After Russians dissatisfied with President Putin's rule took to the streets of Moscow and other major cities in late January and early February of 2021, both the domestic and international press began speculating about an imminent renaissance of protest activity that had been dormant for at least two years. At recent rallies, between 110-160 and 300 thousand people expressed their will for change, and more than 9.5 thousand were detained by the police (some estimates put the number as high as 12 thousand) a record number of arrestees in Russian history. Of course, the man who sparked these actions came under intense scrutiny and many people began calling him a future president of Russia. But I would argue that these assumptions may be misplaced.
Alexey Navalny in the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, February 2, 2021. (Source: AP)
Navalny's Record Is Both Controversial And Mercurial
The 45-year-old Alexey Navalny has been active in Russian politics for nearly 20 years, and his record is both controversial and mercurial. He participated in liberal opposition projects like the Yabloko party where he was a member from 2000 to 2007 rising to become deputy leader of its Moscow city organization. Then, he was expelled from Yabloko for 'causing harm to its image.' He migrated to conservative nationalist movements like Narod ('The People') where he acted as co-leader from 2007 to 2010 together with Zakhar Prilepin, who later commanded a group of Russian mercenaries in Donbas and is currently on the Ukrainian sanctions list. He oscillated back to the United Democratic Movement of 2011-2012; and even helped set up a new liberal party together with Vladimir Ryzhkov and the late Boris Nemtsov in 2012-2014. I will not comment on his 'nationalistic' views even though he blamed immigrants for much of Russia's problems and called for deporting all Georgian citizens from Russia during the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 (for these actions Amnesty International recently stripped him off the designation of 'prisoner of conscience').
For me, two other things seem much more salient: on the one hand, Mr. Navalny always joined those political forces that appeared promising but were most poorly managed, in the expectation that he would lead them. On the other hand, whenever he left any of the parties in which he participated, it was always accompanied either by a scandal (as in case of Yabloko) or by Navalny's ruining the entire project (as occurred to Mr. Ryzhkov's Republican Party). This record indicates that Navalny cares little for ideological issues and is entirely focused on status and power –behavior befitting a classical populist (I have no intention here to criticize Navalny for doing what appears rather typical to Russian politics). But I would warn that a significant risk exists that Navalny will turn into another authoritarian leader should he ascend to the top of the Russian political pyramid.
In 2011 Mr. Navalny made his first bid at becoming the single leader of the opposition. He was one of the youngest and 'freshest' politicians, and didn't mince his words (in 2011 he called the ruling United Russia party 'a party of crooks and thieves,' the name stuck and became United Russia's 'quasi-official' name for years). The power elite was divided in its attitude to him: some believed it best to eliminate Navalny from the scene, others saw him as 'a convenient enemy,' who could easily be defeated in crucial elections. So in 2013 when he was accused of fraud for his entrepreneurial activity in Kirovskaya oblast where his friend Nikita Belykh (now serving 8-year prison term for corruption) happened to be a governor, the court of appeals pronounced a suspended sentence upon Navalny and released him from house arrest. Immediately thereafter, Navalny became a candidate in the Moscow mayoral elections running against the acting Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin who was interested in a 'lively campaign.' To enable Navalny to run, more than 100 municipal deputies from the United Russia party signed a petition on his behalf – somewhat strange behavior for members of a party that Navalny has bashed for years. The experiment backfired as Mr. Navalny got 27.2 percent of the popular vote, and Mr. Sobyanin narrowly escaped the runoff with 51.4 percent (many suggested that without vote tampering, Mr. Navalny would have gone through to the second round). Mr. Putin, according to some sources, politely called Mr. Sobyanin's tactics 'idiotic.'
