Navalny: The Black Hole of Russian Politics

Recent developments in Russia make it clear that only one person can be identified as an alternative to Vladimir Putin and the political regime he personifies. That person is Alexey Navalny, a man whose name recognition a few years ago approximated zero. Now everyone knows him, yet few can answer the question: “Who is he?”

It is a difficult question. Not a single aspect of Mr. Navalny’s career, nor all of them put together, can explain the way he has taken Russia’s political scene by storm. On the other hand, even after nearly two decades in power, no one has given a completely satisfactory answer to the question: Who is Mr. Putin? And if someone asked the same thing about Boris Yeltsin, the result would be nearly identical. These analogies are not incidental.

Political Origins

The great hope of Russia’s political opposition is 41 years old and comes from a typical middle-class family. His father started a small business after retiring from the military. In the 1990s, Mr. Navalny got a university education in law and finance. He won a prestigious scholarship to the semi-annual Yale World Fellows program in 2010.

Most of his early professional career was devoted to various small-business projects. In 2009, he went into practice as a lawyer, only to lose his license in 2013 after being convicted of embezzling state property. Many regard the charges as trumped up for political purposes. However, the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered the Russian authorities to pay damages to Mr. Navalny for legal violations that took place during the investigation, did not identify a political component.

Mr. Navalny’s involvement in politics dates from 2000, when he joined the left-liberal Yabloko party. He quickly rose to a leadership post, only to be expelled in 2007 for engaging in “nationalist activity detrimental to the party.” Mr. Navalny’s version is that he was thrown out for demanding the resignation of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and his senior deputies. However, only six months earlier, with a group of well-known Russian nationalists, he helped to establish a “national-democratic” movement called Narod [People] and later, in 2008, the Russian National Movement.

Today, Mr. Navalny is reluctant to discuss this period, although he does say that “nationalism should be the backbone of the Russian political system.” In the late 2000s, initially as an observer from Yabloko, he did participate in the so-called “Russian marches,” which in addition to moderate nationalists attracted undisguised Nazis. He was also known for making rudely xenophobic, anti-migrant and anti-gay comments, some of which can still be found online (it seems that the internet remembers everything).

By 2011, however, the Russian National Movement had fizzled out before it could even participate in parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Mr. Navalny was dipping his toe into other political waters. In 2009, for instance, he worked as an adviser to the governor of the Kirov region, Nikita Belykh, the former leader of a free market, reform-oriented party called the Union of Right Forces. (Mr. Belykh was removed from office in July 2016 and is now on trial for bribery.) Another of Mr. Navalny’s abortive projects was the Progress Party, founded in 2014, which failed to secure an election license and was soon dismantled.

To summarize his political career up to the early 2010s, one can say that Alexey Navalny was a political pathfinder who seldom found what he was looking for, and whose ideological orientation was in question. He was also, withal, a very successful blogger.

Launching Pad

As Mr. Navalny’s conventional political projects withered and died, he stumbled across what would become his mother lode. He began to fight corruption.

The primary tool in this struggle was the Anti-Corruption Fund (ACF), a nonprofit organization set up by Mr. Navalny in 2011 that has investigated dozens of large-scale embezzlement cases, as well as shady financial schemes and networks used by members of Russia’s political, bureaucratic and economic elites to enrich themselves.

One of the striking aspects of these investigations is the flimsiness of the evidence they have unearthed. Often, Mr. Navalny seems to regard it as unnecessary to prove that goods or wealth were illegally acquired. Examples of this include the cases of Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, who has regularly made use of a privately-owned Bombardier Global Express business jet, or Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the State Duma who also happens to own a luxurious country estate. To Mr. Navalny, possession of these commodities is prima facie evidence of dishonesty.

No less noteworthy is Mr. Navalny’s recent assertion that one of Russia’s richest men, Alisher Usmanov (who is of Uzbek origin), was convicted of rape back in the 1980s. No official or documentary evidence was provided. The only source given was a blog entry by Craig Murray, who served as British ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2002-2004. Mr. Murray’s blog simply refers to a “widespread belief” in the allegations, however.

