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So This Is What Passes For Opposition These Days

Julia Ioffe is a writer living in New York.

Tomorrow, after his breakfast with Vladimir Putin, Obama meets with Russian opposition leaders at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow. What we call the "opposition," however, is so thoroughly fragmented and disorganized as to be effectively useless. Attending tomorrow's meeting, for example, is Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the nineties-era, pro-Western liberal Yabloko party. Once a decent political force, the party won no seats in the most recent parliamentary elections. Also in attendance will be Western media darlings Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov, representing their new liberal party Solidarity, which is not represented in the Parliament either. On the guest list as well: Leonid Gozman, a one-time Kasparov associate (he had an arm broken in an anti-Kremlin protest) who now heads the Right Cause party, a Kremlin-assembled "opposition party" meant to function as a safety valve; Ilya Ponomarev of Just Russia, another Kremlin-made shell party; and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. The competing agendas for the meeting--ranging from bilateralism to the evils of "Putinism"--show just how imprecise it is to use one word to describe the group.

Meeting with the opposition, or something close to it, is oftentimes part of the choreography when American presidents travel to Russia. In May 1988, for instance, Ronald Reagan went to Moscow to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev, who, perhaps like Medvedev, was seen as a liberalizing, friendlier figure. Reagan sat with an assortment of 96 dissidents grouped just as tenuously as Obama's attendees--Jews, Orthodox priests, political prisoners. Gathered for tea at the American embassy, they told him of their plight--Jewish families blocked from emigrating, political dissenters drugged in psychiatric wards--and Reagan expressed his admiration for their courage, urged them to fight on, and then, after an official speech at Moscow University evangelizing freedom, downplayed the dissidents' plight as a mere bureaucratic inconvenience. (He caught a lot of flak for this from conservatives at home, especially William F. Buckley.)

This time, however, the meeting with the opposition is being handled with more delicacy by all sides. Unlike Reagan, who, at the end of his second term, felt free to side unequivocally with those opposed to his hosts, Obama is just setting out and has much damage to undo. (Bush, for all his championing of democracy, never met with the Russian opposition.) And, whereas Reagan invited people who were expressly forbidden by Soviet authorities from traveling to the meeting, Obama did not invite the more fringe elements of the opposition, like Eduard Limonov's Nationalist Bolsheviks, known more for their performance art than their political philosophy. Moreover, the Kremlin is not protesting, and the invited opposition, for their part, have decided not to complain to Obama of internal politics, and instead promise to talk about issues like the global economic crisis, as if, in a hyper-centralized state, they are in any position to help resolve it. "It isn't proper to complain to the leader of a foreign government about your own problems--it's a sign of weakness," said Mitrokhin, who plans to discuss missile defense with Obama.

But Mitrokhin and the other attendees will be made to feel like America is listening to voices other than the Kremlin's, the Kremlin knows it isn't really being threatened, and Obama recovers some of the brownie points he lost in certain circles back home for seeming not to support the Iranian opposition. So, off they go, gingerly balancing egos and symbols that smooth the way for the substance of the thing.  

--Julia Ioffe