Navalny’s campaigns against corruption and his clever campaigning have won him a central role in the protests against Putin. But Navalny has also many critics. In his controversial article Daniil Kotsyubinsky, who saw how Navalny’s nationalism ruined a previous protest wave, wonders whether his programme might not end up destroying the democratic movement.
It is surprising enough that Navalny, a fearless and powerful opponent of the system, has risen to such a position of influence without any influential political backer. On top of that, the government of the largest country in the world has taken almost no action to stop the blogger and lawyer from rising to his current status as a leading opposition leader.
Putin’s political machine, which is quick enough to smear other opponents, has not even attempted to work out how he gets the exclusive information he uses to reveal corruption. Navalny himself boasted about the informants in government who helped him uncover the embezzlement of $4 million during the construction of Transneft’s pipeline to the Far East.
'Navalny’s broader political programme is also developing from the Russian nationalism whose imperial and anti-liberal essence was laid out in that first manifesto. Its crux is the preservation of the authoritarian-presidential model of state.'
“We found the papers. Not all of them, but the important bits,” he wrote on his blog. “Where we got them from I won’t tell, but I will note that there are many people working in the National Audit Office, as there are in Transneft, and not all of them are swindlers.”
He was laughing right in the authorities’ face, despite their obsession with finding spies, and speaking of himself only as a minority shareholder, and yet Putin did nothing to stop him. In fact, the prime minister was surprisingly reasonable about it.
“If a minority shareholder is dissatisfied with something, it should be checked,” the prime minister said. “Let the Prosecutor’s Office check, and other supervisory bodies.”
Some observers suspected the Kremlin was just playing for time and secretly preparing its revenge. But a year has passed, and that revenge has not come. Instead, Navalny has continued his unmolested digging unearthing of the government’s guilty secrets. He has not been summoned to the prosecutor’s office, and there has been no investigation into his finances, which is normally how Putin’s government begins its attacks on its opponents.
Moskovsky komsomolets, for example, pointed out that Navalny has a “private structure of income”, and stated that he “does not reveal the sources of his sponsorship and costs”. It also said that “specialists in the PR market have already more than once publically called into question the likelihood of the RosPil project existing solely on the donations of citizens”.
These newspapers are more or less independent, and were prepared to question whether Navalny is what he says he is, but their stories were not picked up by the Kremlin’s media outlets. The Kremlin-controlled journalists also ignored the contents of Navalny’s email, revealed by hackers last year. This is peculiar, since they are always happy to embarrass other opposition figures with unlawfully-obtained compromising material: just look at the recordings of Boris Nemtsov’s phone calls, for example.
If Navalny is spattered at all by the Kremlin’s mud-slinging, then far less of it clings to him than to the others. A recent internet video called “Navalny is a Neanderthal” was more counterproductive than anything. It contained no incriminating facts and was so grotesque that, instead of turning people against Navalny, it was more likely to bring him followers.
It certainly looks to me as if the authorities are trying to make sure Navalny remains the most popular of the opposition leaders outside the political system.
Last month, NTV showed a documentary about how opposition leaders spent their New Year holidays. Almost half of this blatant exercise in propaganda was dedicated to Nemtsov. Among other things, it filmed his expensive holiday in the Gulf with a young woman it claimed came from an escort agency. In comparison, Navalny spent less than $10,000 on a trip to Mexico with his wife, and came across as relatively restrained. Although some bloggers have accused Navalny of existing on American money, the documentary skirted around the fact he had returned home via New York.
Again, it looks to me as if the Kremlin is looking after Alexei Navalny, in PR terms, for some secret purpose.
Navalny himself is restraining his radical rhetoric and being careful in the run-up to the presidential elections. Many of the protesters on the march of February 4 were surprised by his refusal to speak, and less than convinced by his explanation why he decided not to: “I do not intend to speak at the meeting myself, because I’m not in favour of the same individuals getting up in front of people time and time again”.
I think the real reason he did not take the stage is more likely to have been that Navalny got so carried away at the protest on December 24 with statements like this: “I see here enough people to take the Kremlin and the White House. We are peaceful people. But we cannot be patient forever”, that he worried what he would say in February. A radical start required a resolute sequel. But no sequel followed.