Not that these instances have hindered Mr. Navalny’s political effectiveness. To the contrary, the ACF’s skillful portrayal of a panorama of financial abuses, including massive diversions of budget funds for dubious or nontransparent purposes, has become the main draw of the Navalny brand. In a poor country with an astronomical coefficient of income inequality, the ruling elite’s extravagant lifestyle is deeply insulting. The Navalny media campaign peaked in March 2017 with the release of an investigative video documentary, “He is Not Dimon to You.” The video focuses on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his assets (“Dimon” is the familiar diminutive of “Dmitry”). It has had more than 23.6 million views on YouTube.

It was precisely this type of message, bypassing official channels and circulating directly through the internet and social networks, that allowed Mr. Navalny to generate media buzz and build up a hard-core following (sometimes referred to ironically as “Navalny’s Witnesses”). Once this base was established, he picked up endorsements from almost every segment of the opposition, which saw Mr. Navalny as the logical standard bearer for a consolidated movement. That includes the nationalists again, whom Mr. Navalny said he aspired to represent in a July 11 blog entry.

Types of Opposition

Here one must make a distinction between the “non-systemic opposition” to which Mr. Navalny belongs and the “systemic opposition,” or the parliamentary cartel of officially recognized opposition parties such as Gennady Zyuganov’s communists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist Liberal Democrats, and Sergey Mironov’s Just Russia. The latter have been long perceived as auxiliary elements of the regime. What remains of Yabloko, on the other hand, resides on the margins, in a narrow electoral ghetto that allows it limited representation in some regions, but not at the federal level.

The “non-systemic opposition” ranges from radical nationalists and free-market liberals to extreme leftists. It includes Russians who may lack any traditional political affiliations, but have come to recognize the injustice of the current system for distributing power and property and are seeking ways to express their discontent.

During the protest movement of 2011–2012, Mr. Navalny was another face in the crowd – neither the most famous nor the most notable of the opposition leaders. By the time of the Moscow mayoral election in 2013, however, he was the sole registered candidate of the non-systemic opposition – and immediately garnered 27 percent of the vote. (This was more than the total for all other candidates except for the winner, Sergei Sobyanin.)

Simultaneously, Mr. Navalny began to be subjected to a series of arrests and prosecutions. This harassment has continued to this day (his latest 25-day prison sentence was handed down on June 12, 2017). Among Mr. Navalny’s convictions are two suspended sentences for embezzlement of state property and fraud. Notably, he has never suffered a lengthy prison sentence. His younger brother, Oleg, was not so lucky, and is now serving three-and-a-half years in a penal colony for the 2014 embezzlement case.

Fueling Popularity

Instead of forcing Mr. Navalny to stop his anti-corruption campaign, the persecution seemed to fuel his political and public activity, while boosting his popularity and name recognition. Officially published opinion polls, which show only about 1 percent of Russian voters would support Mr. Navalny in a presidential election, are a poor guide here. That is not merely because of familiar methodological issues such as the “spiral of silence” and “social desirability bias,” but also because – according to another survey – 28 percent of Russian adults believe they could be harassed for criticizing the authorities in a survey. Whether this belief is justified or such harassment is even feasible is beside the point. To gauge Mr. Navalny’s true popularity, one must look at other indicators.

As early as 2016, Mr. Navalny declared he would participate in next year’s presidential elections, even though the Russian law bars felons from running for office. Officially, the campaign doesn’t start until December 2017, but already more than 540,000 eligible voters have endorsed Mr. Navalny’s candidacy, more than 125,000 volunteers have been registered, and 60 out of the planned 77 regional campaign staffs are up and running.

Street protests are also growing in scale. Tens of thousands attended mass demonstrations on March 26 and June 12, 2017, numbers not seen since the protest wave of 2011-2013. The geography of protests is also expanding. While activity was concentrated in Moscow and to a lesser extent in St. Petersburg five years ago, now it has expanded to 82 cities in March and more than 100 in June. The composition of demonstrators is changing as well. Almost all observers note the growing number of young people, not just university students but underage schoolchildren.

