In a full interview to air tonight, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad tells Barbara Walters that his conscience is clear: “You feel sorry for the life that has been lost, but you don’t feel guilty when you don’t kill people.” Since misery loves company and there is strength in numbers, Assad is probably a bit relieved that the recent Russian elections have inspired some in the media to talk about a “Slavic Spring.”
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Russia to protest this week’s Duma elections, in which Vladimir Putin’s administration was caught engaging in widespread election fraud and still managed to gain only 50 percent of the vote, down 14 percent from 2007. But the Russian protests differ from the Arab Spring in at least one significant way: the Russian version is not leaderless. That is a near-term strength of the movement, but it may be its long-term undoing.
The Russian public’s most effective anti-corruption tactic has been engineered by a blogger who has become a cult hero: Aleksei Navalny. It’s important to note just how significant a role the raucous Russian blogosphere plays in the country’s opposition politics. Russian television stations are both overloaded with pro-government programming and also largely ignored for that reason. The network of Russian LiveJournal blogs is where the action is.
But Navalny is no ordinary blogger. He crafted a way to fight Russian corruption that is both creative and somewhat effective: He purchased shares in large Russian companies and confronted executives at shareholder meetings to publicize corruption and poor management. He also engineered a crowd sourcing system to involve Russians in finding corruption elsewhere.
In addition, Navalny played a role in the ruling party’s disappointing showing in this week’s election. Amid a debate about what tactic voting Russians should utilize to express their displeasure of the Putin administration, the “Navalny option” won out. Navalny advocated voting for any party or candidate not affiliated with Putin’s United Russia party, so that opposition to Putin could not be ignored (the way it could if Russians refused to vote, since that option would not have made the same dent in United Russia’s election returns).
So Navalny has earned his place as a well-respected activist and perhaps de facto leader of the protesters. The lack of such leadership in the Arab Spring has been the source of much tension, confusion, and apprehension about what the various revolutions, if successful, would implement to replace the autocrats against whom they had risen up. This confusion has, at least in some ways, benefited people like Assad, because he has made the argument (however specious) that what will rise in his place is worse than his regime (doubtful).
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.
Of course, Putin himself is far from blameless. The Kremlin has long used suspicion of outsiders as a way to scapegoat obnoxious “meddlers” and rally the public around the flag. Both United Russia and Navalny are playing a dangerous game, but only one of them is in power. Navalny, and Russia’s many brave opposition figures, can ill afford to be discredited by ugly associations. This week may prove to be a turning point, and the spotlight is on Navalny–as is the pressure for him to offer an attractive, compelling alternative for those who want to see Putin’s virtual monopoly on political power challenged.