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Messiah or False Prophet?

What role does Aleksei Navalny really play in Russia’s opposition movement? From openDemocracy.

by Daniil Kotsyubinsky 19 August 2013

Moscow’s hot topic of conversation this summer is why Vladimir Putin first sentenced Aleksei Navalny to five years behind bars and then, only a day later, released him pending appeal, allowed him to appear on TV and continue his campaign to be elected mayor of Moscow on 8 September. After a few more days Russia’s president went further, declaring himself “astonished” at the severity of Navalny’s  sentence and hinted that a suspended sentence might be more appropriate.

 

It is hard to see how anybody could be fooled by all this play acting – the script has been Putin’s from the start, and the court and judges merely players. The question is: why?

Aleksei Navalny at a Moscow opposition rally in June. Photo by Bogomolov.PL/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Could it be that it’s time for a show of liberalization, however brief? No, dear readers, it’s certainly not that. Immediately after Navalny’s release two other high-profile cases ended in unusually harsh sentences. Village schoolteacher Ilya Farber was given seven years in a maximum security prison for accepting a bribe which, according to human rights groups, he never received. (The prosecutor even added insult to injury by asking the jury a rhetorical question with echoes of Nazi Germany, implying that Farber’s crime was a result of his being a Jew: “Could someone called “Farber” help a village for free?”) A day later, four employees of the Human Rights Center in the Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik received sentences of between eight and 13 years in a maximum security prison on a completely trumped up charge of extortion (and after police torture). Observers suggest that the real reason for the severity of the sentences was that the defendants had protested the illegal construction nearby of luxury dachas for Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, both of them contravening numerous environmental regulations.

 

And the repression machine is still inexorably grinding away in the so-called “Bolotnaya Case,” where the accused are people who just attended rallies in the square of that name. 

 

THE NAVALNY ‘MIRACLE’  

 

There’s no question of “partial liberalization” in Russia, then; in fact the screws are tightening all the time. Then why is Navalny not in jail?

 

Navalny himself believes, and many agree with him, that “Putin was scared of a public revolt” – and it is true that, on the day sentence was passed, 10,000 to 20,000 angry Muscovites took to the streets at the behest of his mayoral campaign team. But although they were noisy they were no threat to the government, merely painting “State Dura” [Fool]  on the State Duma [Parliament] door, and writing “Putin is gay!” and “Navalny for President!” on a window. To my mind it is ludicrous to imagine that Putin was worried about such a small and generally peaceful demonstration. He’s seen much worse – in December 2011 there were 120,000 Muscovites on Bolotnaya Square, incensed at the rigged results of the parliamentary elections, and in February 2012 there were between 120,000 and 200,000, depending on whose figures you believe. He wasn’t in the least frightened then – on the contrary, he not only refused to meet any of the protesters’ key demands (for new elections, the dismissal of the head of the Central Election Committee, and the release of political prisoners) but was ostentatiously rude to them, referring to their symbolic white ribbons as “condoms” and to the demonstrators themselves as “banderlogs,” after the unruly monkeys in Kipling’s Jungle Book.

 

A crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 came out onto the streets of central Moscow in July to protest the guilty verdict. Photo by somiz/flickr.

 

As was shown by events, Putin’s uncompromising stance worked: the “white ribbon” revolution gradually petered out. It didn’t help, of course, that its leaders had no concrete program of reform, and the movement lost all its energy. But one thing was clear: Putin showed decisiveness and intransigence – and won in the end. And he could have done the same with Navalny. Nothing was stopping him from ignoring the protests and dispatching him to the same place he’d sent Mikhail Khodorkovsky 10 years before.

 

The “Putin scared” hypothesis is absurd for another reason. By apparently pandering to the crowd and releasing Navalny, Putin has, quite consciously, upped the risk of a large-scale uprising in Moscow. Because if after a few weeks Navalny loses his appeal and is rearrested, there won’t be 10,000 to 12,000 Muscovites on the street, but 10 times as many, thinking they will “scare the president properly” and force him to release the opposition leader. And then one of two things will happen. Perhaps Putin wants to create his own Tiananmen Square massacre, to put them off demonstrating for a long time. This idea has been cautiously advanced by several observers, including the eminent economist, and former Putin adviser, Andrei Illarionov.