To understand the peculiar relationship between the Kremlin and Navalny, you need to look back at his work in the NAROD movement (Natsionalnoe Russkoe Osvoboditelnoe Dvizhenie; the National Russian Liberation Movement. The acronym Narod means “the People”). It was created in 2007 with the direct participation of the director of the National Strategy Institute, Kremlin spin doctor Stanislav Belkovsky.
'The important question is whether the Russian opposition can today unite around the idea of Russian nationalism and a “good Stalin”. And if it cannot, does that mean Alexei Navalny is the same sort of divisive influence for the anti-Putin movement as NAROD was for the dissenters?'
Belkovsky has a long history of helping Putin dispose of awkward opponents. He is the ideologue-for-hire who, in June 2003, published a paper entitled The State and the Oligarchy, which alleged that Russia’s biggest businessmen were preparing to overthrow the government. Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky was named among the conspirators. Shortly afterwards Platon Lebedev, Khodorkovsky’s closest business partner, was arrested, followed by the Yukos head himself.
Some 18 months later, Belkovsky was dispatched to counter the threat of mass protests which hung over the Kremlin after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. January 2005 saw demonstrations in Russia too, connected to the cancellation of some state benefits and perceived attacks on small businesses.
Belkovsky’s task was to split the protesters, and he attempted to separate nationalists from liberals and thus weaken their position significantly. The plan failed. Instead of liberals rejecting the nationalists, the opposite happened. Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik party toned down its traditional nationalist rhetoric, and began to campaign on purely human rights grounds, under slogans such as “Down with Autocracy!” and “Russia without Putin!” They formed the “The Other Russia” coalition, and staged a series of dissenters’ marches across the country from 2007. The biggest and most significant of them was held in St Petersburg on March 3. The Kremlin had to act fast, and the degree of its concern was shown by the fact that chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov himself came to St Petersburg to size up the situation.
Within weeks, Belkovsky had prepared a new nationalist movement to poison the liberals’ coalition. This was NAROD. Sergei Gulyaev, leader of the St Petersburg dissenters, a deputy in the legislative assembly of St Petersburg and a moderate nationalist who until then had supported the common liberal position, became a NAROD co-chair.
Alexei Navalny was at that time a member of the liberal Yabloko party. He had gained some notoriety for taking part in the 2006 Russian March alongside neo-fascists, and he also became co-chair of NAROD, along with National Bolshevik Zakhar Prilepin. Navalny attempted to draw a veil over Belkovsky’s role in NAROD’s history: “for some reason lots of people are now saying that Belkovsky is in charge of all this. This is an exaggeration. Belkovsky is just a political technologist who is overseeing the process”.
When NAROD was being created I was coordinator of the Petersburg Citizen’s Committee, and part of the Petersburg Opposition Coordinating Conference. I remember very well that my colleagues in the Conference who joined NAROD did not hide the fact that Belkovsky, specifically, was supervising and financing this project. No one was prepared to say where he was getting the money from for this undertaking, however.
The ploy was successful. The dissenters’ movement split in two, into nationalists and liberals, and the St Petersburg movement died.
In December 2007 Yabloko expelled Alexei Navalny, with party member Boris Vishnevsky saying the move was a result of his vocal nationalism. “He became a co-founder of the NAROD movement, calling himself a “normal Russian nationalist”. At the meeting of the party Bureau I voted for his expulsion, after which Navalny yelled out “Glory to Russia” as he was leaving,” Vishnevsky has written.
Yevgeny Gontmakher, a member of the Institute of Contemporary Development’s board of management, has combed Navalny’s blog, looking for signs of this nationalism and found some very disquieting passages.
In August 10, 2008, after the Russia-Georgia conflict, he wrote: “the Georgian in the United Nations is an utter savage. A freak. I hope that someone from our delegation, in the spirit of the Olympic principle “victory in the changing rooms is just as important” will hit him in the face behind the scenes… After we blitz Georgia, we need to get busy with Costa Rica. The impudent grandpa in a yellow jacket rolled out a whole moralising lecture… The most important thing is for our General Staff to find it on the map. Otherwise they’ll miss and hit Panama. Where our people are.”
