Russia’s opposition and civil society are under immense pressure and danger as the regime becomes increasingly authoritarian. Any kind of civic activity may now be qualified as “anti-state” or “criminal.”

Maria Domańska
Maria Domańska is a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, Poland. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Warsaw.

A viable EU strategy is desperately needed. The issue of human rights in Russia is directly linked to the stability and security of the union itself.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is not exposed to the challenges faced by the discredited Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, such a strategy needs to be twofold and long-term.

Firstly, it has to secure the survival of Russian civil society and prevent mass repression. Secondly, it has to try and gradually weaken the foundations of Russian authoritarianism and exploit its vulnerabilities.

Comprehensive measures should be addressed both to the Russian public and the ruling elite. The attitudes of the latter will be crucial for future political developments.

From now on, the bulk of Russian civic activity is likely to take place abroad and online. Despite growing censorship, the Internet has recently replaced state-controlled television as the main source of information for Russians. This boosts the chances of effective transborder communication with the public.

In this context, Europe should be prepared to host Russian political emigrants, including independent media outlets, and to offer them protection from the Russian state as well as financial and organizational assistance. Robust domestic crowdfunding is likely to be paralyzed by the Kremlin.

Parallel legal and financial aid and strong moral support must be secured for the repressed that remain in Russia.

Russian political activists based in the EU should draw on abundant European experience of grassroots democracy to further develop their know-how for future reforms. At the same time, unilateral visa liberalization for the wider public would be invaluable in bringing patterns of democratic governance closer to ordinary Russians. Their isolation from the West remains one of the Kremlin’s strategic goals. Traveling and direct interaction with European realities could help break the anti-Western stereotypes perpetuated by the state-controlled media.

As for the EU’s voice against human rights violations, it should be stronger and more consistent than ever. Statements must be buttressed by tougher and wider sanctions against those helping the regime to prosper amid growing repression.

Targets of EU sanctions should include big business and oligarchs whose flow of Russian dirty money in Europe should be staunched as well as middle-ranking members of the repressive apparatus, including prosecutors and judges engaged in politically motivated trials.

Such measures stand little chance of changing their behavior immediately. But they can significantly raise the price of further collaboration with the regime and help prevent mass terror like that in Belarus.

Continued communication between Russia’s democratic opposition and the Russian public over the coming years, together with the EU’s firm stance on human rights, might undermine the authoritarian foundations. Besides relying on repression, they are based on social apathy, a prevailing sense of disempowerment, and the lack of political alternative.

The erosion of these foundations has already begun. The gradual exhaustion of economic and political sources of the regime’s legitimacy is leading to mounting, albeit still latent, protest moods and growing demand for change.

As previous safety valves—simulating legalism and democratic procedures—have been removed, the Kremlin is losing touch with society. Repression as the primary mechanism of state management makes the system less stable; with time, this tool will become costlier and less effective.

To become a political factor, these social trends need to be tapped into by Russian democratic opposition and presented with an attractive, realistic, EU-backed program of post-Putin reforms that target widespread poverty, ecological problems, and corruption.

Differences between Russian regions should also be considered. Local agendas and the idea of socially oriented democracy resonate with the public to a much larger extent than abstract political rights and freedoms.

As for Europe, it needs to learn lessons from the 1990s when any reform agenda was perceived as West-sponsored. This time, it should build on the political empowerment of citizens, their sense of co-ownership of the state, and their broad participation in public debate on Russia’s future. Another top-down transformation will sooner or later be doomed to failure.

This narrow window of opportunity for systemic transformation will most likely open only during presidential succession.

Of course, it is impossible to predict who will then become leaders of the democratic opposition and who may become their tactical allies on the other side of the barricade.

That is why the EU strategy needs to be based not so much on investing in specific names as on developing ready-made mechanisms to employ immediately in negotiations with political forces across the board—except for those most compromised under Putin’s rule.

They should include both carrots and sticks. On the one hand, generous assistance in reforms, including a comprehensive anti-crisis shield for the society, should be made available. On the other, there should be non-recognition of the new leadership and further sanctions in case of ballot rigging and human rights abuses.

However, such a multilayered offer must be perceived as credible. Russia’s ruling elite, which regards Belarus as a testing ground for authoritarian survival techniques, will definitely draw lessons from the EU’s current response to Lukashenko’s crimes.

Maria Domańska is a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw, Poland. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Warsaw.