Commentary Magazine


Topic: Aleksei Navalny

What Should the West Think of Navalny?

One of the sources of frustration for many of the participants in popular uprisings over the last couple of years is that the same qualities that made the protests so captivating is also a source of their stagnation. They appeared organic and spontaneous, even if hindsight has made them seem overdetermined. And that spontaneity has also meant some of these protest movements are devoid of political leadership–a weakness exacerbated in many cases by the general lack of democracy around them.

In Russia, the anti-Putin protest movement has produced only one person thus far who represents a true political threat to Vladimir Putin. That would be Aleksei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption activist and blogger who was recently found guilty on trumped-up charges of embezzlement but who is still eligible to run in the upcoming Moscow mayoral election. But Navalny represents a challenge to the anti-Putin coalition as well, and those cheering him on from the sidelines. The Putin-Navalny conflict resembles nothing so much as a street fight that keeps gathering steam and spectators. And Navalny will use any weapon he can find, overmatched as he is. As I wrote in December 2011:

But Navalny also threatens to hold back the Russian opposition with his casual association with, and his movement’s possible co-option by, the country’s vicious nationalists. Navalny’s own nationalism was the subject of his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party several years ago (though it is surely not the only reason), and he has cooperated with, marched with, and defended ultranationalist leaders. Russia’s ultranationalists are openly racist and have a troubling history with anti-Semitism as well. Navalny himself, at a recent nationalist rally, caught some flak for saying, in reference to Russian oligarchs who also happened to be Jewish, “This is our country, and we have to eradicate the crooks who suck our blood and eat our liver.” The historical weight of those terms with regard to Jewish “outsiders,” combined with the throngs of neo-Nazis cheering him on, made many wonder if Navalny’s opposition movement was taking a dark turn.

Navalny was still more or less unknown nationally at the time. As his name recognition grows, so do the questions about his character, as Robert Coalson writes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

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One of the sources of frustration for many of the participants in popular uprisings over the last couple of years is that the same qualities that made the protests so captivating is also a source of their stagnation. They appeared organic and spontaneous, even if hindsight has made them seem overdetermined. And that spontaneity has also meant some of these protest movements are devoid of political leadership–a weakness exacerbated in many cases by the general lack of democracy around them.

In Russia, the anti-Putin protest movement has produced only one person thus far who represents a true political threat to Vladimir Putin. That would be Aleksei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption activist and blogger who was recently found guilty on trumped-up charges of embezzlement but who is still eligible to run in the upcoming Moscow mayoral election. But Navalny represents a challenge to the anti-Putin coalition as well, and those cheering him on from the sidelines. The Putin-Navalny conflict resembles nothing so much as a street fight that keeps gathering steam and spectators. And Navalny will use any weapon he can find, overmatched as he is. As I wrote in December 2011:

But Navalny also threatens to hold back the Russian opposition with his casual association with, and his movement’s possible co-option by, the country’s vicious nationalists. Navalny’s own nationalism was the subject of his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party several years ago (though it is surely not the only reason), and he has cooperated with, marched with, and defended ultranationalist leaders. Russia’s ultranationalists are openly racist and have a troubling history with anti-Semitism as well. Navalny himself, at a recent nationalist rally, caught some flak for saying, in reference to Russian oligarchs who also happened to be Jewish, “This is our country, and we have to eradicate the crooks who suck our blood and eat our liver.” The historical weight of those terms with regard to Jewish “outsiders,” combined with the throngs of neo-Nazis cheering him on, made many wonder if Navalny’s opposition movement was taking a dark turn.

Navalny was still more or less unknown nationally at the time. As his name recognition grows, so do the questions about his character, as Robert Coalson writes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

Engelina Tareyeva, who worked with Navalny when he was a member of the liberal Yabloko party before he was expelled in 2007, has accused him of routinely using racial slurs and basing his relations with people on their ethnicity. “I consider Aleksei Navalny the most dangerous man in Russia,” Tareyeva has written. “You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the most horrific thing that could happen in our country would be the nationalists coming to power.”

Whether or not Navalny’s conscious mission is to usher the nationalists into power may be beside the point, as far as some analysts are concerned:

“If someone who is as high-profile as Aleksei Navalny has become uses ugly words to describe ethnic minorities and appears to appeal directly to some of the most fundamentalist values of ethnic Russians, then there is a real danger that extremist elements — which I’m quite sure Navalny himself would condemn — will see that as a sanction for their behavior,” [Paul] Goble says.

GlobalVoices also has a long piece on Navalny being confronted about ethnic slurs he’s made in the past, and includes speculation by some that it’s an electoral strategy aimed at cultivating the nationalist segment of the population. (During the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Navalny advocated the expulsion of Georgians from Russia.)

But part of the reason for the complexity and conflicted nature of those rooting Navalny on is that he is far from playing electoral politics. Sure, he may run for mayor of Moscow, but he doesn’t expect to (be allowed to) win. As I wrote after his guilty verdict was announced, he is far more useful to the Kremlin as a losing candidate in Moscow than in his prison cell, to which many expect him to be summarily returned after the Moscow election. As it stands, Navalny does not have to defend a political platform or a series of policy papers. That doesn’t mean he has no political opinions (he does), but they are irrelevant to his struggle.

They are not, however, irrelevant to those watching this spectacle play out. As Brian Whitmore observes, Navalny’s plan is not to win elections but “to erode, wear down, and ultimately replace [the Putin] system by patiently and efficiently chipping away at the monolith.” The Putin system is indeed a corrupt, immoral, murderous, and authoritarian enterprise. Navalny has no such blood on his hands. But it’s important for the West to remember that despite the obvious temptation to take sides, its responsibility is to advocate for principles, not individuals–no matter which combatant in the street fight seems to have the upper hand.

