Has the Russian opposition lost its way?

From the euphoria of last winter, reality has bitten Russia's opposition. President Putin is resurgent, popular interest in politics is waning and doubts are emerging about the self-styled leader of the protests, Alexei Navalny. Ben Judah wonders if there is an easy way back for Russia's opposition. 

If the Russian opposition ever comes to power, one of its shrines will surely be the bullying, ferro-concrete statue of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on Triumphalnaya Square. This is where for years, the opposition gathered on the 31st of every month, to protest the violation of the 31st article of the Russian constitution – which guarantees freedom of assembly.

In December 2011, for a few dizzying weeks Muscovites dared to begin to imagine life without Putin. Would the KGB (now FSB) Lubyanka headquarters be turned into a museum of the crimes of the secret police?  What, on earth, would the country look like? Would Triumphalnaya Square be renamed Triumph of the Opposition square? This winter that future seems very far away. “Renovations,” to stop anyone from gathering there, has thrown huge grills up. In the center of Moscow, it looks as if Mayakovsky is imprisoned. And the mood in the opposition feels closer to the first line of his suicide note.

And so they say –
“The incident dissolved”
The love boat smashed up
On the dreary routine.

Navalny’s Bad Year

Alexey Navalny has been the face and driving force of the new opposition that came together during the spontaneous December 2011 – 2012 winter protests. He was so popular at the time that even conservatives, such as the philosopher Boris Mezhuev at Moscow State University remarked, “that winter, there was not one man in Moscow who would not raise a glass of vodka to him.”

'At the start of 2012 there was huge Moscow optimism that the golden boy Navalny had a political Midas touch. Yet his latest round of projects has not really worked out so well.'

Yet, since Putin’s return to the Presidency in March, the hopes for change with which he was associated have gradually darkened into pessimism. This has been accompanied by a souring of the mood towards him amongst the Moscow elites. Accusations of being a provocateur - of lacking direction, of being too soft, of being too nationalistic, of being too vapid, of being too cowardly - are the talking points of the messed-up media, hipster and opposition scene. Sober observers like Sergey Aleksashenko at the Higher School of Economics, former deputy governor of the Central Bank, warned me this would happen during the peak of the protests. Said Aleksashenko, “Navalny is being loaded with a lot of hopes that he is going to struggle to live up to.” This warning is now coming true.

Navalny’s rise has been based on the phenomenal success of two projects: his anticorruption website Rospil that crowd-sourced information about graft in government contracts; and his propaganda campaign smearing United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves.” By busting corrupt officials Rospil saved the Russian budget over $1,301,000,000 and the “party of crooks and thieves” went viral, with polls showing over 70% of Russians know his slogan. There has never before been a propaganda blow against Putin quite like it.

At the start of 2012 there was huge Moscow optimism that the golden boy had a political Midas touch. Yet his latest round of projects has not really worked out so well. The much trumpeted “Good Machine of Truth” that was supposed to be a cutting-edge propaganda machine complete with an app has not really taken off. The app is nowhere to be seen and the “Machine” fared poorly when sent into action. It turned out to be only Facebook groups, angry mass-mails and websites with posters to download. It has been mocked as Navalny’s – “Bad Machine of Spam.” This has mixed with disappointment with regional elections. Navalny threw his weight behind his ally the environmental activist Evgenia Chirikova, even sending his employee Vladislav Naganov to run her campaign. The government did everything it could to push down their result, but it was clear she still would have lost anyway.

The next big stumbling block has been funding. The authorities blocked the launch of the “Navalnycard” that would have donated 1% of all transactions to his cause. Hopes to get fifty supporters to publically donate to Navalny failed to materialize. They only achieved sixteen and many of them suffered financial or professionally as a result. Chief amongst them was the minor oligarch Alexander Lebedev. His business interests have come under attack and he is facing a possible jail term for “hooliganism,” due to a TV brawl last year. The tycoon insists his support for Navalny is the real reason. With no breakthrough on the money team, Navalny admit things are tight and they lack the resources to expand. The trouble is expectations are so high they are starting to disappoint even if they lack the resources to deliver anything anywhere near close to what is expected of them.  

