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As the March 2018 Russian presidential elections draw closer, the field of candidates has grown crowded. Two big names, however, are as of now missing from this storied list: Vladimir Putin and Alexey Navalny.
By all accounts, President Putin is expected to announce his candidacy, which would be his fourth. Opposition leader Navalny is officially prohibited from taking part (which his campaign is actively challenging in courts, without much success), but this hasn’t prevented him from holding rallies across the country.
Navalny has mostly focused his energies to addressing the most pressing concerns in Russia, such as corruption. However, he recently turned his attention to the release of the first hijab-wearing Barbie and fired off some choice words on the matter: “Disgusting. You’ve got to try hard to present the debasement of women as some sort of achievement and social progress. Just disgusting.”
Judging by the ratio (a Twitter in-joke whereby one can judge the success, failure, or controversy of a tweet by weighing the amount of replies, retweets, and likes; if there are more replies than retweets or likes, for example, the tweet is considered extremely controversial and a downright failure), Navalny’s take didn’t really rock the boat.
Jumping into the comments gives us a different story. Team Navalny's own social media manager said:” For the backward and snail-paced International Olympic Committee, a woman in a hijab at the Olympic Games is definitely a huge victory. But why debasement? We can’t exclude that she honestly shares those cultural values and chooses to wear a hijab.”
Doubling down, Navanly fired back: “A Barbie in a hijab is a promotion of debasement. They teach girls from childhood that they’re inferior and have to wear shawls.”
One user did not take kindly to someone speaking for her cultural views: “What nonsense. My hijab is my choice. If you don’t look from a religious point of view and use your brain, this is just a doll wearing the clothes of a different culture.”
She later continued:” Congratulations, Alexey! With one tweet you’ve written off all of your potential Muslim voters. You apparently don’t want to become president.”
This isn’t hyperbole. The number of Muslims in Russia ranges anywhere from five percent of the population to 10 percent, or about 20 million people.
One user even noted the places where Navalny has been holding his unsanctioned electoral rallies and drew a connection with his statements:” Something tells me Navalny is willing to hold a rally virtually anywhere in Russia except for in the Northern Caucasus.”
The Northern Caucasus area is predominantly Muslim.
After his original tweet, Navalny went even further, retweeting another negative opinion on the new Barbie:” The first Barbie in a hijab has been released. She can only leave the Barbie house for a couple of hours and only when accompanied by Ken.”
Anti-corruption Politics with a Side of Xenophobia?
For those who have been following Navalny’s politics closely, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. He has been campaigning for tougher visa regimes with Central Asian countries since at least 2013, when he announced a petition on government website ROI denouncing visa-free travel agreements with seven ex-Soviet states, predominantly Muslim, but including Armenia.
Vladimir Putin opposes these policies and Navalny's petition failed to attract the necessary 100,000 votes for the bill to be presented to the Russian Duma, the lower chamber of parliament.
In 2015, he also wrote an article on his website on the then-burgeoning refugee crisis in Europe, which saw record numbers of arrivals, the majority of whom were fleeing the war-torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq:
” It’s now trendy to remind everyone that Europe is obligated[original emphasis] to take in Muslim migrants. They’re swarming in by the thousands across sea and land borders and there’s no way to stop them apart from shooting. They aren’t being ferried across, they aren’t being invited, they aren’t given visas, and the Europeans have been trying to set up deportation programs (admittedly unsuccessfully).
At the same time, Russian state politics are directly aimed at attracting young Muslims into the country. We don’t even have a visa regime with Central Asian countries, even though the overwhelming majority of the population supports having one.
When I announced, during and after the elections that the introduction of a visa regime is the very first task of politicians, all the government propagandists screeched “Navalny is a fascist” and “it’s in the geopolitical interests of Russia for everyone from the former Soviet Union to come here.” Now they’re writing columns like “the French let in huge quantities of Muslims, and now they’re paying for it”.
But who is coming here? Rastafarians? Shintoists?
