New Delhi: The Russian tragedy is not only epic but endless. After the Tsars and the Bolsheviks, there is Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to become president again in the election of March next year. Russia desperately needs less authoritarianism and more democracy mingled with economic reforms to cement its position as a Great Power. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon. A majority of Russians even without rigging will re-elect Putin because the opposition collectively resembles the disastrous Boris Yeltsin who was powerless to stop the West and particularly the United States from looting Russia in the guise of dismantling communism. Indeed, the precipitate collapse of Soviet Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin has strengthened the resolve of the totalitarian leadership of China to concentrate all powers in the institution of the Chinese communist party.

The Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who will run against Putin despite facing a fair prospect of pre-poll disqualification, is a doughty politician in some ways. He is easily the most durable Russian opposition leader of recent times and the youth of Russia by and large support him. His supporters are reconciled to his defeat even if he gets past the high hurdle of disqualification but they nonetheless root for him. They believe he is the metaphorical first green shoot of spring following Russia’s long and cruel winter of authoritarianism. They hope that upon his personal example, the superstructure of Russian democracy could be built. Navalny has suffered much in the hands of the Putin regime and the world’s sympathies are bound to lie with his campaign. But he faces indomitable Russian nationalism which has been inflamed by a perception that the West led by the United States is determined to swallow Russia. Putin does not have to exert himself to paint the opposition as reincarnated Yeltsin. Russians have long memories that recall the 19th and 20th century invasions of Russia by adventurers like Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler and there is, besides, Boris Yeltsin’s shameful capitulation to the West.

Vladimir Putin is further empowered by Donald Trump’s latest national security strategy which portrays Russia in the company of China as unreconstructed Cold War adversaries of the United States. Trump and Putin may enjoy a personal equation but Establishment America rightly and wrongly opposes Russia. While Russia’s interference in the US presidential election, its annexation of Crimea, proxy control of eastern Ukraine, and pressure applied on Central European states lying on its periphery to align with it and against the West scarcely are to be condoned, the Kremlin’s generic apprehensions about the West are also not misplaced. The West has always felt entitled to make a grab for Russia’s vast territories and resources and this mentality is also actuated by a degree of anti-Slavism. When Russia was on its knees having initiated the processes of perestroika and glasnost, the West could not contain its avarice and enthusiasm to plunder the country. Within months, Russians who had pined for decades for an end to communism recoiled in horror seeing the true face of the West. While Bolshevism never returned, controlled democracy with Vladimir Putin at the head of the phenomenon came to pass. Like all strongman, Putin has strayed. But to most Russians, a known enemy is better than an unknown friend. While Alexei Navalny may not become Boris Yeltsin-2, it is a chance Russians cannot take.

To be sure, the situation is downright unsatisfactory. Putin cannot go on forever, and Russia may suffer in the hands of his successors just as it did under Yeltsin. For most Russians, however, the darkness lies beyond the foreseeable future. They could also argue that Putin was Yeltsin’s heir and so all is not lost. Such resignation to an authoritarian status quo cannot be appreciated. But Russians have suffered much in this and in the last century and indeed for much longer. Allowances have to be made for their absent appetite for risk. From all accounts, Alexei Navalny is a decent man. Yet he has arrived before his time.

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