Only Two Persons In The Country Use Their Names For Political Identification: One Is Mr. Putin, Another Is Mr. Navalny
It was in 2013 that Mr. Navalny emerged as a true opposition hero. As most of his colleagues despaired of reaching an agreement with Navalny on anything, Navalny started several projects that didn't require a team or company. He was somewhat experienced in creating projects of this sort – the first one was 'The Committee for Defending Muscovites' founded in 2004 that uncovered corruption practices used by local construction companies. Later he created the 'Rospil' and 'Rosyama' websites where anyone could complain about bribery by public officials and the poor quality of roads (the names of the sites consisted of Ros-meaning 'Russian', and –pil [meaning siphoning off from the budget] or – yama [meaning dungeon or hole, presumably on the road or highway]). In 2011 he founded his most important project, 'The Fund for Fighting Corruption' which still exists. The project concentrates on investigative journalism – its most famous documentaries include movies about the business of the two sons of Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika (released in 2015), the illegal self-enrichment of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (2017), the activity of the FSB killers involved in his poisoning (2020) and the palace built by loyal businessmen for President Putin (2021, with more than 100 million downloads). In addition to the Fund, he set up an internet TV channel Navalny.live and appeared in dozens of less important investigations.
Mr. Navalny has no political party; he regards himself as a future national leader in need of not colleagues, but loyalists. All Russian politicians customarily act in the name of a party or political movement – be it the Yabloko, United Russia, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democrats, and many others. Only two persons in the country use their names for political identification: one is Mr. Putin (during electoral campaigns 'Putin's Plans' have been announced several times), another is Mr. Navalny (in Russia's regions his supporters organize groups called 'Navalny's Headquarters'). Only three prominent figures that surround him – Vladimir Ashurkov (former manager of several state corporations, since 2014 living in exile in UK), Leonid Volkov (a local activist and former deputy of the Yekaterinburg city council, since 2019 in Lithuania), and Vladimir Milov (a liberal economist, who briefly served in 2002 as deputy Minister of Energy, currently in Moscow and free) – might be called important for the movement; all the other just come and go, vacating their place for others. The movement is amply funded by ordinary people and entrepreneurs; the official annual donations for 2019 are estimated at $1.2 million being by far the largest among the Russian 'non-systemic' opposition movements (the pro-Kremlin media estimate the annual proceeds at around 10 times that amount).
For two major reasons, many people argue that Mr. Navalny is the Kremlin's 'puppet.' On the one hand, he was accused at least 10 times of various wrongdoings , and was the only person in Russia who got two suspended sentences simultaneously (in fact if someone gets such a penalty while on probation, she or he should be immediately jailed) – so many surmised that Navalny has a powerful 'protector' in the political elite). On the other hand, he used so much classified material in his investigations and obtained coverage from so many secured locations that it defied belief that he obtained it independently and not courtesy of certain links to the secret services. I would say that these accusations appear to be groundless: from my perspective, Mr. Navalny was considered a very successful blogger, and many seeking to undermine their rivals' positions, merely chose him as a middleman, who can widely disseminate this information and attract the maximal public attention. When one considers that a blog targeting someone based on convincing evidence, costs up to $20k on any of the well-known Telegram channels with 200k subscribers, I would say that the 'honorarium' for massive investigations like Mr. Navalny did, could be valued at $1-3 million. So I would say Mr. Navalny was, and is, not a Kremlin agent, but a talented person, who skillfully exploits the existing controversies within the Russian elite.
Since 2017, Mr. Navalny has tried to be a factor in national politics. After releasing his investigation about former Prime Minister Medvedev in 2017, he organized huge street rallies in March and June that were almost as massive as the most recent ones. In 2016 he declared his candidacy for President, but of course he was not registered by the electoral commission – and he will undoubtedly remain unregistered as long as Mr. Putin remains alive. Later he introduced a rather sophisticated tactic called 'Smart Voting': the idea was to choose the least corrupt candidate or the candidate least connected with the ruling bureaucracy and urge people to coalesce around that candidate for the sole purpose of defeating the United Russia candidate or a local official in the elections. This approach appeared to be effective (in 2020 it put 12 out of 37 deputies to the city council in Tomsk and 5 out of 50 – in Novosibirsk), but many of the elected deputies proved themselves easily corruptible by the regime and subsequently sided with the United Russia faction. However, by his energetic activity and instrumental approach Mr. Navalny effectively became the opposition's leader. Many former colleagues began calling him Yeblo (in Russian ебло means 'face' in non-polite language, but here it was used as an acronym for единый безальтернативный лидер оппозиции [the single and undisputed leader of the opposition]). And precisely at this crucial point Mr Navalny fell gravely ill while en route from Tomsk to Moscow and after two days in coma he was moved to Berlin where the doctors said that he was poisoned by Russian-made military nerve agent called Novichok, previously used in the UK in an unsuccessful murder attempt on former Russian FSB double agent, Sergei Skripal, pardoned and expelled from Russia in 2010.