90 percent of immigrants to Russia are young Muslim men from rural areas, the very same place where terrorists are enlisted from. The sources of migration are Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, countries whose borders are, frankly speaking, incredibly fluid and close to the hotbed of aggressive Islamism.”
It isn’t only government propagandists who have responded to these sorts of proclamations by branding Navalny a fascist. A smear video, relying on fabricated or misleading quotes from Navalny, recently compared him with Hitler. In a tongue-in-cheek response, an author at Sputnik I pogrom, a well-known Russian ultranationalist site, posted:
“As a Russian nationalist, I fully support the ‘Navalny is a fascist-narcissist, Navalny is totally Hitler’ campaign. Why? Because Alexey Navalny has some lingering national sympathy (even if it’s really weak) and these sorts of attacks from the authorities only force him to wash the image of nationalism of all negativity, showing that there’s nothing bad in nationalism.”
This tenuous affinity perturbs some activists in Russia, who recently drew the same comparisons but came to a markedly different conclusion: Navalny would mean nothing new for Russia, just a new façade of anti-corruption with xenophobia to boot.
Others hit back at this zero-sum argument, pointing out that Navalny’s corruption campaigns have created genuine spaces for expression and opposition around which future Russian political alternatives can coalesce.
This silver lining may not be enough for those who find his other views extremely disagreeable. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky voiced these concerns after Navalny made a remark on protests in Russia linked to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar:” It’s repulsive to look at racist bullshit. I’d sooner change my citizenship than swap Putin's bad for your worse.”
Anti-Putin movements in the West ignore Navalny's immigration rhetoric
Whether or not Navalny can drum up enough support, either among nationalists or liberals, remains to be seen. According to one of the most recent polls, support for Navalny hovers at around three percent, compared with 53 percent for Putin, a whopping 20 percent who say they don’t know who they would vote for, and 11 percent who said they would not even vote.
Navalny's corruption policies remain popular, but as always, there’s more nuance when it comes to migration policies. The same polling center has suggested that xenophobia has reached an all-time low in Russia, though there is high support for restricting entry for migrants, around 58 percent as of July 2017. When asked whether they feel positively or negatively towards migrants from Central Asia, however, 62 percent stated that they don’t have any particular feelings on the subject, compared with 27 percent who experience some sort of negative emotion, and 9 percentwith some type of positive feeling.
These shades of gray are quite important when examining contemporary Russian politics, especially for observers coming from the U.S. context, where the desire to make this a black or white scenario is strong.
Some American Twitter users, for example, have taken to promoting Navalny wholeheartedly when they come across alleged Russian trolls as a way of “fighting back” against Vladimir Putin and what they see as his success in helping Donald Trump get to the White House:” To the Russian people: the American people support your struggle for freedom.
#RussianProtests #Resistance #resist #Navalny @navalny”
Undoubtedly, some of the #Resistance (a term used sincerely or derisively, depending on the speaker, for an online movement of Americans who have made their goal resisting President Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s agenda) would find these aspects of Navalny’s politics troubling. Yet because of oversimplifications, they perhaps aren’t aware.
Viktor Orban’s Hungary is often criticized in the West for its anti-immigrant stances, placing it at odds with the European Union. Navalny’s rhetoric is not worlds apart, and Navalny himself realizes this is a sticking point for many. The UK newspaper the Independent reported in October: “Every interview with a foreign journalist has a question about nationalism and why I’m not dead,” he says. The first question exaggerates his position, he says; he only wants to introduce visas for Central Asian migrants. (A ‘joke’ video he shot as a young activist, that seemed to compare migrants to cockroaches, does raise questions).”
The reigning opinion seems to be that there really isn’t any alternative. The Russian political space simply isn’t as dynamic as many would hope it were. Navalny really has created a movement that exists beyond any one election or issue. The Russian activist movement is still grappling with how to deal with Navalny as a whole, and how to square the circle with his relatively liberal economic policies and his hard-line immigration rhetoric. In Lenin’s (and Chernyshevksy’s) words, what is to be done?
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