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Did Putin Miscalculate–Or Did His Critics?

Much of Vladimir Putin’s governance is characterized by actions both utterly plausible and in their own way shocking. Putin’s heavyhanded crackdown on the Moscow protesters following the elections in late 2011 with the world watching is one example. His support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; the ruling party’s electoral shenanigans; the imprisonment of an all-female punk-performance art group; and the judicial system’s posthumous prosecution of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died at the hands of that very same judicial system, are others.

And now the same can be said for the verdict today in the trial of opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. Russian corruption is alarming to say the least—it ranks 133rd on Transparency International’s 2012 index. Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade couldn’t come a moment too soon. Navalny became a shareholder in major Russian corporate and government entities, better enabling him to follow the money trail in the hopes of uncovering kickback schemes. He also utilized the Web to crowd-source corruption allegations. He nicknamed Putin’s United Russia the party of swindlers and thieves, a moniker that caught on and made Navalny officially a political threat to Putin.

His status as an enemy of the state was further solidified by his participation in the Moscow protests and his recent announcement that he was running to be the next mayor of Moscow. His imprisonment was only a matter of time. Today, a court in Kirov convicted Navalny on trumped-up charges of embezzling funds from a state-controlled company. He was sentenced to five years in prison. His “trial,” such as it was, followed the staged, predetermined process that has become typical of such cases, as the New York Times reports.

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Much of Vladimir Putin’s governance is characterized by actions both utterly plausible and in their own way shocking. Putin’s heavyhanded crackdown on the Moscow protesters following the elections in late 2011 with the world watching is one example. His support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; the ruling party’s electoral shenanigans; the imprisonment of an all-female punk-performance art group; and the judicial system’s posthumous prosecution of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died at the hands of that very same judicial system, are others.

And now the same can be said for the verdict today in the trial of opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. Russian corruption is alarming to say the least—it ranks 133rd on Transparency International’s 2012 index. Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade couldn’t come a moment too soon. Navalny became a shareholder in major Russian corporate and government entities, better enabling him to follow the money trail in the hopes of uncovering kickback schemes. He also utilized the Web to crowd-source corruption allegations. He nicknamed Putin’s United Russia the party of swindlers and thieves, a moniker that caught on and made Navalny officially a political threat to Putin.

His status as an enemy of the state was further solidified by his participation in the Moscow protests and his recent announcement that he was running to be the next mayor of Moscow. His imprisonment was only a matter of time. Today, a court in Kirov convicted Navalny on trumped-up charges of embezzling funds from a state-controlled company. He was sentenced to five years in prison. His “trial,” such as it was, followed the staged, predetermined process that has become typical of such cases, as the New York Times reports.

Although Navalny’s conviction was a foregone conclusion, many—apparently Navalny among them—hoped he would receive a suspended sentence, mistakenly assuming Putin would fear the backlash of jailing a public figure. But that expectation got it backwards: Navalny has a gift for organization and rallying the public; without him on the streets, Putin expects the backlash to be disorganized, haphazard, and leaderless. Putin has more to fear from an antagonized, but free, Navalny.

If that is indeed what Putin is thinking, his view is not unanimous even among his allies. As the Washington Post reports, authorities in Moscow actually wanted Navalny to be able to participate in the election because they believed they would win (or, rather, “win,” as such things go) and strike a blow against Navalny by defeating him instead of disqualifying him. Additionally, Navalny is not yet a household name. And he is prone to bad judgment: he has a history of allying with anyone who will join him, including racist and xenophobic nationalist groups—a tendency he has embraced rather than sought to curb, and which has alienated him from Russia’s liberals in the past.

And there is obvious benefit to Putin to rig the electoral process against his opponents rather than jail them. “Managed democracy” may have always been a farce, but the shaky illusion of democracy at least plays into Russian nationalist instincts to want to believe the country’s critics are wrong about modern Russia. The appearance that Putin fears Navalny, moreover, only fuels his supporters’ belief that Putin is weaker than people think. Turning a blogger into a dissident is no sign of strength.

As the Times article notes, both friends and foes of Putin are intimating that the verdict went too far:

Aleksei L. Kudrin, a close associate of Mr. Putin and former finance minister, described it on Twitter as “looking less like a punishment than an attempt to isolate him from social life and the electoral process.”

The crime novelist Boris Akunin, who is also a political opposition leader, said the verdict showed there was little hope to change Russia by democratic means. “Lifetime deprivation of elections — this is what the verdict means not only for Navalny but for all who thought it was possible to change this system through elections,” Mr. Akunin wrote. “As long as the Putin regime is alive, there will not be elections. The answer to the question ‘to be, or not to be’ that is to boycott or not boycott, has been answered. For other elections as well.”

The best parallel to Navalny’s case is not the punk trio or the whistleblower, but the jailing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, arrested a decade ago and still in prison. Though Khodorkovsky’s story is far different in almost every way from Navalny’s, the important similarity is the underlying reason for their persecution: they challenged Putin in the political sphere. (Though in seizing Khodorkovsky’s assets, Putin was also reclaiming what he believed rightfully belonged to the state).

Putin’s leadership has been based on a grand bargain in which Russians are permitted all the Western culture and consumerism they desire (or can afford) so long as they don’t attempt to interfere in his political control of the country. Khodorkovsky wouldn’t play by those rules, and neither will Navalny. Whistleblowers can make Putin look bad, and punk activists can ridicule him, and those are both punishable offenses in Putin’s Russia. But they pose no major risk to his consolidation of power. The same could not be said of Khodorkovsky then or Navalny now.

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