 

But if that’s the case, shouldn’t Navalny be warning his supporters off? Why is he effectively drumming up renewed protests if he knows that they will end not in the defeat of a police state but in a bloodbath? We’ll return to his motives later, but first consider the other, and I think the more likely, possibility, which is that Putin has no intention of inciting Muscovite unrest by locking the opposition leader up. His declared “astonishment” at the sentence can be read as an announcement that it will be reviewed in Navalny’s favor.

 

So far, so, indeed, astonishing. How can it be that the skinny Pussy Riot girls are serving a real sentence for just a couple of choruses of “Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Away!” while this strong and healthy man, who has been shouting for years about Putin’s corruption and recently even promised to see him in prison (at some unspecified time in the future) has spent less than two days behind bars and might indeed avoid prison entirely? What’s the secret behind this miracle?

 

‘OPERATION NAVALNY’

 

Miracles, as we know, are a question of faith, or rather, of people’s desire and willingness to see what they wish for and not what really is. And in this case I’m not just talking about protesting Russians but also the western liberals that support their aspirations (both are, in my opinion, unrealistic about the murkiness of Russian politics).

 

My assertion is that Putin, or should I say the secret services, have had Navalny in their sights for a long time now.

 

To understand how and why Navalny rose to such prominence you need to bear in mind that Putin’s entourage consists of people schooled in KGB/FSB tradition, in other words constantly engaged in various “special operations.” They don’t always pull these operations off, of course – the famous Putin-Medvedev job swap project was a political disaster that triggered the Moscow street protests. But all these operations have one aim – to preserve the status quo, the authoritarian power vertical with Putin, its only begetter and protector, at the top. From the start of Putin’s rule the Kremlin’s goal has been to avoid a rerun of the events of the Perestroika period of 1990-1991, to prevent the appearance of “uncontrollable” opposition leaders, and to stop opposition elements in the big cities from joining forces under an anti-imperial and broad liberal banner. This grand plan has two parts: the first to “infect” the liberal movement with the virus of Russian nationalism, causing an inevitable split in its ranks; the second to create a popular opposition leader who would be biddable and pose no danger to the system.

 

The Kremlin’s search for a suitable candidate began immediately after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, which sparked a few bursts of street protest in Russian cities in 2005-2007. November 2004 saw the institution of a new public holiday, National Unity Day, and since 2005 this day has become synonymous with quasi-opposition “Russian Marches” where nationalists of all hues, including extreme neo-fascists, air their grievances with the “corrupt” regime and demand a more robust policy toward immigrants from former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Since 2006, Navalny has been a regular speaker at these events.

 

In these “post-Orange” years, as Putin’s team actively encouraged the growth of xenophobia and a deflection of public dissatisfaction from the “vertical” to the horizontal, Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst with close government links, was putting his mind to creating a hybrid liberal-nationalist tendency. He even invented a name for it, “National-orangism,” and immediately a number of National-orangist” websites appeared on the Internet. In spring 2007, when an unexpectedly large and generally successful anti-Putin rally took place in St. Petersburg and a coalition of the main opposition forces came together on a liberal, anti-imperialist platform, Belkovsky brought about its swift collapse. He achieved this by setting up another organization, NAROD, the National Russian Liberation Movement [the acronym translates literally as “the people”], which had two leaders, the independent St. Petersburg Assembly member Sergei Gulyaev (one of rally organizers) and the Moscow “Yabloko” activist Navalny. NAROD came out with a number of fairly extreme nationalist statements (that anyone living in Russia should consider him- or herself  Russian, for example) and the Petersburg anti-Putin alliance immediately fell apart.

