, won just short of 50 percent of the national vote, and 198 out of 225 seats allocated in district-level elections. The Communist Party of Russia, which runs in elections as an opposition party but votes with United Russia once in Parliament, came in second place, with 19 percent. Three other parties, all seen as loyal to Mr. Putin, also won seats. No candidates in open opposition to Mr. Putin entered Parliament.

It didn’t help that Google and Apple, under pressure from the Kremlin, removed an app promoting candidates Mr. Navalny had endorsed just before the vote. That move was seen by the opposition as yet another disheartening abandonment, this time by Western big tech companies.

Soon enough, infighting also broke out. Mr. Navalny blamed Aleksei A. Venediktov, the editor of the Echo of Moscow radio station — which is generally an opposition-friendly outlet — of turning a blind eye to fraud in an online voting system. Mr. Navalny called Mr. Venediktov, who had served as an election observer, a “midlevel lackey.”

The Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny at a court hearing in January. Not one to mince words, he acknowledged the beleaguered state of Russia’s opposition.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

With Russia’s pro-democracy groups now crushed, the center of gravity of the Russian political opposition may shift in other, unappealing directions, wrote Tatyana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center. The Communist Party, for example, has shifted toward open confrontation with the Kremlin with an ideology of Soviet revival more extreme even than Mr. Putin’s.

The glum results came despite years of rising discontent over Mr. Putin’s rule, as measured by polling and focus group studies. The so-called “Crimean Consensus” of broad backing for Mr. Putin during the early period of the Ukraine war on nationalist grounds has faded.

But the disillusionment is economic. Most street protests in Russia in recent years have been provincial labor actions that gained little national notice, said Yekaterina Schulmann, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a trend the Communist Party is well positioned to exploit.

In his statement from prison, Mr. Navalny offered no specific vision for the future of the opposition, other than to say it would be unpleasant. He called it a “long, hard marathon.”

Out on the Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge on a recent day, the two protesters spoke bleakly of the election outcome and its meaning for the opposition, but also kept their distance from each other.

The vigil where Mr. Nemtsov was murdered is Russia’s longest-running protest of recent times. In a starkly picturesque scene, bouquets of roses, lilies and carnations line a sidewalk, against the backdrop of the Kremlin’s red brick walls and the candy cane cupolas of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Muscovites bring flowers daily.

A gunman shot Mr. Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister and opposition leader, as he walked over the bridge on Feb. 27, 2015, leaving his body, by accident or design, lying in sight of the Kremlin. Members of the opposition have taken to calling the span the Nemtsov Bridge.

After multiple attempts to clear the flowers and arrest those keeping watch — nearly all retired people — the police have mostly made their peace with the protesters. “We are weak, and that is what protects us,” said Mr. Kirtser, the protester, who is a doctor. Any larger protest, he said, would be crushed.

“We are weak and that is what protects us,” said Mikhail Kirtser, one of the volunteers who keep watch at the bridge 24 hours a day..Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

“They think, ‘What can these pensioners do?’” he said. “But these people are on guard for our freedom.”

And yet, even at the bridge vigil, the many fractures in the Russian opposition are on display. Two groups operate at the site. Solidarity, the unregistered political party Mr. Nemtsov helped found, wants to concentrate the limited reserve of volunteers for vigils on weekends, when more pedestrians pass. A separate group organized on Facebook that Mr. Kirtser is affiliated with advocates daily protests.

The result is a divided vigil. The Facebook group, with about 12 members, sends volunteers on long shifts around the clock on weekdays, from 11 p.m. on Sunday to 11 a.m. on Saturday. Solidarity, the unregistered party with about 18 volunteers, takes the weekends.

“Of course, everybody argued with everybody else” about how to organize the vigil, Mr. Kirtser said.

As he spoke, he pointed out a man from the competing group. “Generally, I cannot stand him at all,” he said. “But, well, when he’s out here on the bridge he’s a hero for being here and I respect him.”

A view of the Kremlin walls in Moscow.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

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