The 'Optimists' Believe That Navalny Is Becoming Russia's Nelson Mandela; The 'Pessimists' Argue That Navalny's Decision To Return Was Mistaken
Mr Navalny's poisoning produced a worldwide outcry since it looks obvious that the attempt on his life was directed from the Kremlin, if not ordered by Mr. Putin himself. In late 2020 a new investigation was released showing a dozen FSB agents on active duty travelling to the same cities and often on the same planes as Mr. Navalny did. As the FSB is now probing several policemen, who presumably leaked this intel, there is little doubt that the assassination attempt was genuine and Mr. Navalny's salvation was just a happy coincidence. The subsequent developments, as I would suggest, forced Mr. Navalny to view himself as a real contender to Mr Putin, when he decided to return to Russia in January, 2021. The Russian authorities announced that since he was still on probation and 'disappeared' in a German clinic, he would be arrested immediately upon his return. He returned and was arrested. His colleagues called for street actions that were easily suppressed. Later the court nullified the suspended sentence and sent Navalny to a penal colony for 2.5 years.
Currently, the experts envision two alternative options. The 'optimists' believe that Mr. Navalny is becoming Russia's Nelson Mandela, and upon his release (presumably after the regime collapses) he will be elected Russia's new President (Navalny himself has said repeatedly that this is his ultimate goal, which he will try to attain without making any compromises). The 'pessimists' argue that Navalny's decision to return was mistaken since all his headquarters will be soon be crushed, many of his staunch supporters will be arrested, and scores of thousands, who were previously eligible to run for federal and local office, are now disqualified from running as they were arrested during the recent rallies.
I would mention several important points here. First, the rallies of early 2021 demonstrated limited public support for organizing protests on the level of the Belarusian ones, and the Kremlin will not dawdle in its response: the special forces will simply crush the protesters while the bulk of the population remains on the sidelines. Second, Mr. Navalny now appears to be an isolated figure, since most Kremlin critics voiced their support for him only in solidarity with a political arrestee, but did not conceal their numerous disagreements with him. This means that after he spends some time in prison his 'uniqueness' will definitely fade. Third, it seems Mr. Navalny counted on a huge international reaction (Mr. Ashurkov even wrote a letter to President Biden, mentioning the Russian oligarchs who should be placed under sanctions in Navalny case), but I doubt that it will really be as powerful as he envisioned (some analysts are already suggesting that the U.S. should be motivated by its interests rather than by human rights abuses in Russia). Fourth, it remains possible that Mr. Navalny could once again vault to the top upon his release in 2.5 years – but the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case demonstrates that the same person can be accused as many times as Mr. Putin wishes, and after six or ten years, the political situation in Russia will have altered too much to allow Mr. Navalny's return to the top (even now, less than a month since he was sent to prison in Vladimirskaya oblast, Navalny is much less mentioned in the press than in January, when he decided to go back home from Germany). Fifth, and most importantly by far, as the Russians appear increasingly disappointed with Mr. Putin's regime, they are unready to vent this disappointment in street actions and tend even less to equate their antipathy for Putin with support for Navalny.
The Probability That Navalny May Become A Prisoner For Life Greatly Exceeds The Probability That He Might Become Russia's President
In conclusion, I would say that Mr. Navalny is a sophisticated activist who deserves credit for undermining Putin's popularity to an unprecedented degree. He is not a Kremlin agent, and he definitely deserves the status of 'prisoner of conscience' as he campaigns for free and fair elections, and against fraud, corruption and arbitrary actions by public servants. But I doubt that in undermining Putin's position Navalny succeeded in consolidating his own, and now he has accumulated too many enemies in a dictatorially ruled country. He will not return to the public arena while Mr. Putin is alive; he will not be allowed contest any public office for many years after his release assuming he is released; and his status currently is that of a hostage, who can be simply killed should his supporters become too active. So, I would say that the probability that Mr. Navalny may become a prisoner for life (at least, during Mr. Putin's life) greatly exceeds the probability that he might become Russia's President. But, given the vast uncertainty surrounding Russia, no one can ever be sure that the above forecast is solid and reliable…
*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor
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