No other leader of the radical opposition can mobilize the Russian people so effectively. This includes the charismatic Boris Nemtsov, murdered in 2015, along with a gallery of other opposition figures who – compared with Mr. Navalny – are political Lilliputians. This has prompted Russian intellectuals and opinion leaders to call for the opposition to rally around the Navalny movement. Some have done this eagerly, others with visible reluctance and reservations, simply because they see no alternative. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a prominent member of the latter group.

One could argue that this process resembles what took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the anti-communist forces in the USSR coalesced around Boris Yeltsin. It is worth recalling that like Mr. Navalny, Mr. Yeltsin made fighting the privileges of the ruling elite a major theme of his campaign.


How has Mr. Navalny managed all this? He certainly has talents and virtues as a political leader. He is a handsome young family man with a loving wife and two children. He lives in a typical high-rise apartment block on the outskirts of Moscow, in the rather modest Maryino neighborhood.

Mr. Navalny’s ethnic background is that of an irreproachably “purebred” Russian, which is important to a significant portion of the electorate. Unlike many well-known opponents of the regime, he has no connection with the hated reforms of the 1990s, nor with Western interests or centers of power. Certainly, there have been numerous attempts to brand him as a foreign-sponsored “fifth column” or “foreign agent,” but even to Russian audiences, these allegations were unconvincing.

Among Mr. Navalny’s gifts is a charismatic speaking style that allows him to engage any audience. His personal courage is undisputed, as is his readiness to take risks. Police batons and nights in jail will not stop him, nor even more exotic forms of violence. In April 2017, for example, agitators splashed his face with a bright green, alcohol-based antiseptic (zelyonka) that has recently been used to humiliate opponents of the regime. Mr. Navalny nearly lost sight in his right eye and had to undergo a serious surgical procedure, but immediately returned to his duties.

Most impressive is his discipline. Instead of repeating the mistakes of his early career, Mr. Navalny continues to hammer away at a single political message – fighting corruption. This is a truly winning strategy. Having invented a killer meme back in 2011 to describe the United Russia party – “the Party of Crooks and Thieves” – he keeps poking at the same sore spot. All other topics are skillfully avoided.

Mr. Navalny rejects any attempt to be placed on the left-right political spectrum. His campaign platform is a frankly populist hodgepodge that promises universal prosperity, but neglects to mention how it will be achieved. There are hints of large-scale redistribution of the elite’s ill-gotten gains, a definite crowd-pleaser for working people.

Mr. Navalny’s opinions on foreign policy are even harder to distill, but appear to differ little from Mr. Putin’s. There is no questioning the annexation of Crimea, simply a reference to the issue’s “complexity” and the need for another “honest referendum” of the peninsula’s inhabitants. He also insists on full implementation of the Minsk process. Since any attack on the “post-Crimean consensus” is tantamount to political suicide in today’s Russia, Mr. Navalny’s response is just to accept it and move on.

Invisible Hand?

In trying to obstruct Mr. Navalny’s activity and to curb his popularity, the authorities have acted so clumsily that they produced the opposite effect. From the very beginning, the fraud charges against Mr. Navalny were so contrived and unconvincing that he soon became “an innocent victim of the regime.” This image, highly coveted in opposition circles, was only reinforced by the recurring convictions and short-term detentions.

Anti-Navalny propaganda in the official media and the postings of pro-government bots and trolls in the social media have been equally counterproductive. Alisher Usmanov, who responded to Mr. Navalny’s rape allegations with two brutal video tirades (“I spit on you, Alexey Navalny”), only made himself a laughingstock. The ridicule grew worse when it was disclosed that the Uzbek billionaire filmed the messages while cruising in his luxury yacht off the Cote d’Azur. Mr. Navalny became known as “the man with whom Usmanov does not hesitate to speak.”

The March 26 anti-corruption rallies drew a response that only increased his popularity. Politicians, university rectors and school principals – all representing the presidential “power vertical” – threatened and denounced the young protesters. This was virtually guaranteed to generate a backlash and a youth rebellion, with Alexey Navalny at its head. Moreover, each news photo of teenagers being manhandled by police was bound to make an impression on their parents’ generation. Mr. Navalny has capitalized on each of these errors with undisguised glee and mastery.