The “People’s Alliance,” a prospective Navalny party founded and run by his own team, has not yet inspired confidence. It aims to be the “party that chooses Europe as a civilisation” and the “party of the middle class.” But it is seen as only the party of Navalny. Yet he is not yet a member and has said he does not intend to be one. Some of his aides involved in the project say he will join later, others say he sees no reason to, and some say that the leader will once the registration is complete. The Moscow elite hears these contradictory answers and they inspire no confidence. “The party name is just terrible,” sniped a leading Facebook activist, “you can’t call a party the People’s Alliance. It is just so unoriginal. It shows no taste.”

His biggest project and the biggest disappointment has been the opposition Coordination Council. There was great hope, spread by Navalny, that not everyone had been able to come to Moscow for the protests and as many as 500,000 might participate in the online vote nationwide. Despite breaking the 100,000 mark in registrations, only just over 82,000 voted. “We hoped for more,” admits Leonid Volkov, a key organiser behind the vote. Other specialist closely involved, such as the IT guru Anton Nossik shares his view – “It was a disappointment,” he sighs. 

Voting numbers are one thing – the actual first meetings of the Coordination Council have disappointed more. Those elected seemed to cement the gap between the opposition and the rest of the country – cementing this with an official body. Real representation from the regions is absent and the chamber is dominated by Moscow “party opposition” activists. Chairing meetings, Navalny has allowed fringe people with a slim chance to win national elections in Russia this century, such as Max Katz the Russian-Israeli poker champion turned champion of cycle paths to lord over the proceedings.

Critics such as Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, who runs an opposition faction not involved in the coordination council, scent his coming weakness – “Navalny is increasingly resembling the politics of fantasy pursued by Kasparov in 2004 when he set up his alternative parliament. It’s the politics of delusion all over again.”

Even to supportive observers, on the editorial teams of some of the countries most influential and support papers, the very people who have told me they dream of a Navalny presidency – the Coordination Council looks like a joke. One particularly apt criticism is that it looks like “a Moscow social club,” which is “preaching to the choir.” And to make matters worse the authorities have openly been pushing a criminal case against Navalny for embezzlement, that could possibly see him jailed. This has truly been Navalny’s bad year.

Can Navalny Bounce Back?

Navalny should not take his position as the preeminent leader of the opposition for granted. “He’s not the leader,” says Leonid Parfyonov the hugely respected TV superstar, “he is just very popular. That’s different.” 

When I last spoke to Navalny himself in the summer he did not think he had made any mistakes over the winter protest movement. “Everything was spontaneous,” he said. But he had a clear idea what he was preparing for. “What I am waiting for, what everyone is waiting for, what I am hoping for is the event that triggers this discontent into protests. It could be a child being down by an official’s car or it could be a collapse of the oil price. But it will come. The system is fragile. We will have to be ready.” This analysis – this fear of the “event” is shared throughout Moscow. Even Kremlin types share this analysis that a sudden event could turn the tables for the opposition. Navalny has indeed radically improved the opposition’s overall position, including with the derided Coordination Council, since December 2011.

Yet there is still disappointment. Navalny’s brilliant director of the Fund for the Fight against corruption Vladimir Ashurkov believes that this disappointment is a factor of wildly exaggerated optimism turning into wildly exaggerated pessimism.

“When we started he was just one man on his own. First we turned him into a public figure. Then we turned him into a political leader. Then we created highly successful projects. Then we led a protest movement. Then we created this coordination council. Things are moving in the right direction. We have two certain trends here.  Rise in support of the opposition and the decline in support for the government. Sooner or later, those steady lines will cross. Then they will go exponentially in either direction.”

Navalny and Ashurkov are persuasive. This disappointment with Navalny is not necessarily his fault. He achievements are still remarkable and he has used 2012 to ensure he is without a doubt, the undisputed face of the opposition. He is not about to fizzle out but is sure to continue playing a key role in Russian politics. His latest online project dealing with utility bills has got off to a great start with thousands having registered complaints.

After an incredible, dizzying rise, this man is now facing the normal ups and downs of a political career. It was inevitable. But unfortunately for Navalny people associate him with a breathless moment on December 24th 2011 when he screamed, “we are enough people to seize the Kremlin and the White House right now, but we won’t as we are peaceful people, but sooner or later we will take back what is rightfully ours.” He ended his speech promising 500,000 people at the next rally. It never happened. Putin is back in the Kremlin. He is going to have to reckon with that fact.  

Ben Judah’s forthcoming book “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin” will be published by Yale University Press in May 2013. Thumbnail photo of Alexei Navalny (c) Ria Novosti / Andrei Stenin

About the author

Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin published by Yale University Press.