Navalny: Harbinger of Democracy or Flash in the Pan?

Protester in Russia holding the sign “one for all and all for one”. Source: BBC News

The arrest of Alexey Navalny upon his return to Russia has triggered widespread protests. For many, they represent the first step towards democratization. This article, though, argues that things are more complicated. The first problem is that Navalny is a much more controversial figure than he seems. In fact, his idea of democracy might be very different from the Western concept of democracy. The second problem is less idiosyncratic and more strategic. Namely, the Russia regime seems willing to lock up Navalny for quite some time. And this alone, could leave protestors without a leader and without purpose.

During President Biden‘s inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman said that her country is “not broken, but simply unfinished“. The underlying meaning of that verse is that democracy is not a state; it is a process, and a lengthy one. For many, the pro-Navalny, pro-democracy protests in Russia are the first step in that process. The Guardian described the upheaval, triggered by Navalny’s detention, as a “tidal wave of contempt and disgust” towards a repressive regime.

In addition to that, it compared “courageous, charismatic, highly intelligent, witty and politically savvy” Navalny to the “charmless” Putin. The New York Times went even further, painting the picture of heroic protesters “braving bitter cold and attempts at intimidation“. In truth, these protests, which involved a large number of young people, do signal an increasing discomfort with the government. Without a doubt, it does take courage to face police violence and even, possibly, detention.

But are these marches the first domino falling? Are they the first sign that Putin’s grip on power is faltering, or mere “disorder” that will be repressed? At least two reasons, though, cast doubt on the possibility that democracy will prevail.

THE “WEAKNESS” OF THE PROTESTS: THE LACK OF INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT

The first problem is the tepid reaction of Western leaders. For sure, the United States condemned the “harsh tactics” used against protesters, and Joe Biden’s incoming National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, called for Navalny’s immediate release. The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stated that “detention of political opponents is against Russia’s international commitments”. But, reading between the lines, they were merely condemning police violence and arbitrary detentions. No leader questioned the legitimacy of the Russian regime itself.

On this basis, Bellingcat‘s Andrew Higgins said that the reaction to Navalny’s arrest was “utterly toothless”. Plus, he added that Russia does not care about sanctions. As a matter of fact, Putin seems less than impressed with the magnitude of the protests. The Kremlin Press Secretary, Dmitri Peskov, claimed that the size of demonstrations was largely overstated. Indeed, the 40.000 protesters in Moscow pale in the face of a population of 12 million. In other words, the protests still seem far away from constituting a true mass movement.

Certainly, this is not the first time that Western actors seem paralyzed when confronted with baffling Russian behavior. After all, in “realpolitik” terms, this makes sense. Democracies are bound to the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of foreign countries. Furthermore, Russia has significant economic and political ties with several European actors. Thus, as sanctions do not seem to work and overt support is off the table, the West has its hands tied.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: A LIBERAL OR A NATIONALIST?

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A picture of Alexei Navalny. Source: Daily Herald

A second issue could be the figure of Alexei Navalny himself. For now, the global press seems to appreciate him. He has been called the “best hope for liberalization in Russia”. Charming, tall, good-looking and capable of using social media, Alexei Navalny has all it takes to appeal a vast public. And his poisoning in August 2020 made him more popular than ever. In fact, a Levada poll showed that, in 2013, only 1% of interviewees would have voted for him. Now, 20% of responders approve of him.

Despite this, his xenophobic, far-right sympathies could come back to haunt him. Navalny started his political career in the Russian United Democratic Party, Yabloko. In 2007, the Party expelled him due to his nationalist activities. He then went on to found the nationalist-oriented movement “The People”. In 2011, he founded the “Anti-Corruption Foundation“, mixing people of different backgrounds, including the far-right. He has indulged several times in the use of racial slurs.

