After several chemical attacks that left him partially blinded, opposition leader Alexei Navalny was unexpectedly given a passport on May 4 to allow him to seek medical treatment abroad. The Kremlin irritant had lost his travel privileges several years ago in the midst of his political efforts and legal troubles, but after a bureaucratic struggle between the Federal Migration Service, which gave him the passport, and the Federal Penitentiary Service, which explicitly contacted the media to assert that convicts are not allowed to leave the country, was resolved by the Moscow City Court and the prison service overruled, Navalny flew to Barcelona for ophthalmic surgery.
Although he is barred from running for political office, Navalny’s quixotic campaign to unseat Vladimir Putin in next year’s presidential election on a platform of anti-corruption and Russian nationalism highlights domestic political and economic issues is far more consequential to the Russian leader than any international pressure. The sudden and unsolicited offer from the government indicated that it did not want Navalny’s physical condition to become a cause célèbre, particularly as his attacker has been unofficially identified through surveillance footage as the same person who met with federal lawmakers at the State Duma in Moscow.
Physical violence against Navalny followed him releasing a well-produced video allegedly documenting the lavish lifestyle of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Although the attacks at first led Navalny to joke that he looked like Shrek or Jim Carrey’s character in the movie The Mask, the lack of police response in the face of increasingly severe assaults demonstrates how damaging the video actually was.
The video, seen almost 21 million times on YouTube at the time of writing, linked a series of leaked emails to a vast charitable network called Fund for the Support of Socially Significant State Projects, operated by friends and classmates of the prime minister. The curiously named charity appeared mostly to purchase and maintain an impressive number of properties and yachts across Russia and Europe, apparently funded by donations from a number of Russian billionaires and heavy borrowing from state banks. The video also connected the emails to the purchases of gadgets, hip clothes, and high-end sneakers, all well-known favorites of the prime minister. In a twist that reflected Medvedev’s enthusiasm for social media, Navalny’s video used geotagging of Instagram posts and drone technology surveillance to place the prime minister wearing the clothes and shoes from the emails in luxurious locations on the occasions he posted selfies and other vacation photos.
The video helped catalyze street protests against corruption attended by a hundred thousand people across entire Russia, the largest demonstrations since the Bolotnoya Square protests. It struck a nerve that a time of domestic austerity top government officials continue to enjoy highly luxurious lifestyles. When reached for comment (via Instagram) about the protests, Medvedev’s Marie Antoinette-style response was, “Not a bad day. Went skiing.” The personal approval ratings for Medvedev fell from 52% to 44% in the weeks following (disapproval from 47% to 54%), while approval for the government fell from 49% to 46% (disapproval from 49% to 53%), and the likely voters for Putin in a hypothetical election dropped below the 50% needed to avoid a runoff.
The road to March 2018’s presidential election will end in a fourth presidential victory for Vladimir Putin, barring a major unforeseen shock. Yet the next year will be an uncomfortable one for the incumbent on the domestic scene, leaving the state to point towards foreign achievements for burnishing Putin’s popularity and justifying continuation of the status quo.
Putin’s foreign policy achievements have brought Russia to a position of importance and relevance scarcely crediblewhen he first assumed office. That foreign policy success has also put him in a situation readily recognizable to previous Russian rulers where foreign success overshadows domestic problems, clearly identifying the divide between the elite and the population.
As noted by American military analyst Dmitry Gorenberg, “Russian foreign policy is driven by the political elites’ search for a new basis for national self-esteem after the collapse of the Soviet Union disrupted old Soviet identities. The collapse did not discredit the Soviet Union’s status as a great power, which has thus remained a core aspiration for Russian political elites. As a result of their perception of Russia’s appropriate status in the world and in their region, they have also sought to maintain Russia’s role as a guiding force among the newly independent states that formerly made up the Soviet Union. This combination of Russia as a global great power and regional hegemon is seen as providing the ruling elite with a source of legitimacy with their domestic constituency.”
The expanded diplomatic reach into places like Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria compares unfavorably with the structural economic problems (low oil prices, rule of law concerns in the business sector, and ongoing sanctions) and concomitant declines in consumption. The political pressures introduced at the margin by Navalny are forcing the government to take him seriously, and observers should see the following dynamic play out over the next year to enforce the status quo. Firstly, greater coercion against Navalny and his supporters; secondly, appeals to patriotism to inhibit the average voter from considering Navalny as a serious political figure; thirdly, populist economic measures; and finally, doubling down on seeking foreign policy success to make the implicit argument that without Putin and the system, the barbarians will be at the gates once more.
Whichever direction the Russian election goes, it won’t be easy being green.