Among political observers, there is a definite feeling that Mr. Navalny has been put on a fast track, that some kind of preferential treatment is being provided. It is true that he and the opposition structures affiliated with him are under pressure from the authorities. But this pressure is much softer than it could be. It almost appears as if someone in the apparatus of repression were flicking an “on-off” switch.

This becomes apparent when one compares Mr. Navalny’s treatment with that of other prominent opposition figures. Mr. Nemtsov, as mentioned earlier, was simply murdered. While his assassins have been sentenced to prison, their paymasters have not been identified and probably never will be. Another radical leader of the 2011-2012 protest movement, Sergei Udaltsov, was effectively neutralized by more than four years of house arrest. After being convicted of fomenting a civil disturbance, he simply dropped out of view.

Mr. Navalny was sentenced to house arrest, too, but was quick to violate its conditions. In December 2014, he broke his electronic ankle monitor and absconded to a protest event near the Kremlin walls. Immediately detained, he was escorted home with no further consequences. After one of Mr. Navalny’s court convictions, which sentenced him to real prison time, he was initially taken into custody but released the next day with a warning not to escape. A short time later, the court revised its verdict and let Mr. Navalny off with a suspended sentence.

Sign from Above

The police seem to have strict instructions to handle Mr. Navalny with kid gloves. When he is detained, it is usually just before any serious disturbances take place. On the June 12 Russia Day protests, he was arrested while leaving the front entrance of his apartment block. This deprives his supporters of leadership during the protests, where they can be dealt with harshly by the police.

Right after the zelyonka attack in which Mr. Navalny’s eye was damaged, he wrote a letter to the head of the presidential administration, Anton Vaino, requesting a foreign passport be issued so that he could be treated abroad. Even though such passports are forbidden to convicted felons, even those with suspended sentences, Mr. Navalny got one the very next day – in clear violation of administrative procedure. After a lightning visit to a Barcelona clinic, he returned to Russia immediately, without sparing time to speak with Western journalists or politicians – something that any other Russian oppositionist would have done in his place. Such behavior made a very positive impression at home, confirming his independence from any external power.

Of course, Mr. Navalny’s local organizers face constant petty harassment, but things seldom go beyond refusals to rent office space, cutting off internet service or the occasional beating. The striking thing is how this regional network continues to operate, since liquidating it would be child’s play for Russia’s security agencies. Most important, Mr. Navalny’s main channel for communicating with his followers and publishing his investigative results – his websites and social media – remain unblocked, unlike those of his less influential peers in the opposition.

Why such restraint? Perhaps it is in the absence of a clear signal “from above.” President Putin has never expressed his attitude toward Mr. Navalny; indeed, he has never spoken his name publicly, despite numerous attempts by journalists to get him to do so. This taboo is strangely reminiscent of Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, the villain whom the characters always refer to as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” Once, the newspaper Kommersant published on its website an explanation by Mr. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov: “In this country, Putin is politically invincible, so if he utters the name of Navalny, he will pass on to him a part of his popularity.” It later turned out that Mr. Peskov considered this statement to be off the record; the article was subsequently deleted and its authors dismissed.

As if repaying the favor, Mr. Navalny has been careful never to attack Mr. Putin directly. Harsh critiques are either directed at the president’s associates, or toward the regime in general. The only time Mr. Navalny broke this rule was on the night of June 11-12, 2017, when he canceled the previously authorized Russian Day demonstration and tweeted instructions to stage an illegal march along Tverskaya Street, near the Kremlin. He called Mr. Putin a “thief” and an “old-timer” (it is hard to say which would be more offensive to the president). Whether this was an emotional outburst or a conscious decision to break the rules is impossible to say, and it is unclear what the consequences will be. But the fact itself is worth noting.

Conspiracy Theory

A primitive conspiracy theory would hold that Mr. Navalny is in the service of the Kremlin and may even be groomed as Mr. Putin’s successor. This is probably false. On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that President Putin has been intimidated by Mr. Navalny and is gradually giving way under pressure. There appears to be no rational justification for such a conclusion.