 

Obviously it was never very solid to begin with, but it’s important to emphasize that Gulyaev received money directly from Belkovsky to set up NAROD. And it’s also important to note that when the Kremlin lost interest in Gulyaev (he wasn’t a smooth or canny enough actor for the job) and focused their attention on Navalny, he too received cash from Belkovsky. So where did Belkovsky get the money, given that he was neither a businessman nor a millionaire, but simply an “ideas man” with Kremlin links? This is, of course, a largely rhetorical question, as is a second one: would the Kremlin really give cash to an “outsider”?

 

NAVALNY THE SOCIAL-POPULIST

 

The setting up of NAROD solved one problem, by splitting the one and only anti-Putin front. But it couldn’t solve the other one, the creation of a popular opposition leader – the nationalists’ ideological position was too alien to the generally liberal-inclined urban population. The stage was hardly set for Navalny. When he did return, however, he did so not as a national-populist, but as a social-populist: not a fighter for Russian national interests, but a uniquely eloquent and uncompromising fighter against corruption. So from the spring of 2008, as Putin ostensibly handed over power to Dmitri Medvedev, Navalny began to campaign against Russia’s major oil companies and against the regime that covered up their corrupt activities. As part of this campaign he bought a small number of shares in these companies (enabling him to attend and vote at shareholder meetings), on which he spent about $10,000 in all (or, as he claimed in an interview, only $2,000). I leave to one side the question of how this modest activist could afford to throw away such a sum (Navalny has complained that he never received any interest from the shares), as well as the question of how he financed his expensive promo videos, and why, as it happens, they were shot in the same “zombie” style, with the same backing music, as the regime’s own propaganda films.

 

The most interesting thing happened in November 2010, when Navalny published in his blog sensational data about multibillion dollar embezzlement by the Transneft oil pipeline operator during the construction of its East Siberia–Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline. Much of the data came from an internal audit and largely unpublished results of an inspection by the National Audit Office. So if Navalny really dug out all this information on his own, it suggests that Russia had an early case of the Assange or Snowden effect on its hands, and “the blogger Navalny” should have been immediately interrogated by the police, who in turn should also have begun a search for the “moles” who provided him with the material for this smear campaign against the highest politico-oil magnates in the country.

 

But on 30 December 2010, just as on 19 July 2013, Putin’s reaction was completely unexpected. He announced that the allegations made by Navalny about corrupt practices on the ESPO project should be investigated further: “If a minority shareholder is concerned about something, it should be checked. … The Prosecutor’s Office and other regulatory bodies should check.” And that was that.

 

Need I reassure you that “no animals were harmed during the making of this film about an abattoir”?

 

Neither Putin’s cronies, nor the billionaire oligarchs attacked by Navalny, nor the head of the Audit Office that had allowed such a terrible leak, nor, most importantly, Navalny himself, suffered in the least. The only victim was Ruslan Glazunov, an insignificant extra in this blockbuster, who was sacked from his job as an auditor with the Transneft Group.

 

None of the businessmen who have given Navalny money has had any real problems from the police or the courts either: not billionaire Aleksandr Lebedev (a former KGB colonel, by the way), not billionaire Mikhail Fridman (who claims he doesn’t formally finance Navalny, but one of his close associates, Vladimir Ashurkov, is Navalny’s right hand man), not Roman Borisovich, vice president of the insurance giant Rosgosstrakh, not Aleksei Savchenko, strategic planning director of the Alfa Group investment consortium, nor any other eminent businessmen and top managers. It’s worth mentioning here that Khodorkovsky ended up in prison because he decided to fund the opposition without Putin’s permission. Might we even conclude that the people who funded and fund Navalny’s opposition activities had in 2007, and still have, the tacit approval of the Kremlin?  

 

The only real result of the Transneft scandal was that Navalny was transformed overnight into Russia’s most popular and enigmatic opposition figure – one that Putin, for no obvious reason, “is afraid to touch.”