A few weeks later, on August 21, 2008, he turned his attention to ethnic minorities in Russia, including Central Asians, who are disparagingly known as chuchmeky. “On the neighbouring plot of land they’re building an office block… At precisely seven in the morning the chuchmeky beat sledgehammers on some sort of bits of iron with simply hellish din … and, incidentally, all the chuchmeky are without helmets, of course. And then we wonder where the Tajiks found under bushes with fractured skulls come from. It’s always something along the lines of “yet another skinhead attack”,” he wrote.
In 2008 NAROD teamed up with two radical nationalist groups DPNI (the Movement Against Illegal Immigration) and the Great Russia party to create the Russian National Movement. Journalists asked Navalny, who was already considered NAROD’s main leader, why he had united with the ultranationalists. He was unapologetic.
“You know, for some reason the word “nation” grates on the ears of many liberal-minded individuals. In America neither the president nor the presidential candidates are ashamed to use this word,” he answered.
“We think that nationalism can and should be built on a base of democratic principles and that it does not present a threat to any other peoples. Nationalism, specifically, may become that ideology which in some sense unites the liberals, those on the left and those on the right. Namely this must become the core of Russia’s political system.”
Navalny’s liberal admirers are perhaps hoping that in recent years he has moved away from Russian nationalism towards a European system of values, but he has not. Navalny understands “European values” today exactly as he did during the formation of the NAROD movement. In conversation with Boris Akunin, the novelist, on January 3, he said he stood by every word of the NAROD movement’s original manifesto.
Even the fight against corruption, which is key for Navalny today, is directly linked with hatred of immigrants. Just look at how Navalny justified his attendance at the Russian March last autumn.
“I come to this event and see that the majority of people are completely normal individuals who consider themselves nationalists, national democrats. If we ask them what the word “nationalism” means to them, they will not wander off in a big ideological labyrinth, they will say, we are against corruption in the authorities, we are against migration, and we are against the economics of the oligarchs,” he said.
Navalny’s broader political programme is also developing from the Russian nationalism whose imperial and anti-liberal essence was laid out in that first manifesto. Its crux is the preservation of the authoritarian-presidential model of state.
“The specifics of Russia, her dimensions, the makeup of the population and so on, dictate to us that the president must be a more influential figure than in the majority of European countries,” he said.
In essence Navalny, for all his European-American-parliamentary talk, is proposing a “good Stalin” model for Russia.
“The myth of Stalin is a myth of iron order, imposed by an iron fist. To debunk it someone else must bring order without an iron fist, that is, simply by law,” he told Akunin. “The head of state needs to establish moral and ethical guidelines and carry out official instructions, and not earn billions for neighbours in a dacha cooperative.”
Thus, the ideal Russia, according to Navalny, is a country headed by a strong ruler. He protects, above all, the interests of ethnic Russians. He personally ensures the implementation of order and severely punishes “swindlers and thieves”.
It is not hard to see that this is, broadly speaking, pretty much the same tune with which Vladimir Putin lulled the electorate in his own early days as a politician. But the question is not to what degree Navalny resembles a “young Putin”. It is not even about what is good or bad about Navalny’s political platform.
The important question is whether the Russian opposition can today unite around the idea of Russian nationalism and a “good Stalin”. And if it cannot, does that mean Alexei Navalny is the same sort of divisive influence for the anti-Putin movement as NAROD was for the dissenters? If so, then for all his radical rhetoric Navalny is destroying the protest movement. And that means he is helping Putin stay in power.
'It is surprising enough that Navalny, a fearless and powerful opponent of the system, has risen to such a position of influence without any influential political backer.'
Navalny rarely indulges in nationalist rhetoric now. He focuses on attacking the “party of swindlers and thieves”, as he calls Putin’s United Russia. But it is clear that if the political revolution continues to gain momentum, questions about the nature of his programme, and about the creation of a broad opposition coalition based on it, will come up on the agenda. And here the ideas of Russian nationalism and presidential authoritarianism propagated by Navalny will rise to the surface, and start to destroy the opposition from within.
But suppose for a moment that, despite splits in the opposition leadership, the people defeat all the Kremlin’s political calculations and win their velvet revolution. What will happen if in such a scenario Navalny, with his authoritarian populism, surfs to the crest of the revolutionary wave? Then I fear we would find ourselves back at the beginning: “long live the new honourable and incorruptible President!”