In 2013, he participated in the Russian March, a parade uniting Russian nationalist groups. He has also endorsed a nationalist-led campaign called Stop “Feeding the Caucasus”. In addition to that, he supported the 2008 war against Georgia and the annexation of Crimea in 2015. So, it may be true that Navalny has been breathing on the regime’s neck when it comes to corruption. But it seems that the prospected legal, lawful Russia should be for Russians only. Further, Navalny is a hound when it comes to unmasking the regime’s hypocrisy but, so far, lacks an organic political outlook. In short, it remains unpredictable what the quality of a democracy represented by him would entail.

NAVALNY: FROM A VICTIM TO THE FACE OF A NEW RUSSIA?

It may be predictable that in countries with no democratic history or culture of human rights, the “people’s choice” can often be a populistic choice. After all, in 2013, 27% of the Russian people declared a deep concern about immigration. Thus, Navalny’s take on the issue is not that unpopular. But in a fragmented, complex, stratified society such as Russia’s, this comes at a price. As Navalny’s popularity grows, so do his critics. As of September 2020, 50% of Levada interviewees declared that they disapprove of him.

Navalny may face some time in prison; three years and five months, at least. Will he become another Khodorkovsky? And, if so, how does he plan to maintain his political activity and visibility? Even for his supporters, a jailed leader may not constitute a winning horse. Sure, his arrest triggered protests all over the country. But, as stated above, their magnitude was not overly impressive. Furthermore, how long will it be before people go back to “business as usual”, in the face of repression?

Finally, the fact that the protests intersect democratic and pro-Navalny stances may discourage international support. The US or the EU may call for his release, but would they back him as a presidential candidate? It is not a given that they would perceive him as a better alternative to Putin in light of his nationalistic stance. Plus, active Western intervention would be a double-edged sword. Were they to pressure Russia, Putin may play the card of depicting Navalny as a Western “stooge“, a kind of rhetoric that still works on loyalists, and may further undermine Navalny’s popularity.

PROTESTS MAY FAIL, BUT THE REGIME IS STILL FALTERING

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Russian Police arrests Navalny upon landing in Moscow. Source: Euractiv

Without a doubt, none of what is stated above represents a justification for Navalny’s arrest or for the institutional harassment he suffered in the past. For example, in 2014, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement and Russia’s supreme court had to come into play to overturn the sentence. The European Court of Human Rights declared the case “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable“.

However, his opposition to Putin’s regime has come back to haunt him, time and time again. Since then, Russian authorities have launched three other legal cases against Navalny and in August 2020, he was poisoned with a nerve agent called Novichok. Unsurprisingly, Putin dismissed the accusations that he himself was to blame, even though only state-owned military laboratories can develop Novichok and it cannot be obtained by private individuals. This strongly implies that Russian authorities were behind the attack.

Apparently, this was still not enough. Navalny received treatment for the poisoning in Germany, and the moment he came back to Russia, the police arrested him. In fact, the Russian prison authority accused him of breaching the terms of the suspended sentence handed to him in 2014. Ironically, he would not need to leave the country if had he not been poisoned.

The outrage of the Russian people is more than understandable. Corruption, oppression, abuse of power, and even assassinations are all too common in Putin’s Russia. But can Navalny be the face of a renewed, democratic Russian Federation? For now, it seems unlikely, but still possible.

  • Are the protests in Russia a straw fire? Or can they destabilize Putin’s regime, like it happened in Lukashenko’s Belarus?
  • To what lengths is Putin willing to go in order to repress the protests?
  • Will Navalny be able to gain international political support? Or will sympathy run out once he is released from prison?

Recommended readings

Roache, Madeline, “‘His Fight Is in Russia.’ Why Navalny Flew Home Straight Into Putin’s Clutches”, Time, 18 Jan. 2021

Tselikov, Andrey, “Ethnic Slurs Hunt Alexey Navalny”, Global Voices, 25 July 2013

Troianovski, Anton et al., “In Aleksei Navalny Protests, Russia Faces Biggest Dissent in Years”, The New York Times, 23 Jan. 2021

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