What we are left with is the possibility that Alexey Navalny is being held in reserve as a bench-warmer. He is available to get more playing time should political events take an unexpected turn, for whatever reason.

Several years ago, the rumor was launched that Mr. Navalny was being considered by the Kremlin as a possible substitute for the aging Mr. Zhirinovsky, the kind of cantankerous personality that could attract and neutralize dangerous voters who might otherwise disrupt domestic politics. Yet Mr. Zhirinovsky has retained his vigor, while Mr. Navalny has clearly outgrown such a supporting role.

Nevertheless, the logic remains sound. That is why Mr. Navalny, who the law clearly disqualifies from participating in the presidential election, is universally regarded as a viable candidate by observers friendly or hostile to the regime.

The depth of confusion among Russian political elites was clearly demonstrated by independent television channel Dozhd’s extraordinary interview on June 14 with Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission. Ms. Pamfilova started out with the blunt thesis that there is “absolutely no chance that Navalny’s candidacy will be registered given his criminal record.” She then tellingly wondered “what if a miracle happens and he wins in the appeals court?” Her extraordinary conclusion: “I generally would rather not talk about Navalny. He seems to be a kind of political sacred cow that you better not touch. Perhaps he operates under some special conditions.” (Mr. Navalny was meanwhile being sentenced to 25 days in jail for organizing the June 12 Russia Day protest.)

Ms. Pamfilova’s thinking is correct. If the Kremlin decides so, all legal obstacles to the Navalny campaign will instantly disappear. As one of the most discerning Russian political analysts recently noted, “by late autumn, having Navalny participate in the elections might be less risky than him not participating.” Without a Navalny candidacy, the 2018 elections might be perceived as illegitimate – and their winner as well.

Future Considerations

Meanwhile, Mr. Navalny continues to behave like a black hole in Russian politics. While remaining a mysterious object, he turns everything he touches into himself. The most recent example of this was the Russia Day demonstrations on June 12. This public holiday is perhaps Russia’s most puzzling, having been established to commemorate Russia’s declaration of state sovereignty in 1990.

So far, nobody has figured out how to properly celebrate the disintegration of the USSR (“the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” according to Vladimir Putin). Mr. Navalny decided to give the country an example. For the first time, the Russian opposition protested exclusively under the tricolor flag, accompanied by the national anthem, until they were stopped by baton-flailing police. One can expect subsequent June 12ths to be commemorated in this way. Russia Day has been expropriated and appropriated by Mr. Navalny.

Strictly speaking, what has been expropriated and appropriated is something immeasurably more important: the future.

It is well known that political managers in the Kremlin are suggesting that the “main candidate” in 2018 (presumably Mr. Putin, or if not, his anointed successor) should organize his campaign around a future-oriented theme targeted at young people. For President Putin, this strategy is the worst possible fit. Many years ago, he ceased to be the “president of hope” and “president of change” he used to be in the early 2000s. The legitimacy he has enjoyed recently (it has been earned, and is genuinely strong) is not prospective, but retrospective. It is doubtful he can market another term for himself as an attractive vision of the future.

But if not Mr. Putin, then who? This has been the question that has always stumped critics of the regime. But after June 12, the youth of Russia has its answer – the only person whom they know and trust. It is not Mr. Putin whom they see in their future. More and more of them see Mr. Navalny. So the question is now: “If not Navalny, then who?”

That does not mean the 2018 vote will be a “stunning election” of the sort Samuel P. Huntington described in The Third Wave (1991). It will not result in a fundamental transformation or collapse of the regime. This outcome would only be possible if, for whatever reason, neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Navalny participated.

Nevertheless, next year’s elections could bring significant changes, especially if Mr. Navalny runs and finishes no worse than second (a quite plausible scenario). It does not matter whether he is President Putin’s heir. Perhaps the most dangerous scenario would take place if Mr. Putin runs and Mr. Navalny doesn’t. That might prevent a “stunning election,” but what happens afterward could be an even worse disaster.

Svyatoslav Kaspe is Professor at National Research University – Higher School of Economics, and Editor-inChief at Politeia.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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