Targeted killings spark debate within Russian opposition


Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

KYIV — “She’ll say whatever the FSB [Federal Security Service] wants her to say,” said Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker-turned-dissident who now lives in Kyiv.

Discussing who was behind the bombing of a St. Petersburg café earlier this month — which left 40 injured and warmongering military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky dead — the “she” in question was 26-year-old Darya Trepova who, until recently, was an assistant at a vintage clothing store and a feminist activist, and has been accused of being the bomber.

And the St. Petersburg bombing — as well as another carried out against commentator Darya Dugina — has now sharpened a debate within the deeply fractured, often argumentative and diverse Russian opposition, regarding the most effective tactics to oppose President Vladimir Putin and collapse his regime — raising the question of whether violence should play a role, and if so, when and how?

Russian authorities arrested Trepova within hours of the blast, and in an interrogation video they released, she can be seen admitting to taking a plaster figurine packed with explosives into a café that is likely owned by the paramilitary Wagner group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin. On CCTV footage, she can be seen leaving the wrecked café, apparently as shocked and dazed as others caught in the blast.

But Ponomarev says she wasn’t the perpetrator, instead insisting that it was the National Republican Army (NRA) — a shadowy group that also claimed responsibility for the August car bombing that killed Dugina, daughter of ultranationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin. Yet, many security experts are skeptical of the NRA’s claims, as the group has offered no concrete evidence to the outside world.

Still, Ponomarev insists they shouldn’t be doubtful and says the group does indeed exist.

“I do understand why people are skeptical. The NRA must be cautious, and for them, the result is more important than PR about who they are. That’s why they asked me to help them with getting the word out, and whatever evidence they show me cannot be disclosed because that would jeopardize their security.”

But who, exactly, are they? According to Ponomarev, the group is comprised of 24 “young radical activists, who I would say are a bit more inclined to the left, but there are different views inside the group, judging from what I have heard during our discussions” — which have only been conducted remotely.

When asked if any of them had serious military training, he said he didn’t think so. “What they pulled off in St. Petersburg wouldn’t require any, and what was done with Dugin’s daughter? We don’t know the technical details but, in general, I can see how that could have been done by a person without any specific training.”

Yet, security experts say they aren’t convinced that either of the apparently remotely triggered bombings could have been accomplished by individuals without some expertise in building bombs and triggering them remotely — especially when it comes to the attack on Dugina, who was killed at the wheel of her car.

Regardless, the bombings are intensifying discussions within the country’s fragmented opposition.

On the one hand, key liberal figures, including Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza — who was found guilty of treason just last week and handed a 25-year jail term — Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov and Dmitry Gudkov, are all critical of violence. Although they don’t oppose acts of sabotage.

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Alexei Navalny is among those who are critical of violence, though aren’t opposed to sabotage | Kiril Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty images

“The Russian opposition needs to agree on nonaggression because conflicts and scandals in its ranks weaken us all,” Gudkov, a former lawmaker, said. “We need to stop calling each other ‘agents of the Kremlin’ and find the points according to which we can work together toward the common goal of the collapse of the Kremlin regime,” he added in recent public comments.

Gudkov, along with his father Gennady — a former KGB officer — and Ponomarev became leading names in the 2012 protests opposing Putin’s reelection, and they joined forces to mount an act of parliamentary defiance that same year, filibustering a bill allowing large fines for anti-government protesters.

On the issue of mounting violent attacks and targeting civilians, however, they aren’t on the same page. “There are many people inside the Russian liberal opposition who are against violent methods, and I don’t see much of a reason to debate with them,” Ponomarev told POLITICO. There are times when nonviolent methods can work — but not now, he argues.

Meanwhile, inside Russia, Vesna — the youth democratic movement founded in 2013 by former members of the country’s liberal Yabloko party — led many of the initial anti-war street protests observing the principle of nonviolence, though that didn’t prevent the Kremlin from adding it to its list of proscribed “terrorist” and extremist organizations. Nonviolence is likewise observed by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR), which was launched by activists Daria Serenko and Ella Rossman hours after Russia invaded Ukraine.

“We are the resistance to the war, to patriarchy, to authoritarianism and militarism. We are the future and we will win,” reads FAR’s manifesto. The organization has used an array of creative micro-methods to try and get its anti-Putin message across, including writing anti-war slogans on banknotes, installing anti-war art in public spaces, and handing out bouquets of flowers on the streets.

Interestingly, scrawling on bank notes is reminiscent of Otto and Elise Hampel in Nazi Germany during the 1940s — a working-class German couple who handwrote over 287 postcards, dropping them in mailboxes and leaving them in stairwells, urging people to overthrow the Nazis. It took the Gestapo two years to identify them, and they were guillotined in April 1943.

But such methods don’t satisfy Ponomarev, the lone lawmaker to vote against Putin’s annexation of Crimea in the Russian Duma in 2014. He says he’s in touch with other partisan groups inside Russia, and at a conference of exiled opposition figures sponsored by the Free Russia Forum in Vilnius last year, he called on participants to support direct action within Russia. However, he was largely met with indifference and has subsequently been blackballed by the liberal opposition due to his calls for armed resistance.

Meanwhile, opposition journalist Roman Popkov — who was jailed for two years for taking part in anti-Putin protests and is now in exile — is even more dismissive of nonviolence, saying he talks with direct-action groups inside Russia like Stop the Wagons, who claim to have sabotaged and derailed more than 80 freight trains.

On Telegram, Popkov mocked liberal opposition figures for their caution and doubts about the St. Petersburg bombing. “The Russian liberal establishment is groaning in fear of a possible ‘toughening of state terror’ after the destruction of the war criminal Tatarsky,” he wrote. Adding, “It is difficult to understand what other toughening of state terror you are afraid of.”

According to Popkov, who is also a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies — a group of exiled former Russian lawmakers — the opposition doesn’t have a plan because it is too fragmented, but “there is the need for an armed uprising.”

However, several of Putin’s liberal opponents, including Khodorkovsky, approach the issue from a more cautious angle, saying that people should prepare for armed resistance but that the time is nowhere near right for launching it — the result would almost certainly be ineffective and end up in a bloodbath.

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( With inputs from : )


TheNewsCaravan News Desk

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