international analysis and commentary

Man against the machine: Aleksei Navalny, Russian society and the Kremlin

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Over the past decade, Aleksei Navalny has turned into the most effective disrupter of Russian political and social life. Propelled by his unbending personal political ambition, he is now the main counterweight to the current state of things in the country.

Aleksei Navalny as he speaks to a crowd during a demonstration in Moscow, July 2019

 

Most Russians, however, are still satisfied with where the country is and are unwilling to sacrifice what they have for a better future. With memories of the painful Soviet collapse still fresh, most Russians do not want to get disrupted.

The proliferation of the Internet, economic stagnation, and gradual generational shifts are changing the picture in Russia. Slowly, but steadily, President Vladimir Putin is becoming less popular. Today, the Kremlin already has no choice but to seek compromise and share power or make the system more oppressive. So far, it opted for the latter scenario. Either way, even from prison, Navalny will remain the most potent anti-Kremlin force in the country.

In the late 2000s, when Navalny started his ascent, Putin’s Russia was at the peak of its form. No one wanted disruption or change. The country was awash with oil and gas money that fueled a consumer boom. Russia was on track to become Europe’s biggest market for cars. Many Russians, especially in big cities, believed there would be no end to it.

At the time, Navalny pointed out that Russia’s newfound wealth was not distributed evenly. Being a shareholder of several state-run companies, he revealed corrupt contracts that allowed corporate officials to siphon off millions of dollars. Navalny argued that rampant corruption would make Russia hit a deadlock and stall its development. Few people wanted to listen then, but Navalny pressed on.

Navalny was by then a popular blogger, whose fame didn’t transcend the virtual boundaries of the Internet. Gradually, he earned support in Moscow and big cities. In 2013, more than 630,000 muscovites voted for him to become their mayor. Navalny lacked only 31,000 votes to force pro-Kremlin candidate Sergei Sobyanin to the second round.

Shortly thereafter, the political landscape changed. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 gave Putin an enormous electoral boost. This “bonus” disoriented the Russian opposition. However, because of international sanctions and the general decay of the country’s development model, economic stagnation gradually eroded the Crimea effect. Navalny capitalized on that, leaving the Kremlin no choice but to act preemptively.

Vladimir Putin meets with locals and veterans at the historical memorial Malakhov Kurgan in Sevastopol, Crimea on March 18, 2019, for the 5th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea

 

Initially, the Kremlin tried to marginalize Navalny and his allies. Government-linked activists threw antiseptic emerald dye on him. His brother had to serve three and a half years in prison. Investigators opened criminal cases against Navalny too. He was sentenced and re-sentenced despite these decisions being overruled by the European Court of Human Rights. He spent months in jail serving administrative arrests and also stayed under house arrest for almost one year.

For many years, the Russian state dismissed Navalny as a troublesome fly. With time and his growing popularity, the Kremlin and the security forces it controls employed more drastic methods to silence him. Last August, elements of the Russian state made a rather clumsy attempt to poison Navalny. The scale of this operation was enormous. According to Navalny’s own investigation, it took years of planning and many high-ranking security service operatives involved.

After the poisoning failed, the government doubled down. It made a decision to put Navalny in jail, but the genie was already out of the bottle – more than 100,000 people took part in anti-Kremlin rallies across more than 100 cities to protest Navalny’s arrest. The poisoning and now the imprisonment put a final seal of popular legitimacy on him – the Kremlin too now regards and recognizes him as the biggest political threat.

If Navalny were just a reckless power-hungry charlatan as the Kremlin describes him, the government would not go to such lengths to silence him. According to the latest poll by the Levada group in Russia, 19% of Russians approve of Navalny’s activities, up from just 6% in 2013. The younger the crowd and the more independent their sources of information are, the more likely are people to support him. For instance, in the age group of 18-24, 36% support Navalny. Among the users of Telegram messaging app, 45% do.

For Russia, Navalny is an oddity. The Russian state in its entirety spares no effort to silence him. The government spends more than $1 billion on propaganda per year. Russians are brainwashed to believe that Navalny is an asset of western intelligence services. Despite all this, he can summon thousands to his unauthorized rallies. He was able to build a network of campaign offices across the country. Navalny’s party was never registered by authorities, but in reality, he does have a political party with organizational skils. In the same vein, Navalny was never registered to run for the presidency, but he is the only and true rival of President Putin.

Being a very effective disrupter, Navalny still cannot change Russia single-handedly. With him behind bars indefinitely, it is now up to the Russian society to step in. Anti-Kremlin rallies spread to many Russian cities that haven’t seen protests for decades. However, we are still in the middle of a process that might take years to morph into a serious political challenge to the Kremlin.

Russia is an authoritarian country with a political structure that does not correspond to the development of its civil society and the economy. Unlike the 1917 revolution, when the country was at war, or during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when its economy collapsed, this time Russian society needs to make conscious choices not driven by the sheer need to survive. Otherwise, despite Navalny’s efforts or because of them, the country will face a change that instead of being a modernizing forward leap, will produce another catastrophe.