After spending twenty years in the technology industry, Leonid Volkov had a rude wake-up call to the reality of Russian politics when he was elected to city council as the only independent member — the other 34 officials were members of the United Russia Party — the party of President Vladimir Putin.
“That was my first and very overwhelming encounter with what was going on in Russia,” he said.
Volkov — chief of staff for Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition — examined the current political climate of Russia and the future of the opposition movement in his home country at a lecture Tuesday in Olin Hall.
During his time on the city council of Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains, Volkov also started attending events and meetings for the opposition movement, which is where he first met Navalny.
He then went on to work on both Navalny’s Moscow mayoral campaign in 2013 and his attempt to register to run against Putin in the 2018 Russian Presidential election, both of which eventually failed.
Volkov noted that Navalny is very different than former opposition leaders who focused on simply “saying something,” such as issuing statements condemning Putin’s actions. Instead, Navalny is focused on “doing something” like organizing mass protests and launching the Anti-Corruption Foundation, according to Volkov.
He said that he believes Navalny’s approach is “very new and promising.”
Volkov discussed how the opposition built Navalny’s campaign to register for the 2018 Presidential election from scratch, without help from mainstream media, which he called the “propaganda machine.”
During the Moscow 2013 campaign, 17,000 volunteers working with Navalny’s campaign distributed over 22 million pieces of campaign literature across Russia, which spans 11 time zones, according to Volkov.
“Our main and only media during our campaign was our volunteers,” he said.
Both Volkov and Navalny spent over 90 days in jail during 2017, apprehended nearly every time they tried to organize a large protest or rally, even though it is “constitutionally illegal.”
Throughout the lecture, Volkov emphasized that he is “optimistic” about the future of Russian politics, especially because of the huge increase in public engagement within the opposition party during this election cycle.
He explained that Putin has “never faced so many difficulties” as he is facing now, with a low approval rating, many large protests and instability among the political elite.
Putin’s term will last until 2024, at which point he won’t be able to run again until 2030 because of the Russian law that prevents three consecutive presidential terms. Volkov explained that this creates the “succession issue” for the first time in Putin’s rule.
Elites who rely on Putin for political power have already started to question how they will stay in power after Putin leaves office, according to Volkov. He said that before 2018, it was in these political elites’ best interests to support Putin in order to have six more years of the status quo, but Volkov believes that they have started to realize that supporting Putin is no longer in their best interests.
“This is how the system starts to fall apart,” he said.
Volkov went on to explain what he believes the opposition’s strategy should be as 2024 approaches. He outlined three potential scenarios for how the ruling party could lose power: Putin dies; some terrible, unpredictable event motivates the people to overthrow him; or the political elite decide “the costs of having Putin in power in the Kremlin are too high,” he said.
“We are not in control over the probability of the first or second scenarios … What we have to do is increase the probability of the third scenario – to increase the costs for the political elite to continue operating with Putin in power,” he said.
He proposed that the opposition should do this by increasing the political pressure on these elites by staging massive protests to “make the system as unstable as possible.”
In his “optimistic conclusion,” Volkov mentioned that though the original opposition movement was only about 1 million people two years ago, the movement now reaches about 4 million people via YouTube, mailing lists, podcasts and blogs. Volkov believes the larger reach of the movement is imperative for the opposition to take advantage of the weakness in the political system when Putin’s era comes to an end.
Volkov is spending the semester at Yale as a Greenberg World Fellow, speaking to students around the United States about his experiences in Russian politics and as a member of the opposition movement.
Though he said it was a difficult decision to come to America, he believes it is his “mission to reach out to as many audiences as possible” to explain the current Russian political climate.