As It Happens

What it's like to be an opposition politician in Vladimir Putin's Russia

Even after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed another electoral victory and tightened his grip on power, opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov has hope.

Dmitry Gudkov says young people in Russian want democracy, independent courts and freedom

Dmitry Gudkov says that young people in Russia want change and that support for Vladimir Putin in the polls is overblown. (Maxim Shemetov/Russia)

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Even after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed another electoral victory and tightened his grip on power in the country he's ruled for 18 years, opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov says he has hope for the future.

Putin won a fourth presidential term last week with nearly 77 per cent of the vote — his highest score ever.

Observers reported widespread ballot stuffing and pressure on Russians to vote, but that is unlikely to seriously damage Putin given his popularity and his tight control over Russian politics.

But two critical opposition voices — Gudkov and TV host-turned-politician Ksenia Sobchak — have teamed up to create the Party of Change, which they hope will resurrect liberal politics in the country. 

Gudkov, a  former opposition deputy in the Russian parliament, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about their vision for the country. 

Here is part of that conversation.

As a member of Russia's very small political opposition, what possibly gives you any encouragement or hope at this point?

I don't think that we should be disappointed about the presidential election because I think that people didn't vote for the program or for the ideology. It was a collective prayer to the monarch.

People voted for the empire, for the person who makes the world respect Russia, according to Russian propaganda.

Russian opposition won the municipal election in Moscow, and we've supported thousands of newcomers.

It was a real success. It was just six months ago. 

What do you think you can accomplish with [the Party of Change] given how difficult it is to be an opposition party in Russia — in Mr. Putin's Russia?

It's complicated to achieve anything in our country because we live in an authoritarian country.

But we're creating the Party of Change, the party of new generation and, of course, we want to unite a lot of people, young people, in order to change the agenda of our country.

If you ask anybody in Russia ... to name any young politician, you will hear [Alexei] Navalny, Sobchak, Gudkov — and there will be nobody from United Russia, from parliamentary parties. 

I think we will have a chance. We will have a chance to unite efforts, to unite people and to propose a new agenda for this generation who want changes, who want democracy, who want independent court systems, who want freedom.

Gudkov has joined forces with politician Ksenia Sobchak to form a new opposition party in Russia. Sobchak challenged Putin in the presidential election. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

Ms. Sobchak, she was actually able to get a question to Mr. Putin at a press conference.

"People understand that to be in the opposition in Russia means that you will either be killed or imprisoned or something else of that sort will happen to you. My question is this," she says. "Why does this happen? Are the authorities afraid of honest competition?"

He gave not much of an answer, but that's just the thinking of people in opposition —  that you may be killed or driven out of the country or something horrible will happen to you. Do you have that fear too?

I'm trying not to think about the fear.

What is the message that Europe and the West should take from this election? What are Russians saying with their votes?

They voted for monarchy. They voted for stability. Because the Russian propaganda has been explaining to people that Russia is Putin and Putin is stability. And all opposition figures were discredited by media.

Putin's opponents didn't come to the polling stations and didn't vote because the main opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, was not on the ballot list.

Gudkov, left, and opposition politician Alexei Navalny are seen outside the Khamovnichesky Court in Moscow in August 2012. Navalny was barred from running against Putin in the presidential election. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA)

Even though they didn't have any choices, a lot of people like the message that Mr. Putin is putting out — this one of nationalism, of Russia standing up to the West, defying Europe. They liked that message, don't they?

Yes. There was a message to mobilize around the leader who opposes the West which, according to all our propaganda, tries to destroy our country. And all the TV channels, state channels, they can't cover this problem.

And people really believe in this bulls--t, that the West tries to destroy our country. Unfortunately, a lot of people believe in that because there is no alternative position on the state media.

Putin has 86 per cent [support], according to state polls. But one third of people never tell the truth to pollsters. Because you can imagine if somebody comes to your door or calls on your home phone and asks you to support Putin, it's better to say yes and just avoid any problems in the future. 

Putin delivers a speech at his election headquarters in Moscow on March 18. The Russian president secured his greatest election victory to date last week. (Sergei Chirkov/Reuters)

You know that [U.S. President Donald] Trump, he has contacted Mr. Putin and congratulated him. What message does that send? 

I think that there is some connections between Trump administration and Putin administration. 

I remember when Trump won the election, it was covered like it was a holiday and like it was any important event for our country.

Many members of the parliament and the government  tweeted that Russia won in the United States, that Russia had influence on the presidential election.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Mary Newman. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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