 

The next stage of the Navalny roll out was linked to the campaign, launched by him in February 2011, against the “party of crooks and thieves,” in other words the ruling United Russia party. This happened just before the launch of the Popular Front movement, headed by Putin, which the Kremlin spin doctors had decided should replace United Russia as the “national leader’s” main backing group. Again, we could argue that Navalny’s campaign was designed to kill a whole flock of birds with one stone: to help Putin rebrand himself; to show the regime’s willingness to meet the opposition halfway in the war on corruption, and to raise Navalny himself still higher in the popularity stakes. But the whole plan fell apart in autumn-winter 2011, when the cynical and cowardly Putin-Medvedev “job swap” triggered a spontaneous anti-Putin uprising in Moscow and several other cities, and the Kremlin was forced to abandon its “split at the top” games and publicly close ranks. As a result, United Russia survived and the People’s Front was heard of no more.

 

BOLOTNAYA SQUARE

 

In the run up to the first Moscow opposition rally, the Kremlin was seriously worried about how many people would turn up. The “most popular oppositionist,” Navalny, was put under arrest for a few days, so took no part in the rally or its organization. It turned out, however, that although a very large crowd gathered at Bolotnaya Square, it was not, as some had feared, “half of Moscow,” so at the second rally Navalny made an unusually provocative speech where he talked about “power to the people” and predicted that a million would turn up the next time and they would force the Kremlin to meet all their demands. Not that he actually put forward any concrete demands: his only rallying cry was the rather populist-authoritarian, “One for all and all for one!” The Kremlin could easily have seen his speech as incitement to extreme action and charge him with a criminal offense but chose not to.

 

Navalny’s rhetoric was and remains full of passionate ringing phrases, but he has never made a single dangerous demand of the Kremlin. He has, as we have noted, used the phrase “crooks and thieves” against United Russia, and he has even called Putin a “thief,” but he has never directly called for Putin’s resignation, the dismantling of the power vertical, parliamentary reform, or the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasus. He has never even used the simple phrase “human rights,” which they hate like poison in the Kremlin.

 

A Navalny Cube in Moscow sets out his mayoral program for running the city. Photo by Dmitri Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons.

 

The sentence that never was has consolidated Navalny’s position as the indisputable leader of the populist-minded protest element in Moscow and other cities. “Navalny Cubes,” promotional booths somewhat reminiscent of the Kaaba in Mecca, are appearing all over the streets, and politically minded people constantly ask one another, “Do you believe in Navalny?” On the other hand, the less populist wing of the opposition is increasingly setting itself up in competition with Navalny and his acolytes. So you have both a distillation of protest energy (with a corresponding discharge after the Moscow mayoral election), and the development of a long term split in the ranks of the opposition.

 

Let me suggest that in Navalny we have a new model national- and social-populist leader for Moscow and Russia, formed, at least in part, by the Kremlin. I believe that it is no coincidence that Navalny’s biggest critic today is not his mayoral opponent Sergei Sobyanin, but Vladimir Zhirinovsky himself – his real, not his sham rival. Sobyanin is in fact behaving very loyally to Navalny, even helping him to register his candidacy, whereas Zhirinovsky is desperately attacking him, trying, for example, to show how his financial plans are illegal.

 

In time, perhaps, Navalny will be allowed his own small faction in the Duma and will endlessly fulminate against the “corrupt regime,” including the president (just as Zhirinovsky did in the 1990s). But he will never go to the people with a game plan that would rally them to overthrow authoritarian rule. National-populism combined with aggressive leader-fixation is not what the majority of the public are looking for in the 21st century, especially in a multiethnic country like Russia. And certainly not in the large cities, where people are more inclined to moderate liberalism and aspire not to life under a new Fuhrer but to ordinary bourgeois prosperity and the rule of law.

 

With time, support for Navalny will probably decline, though perhaps not completely. And he himself will be quietly absorbed into the Putin power system, as the Kremlin is hoping he will, and as happened before when Yeltsin’s “implacable enemy” Zhirinovsky was absorbed into his system. At this point, Russia’s liberal political revolution will have to start again from square one. This time, without fake Messiahs, and with a properly worked out agenda for political reform.  

Daniil Kotsyubinsky is a historian and journalist in St. Petersburg. This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.net.

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