What Is Navalny?

It might be helpful to start with what Navalny is not. He is not Nemtsov, Limonov, Kasparov, or Khodorkovsky. All four of these men have at different times in the past decade been held up, both by the Western press and by a small sliver of the Russian intelligentsia, as potential leaders of the anti-Putin opposition. All four had flaws so glaring that even a porcupine, as the Russians say, could see they had no prospects. Nemtsov is a tall, handsome holdover from the Yeltsin era whose primary interest seems to be young women between the ages of 22 and 28. Limonov is a former scandalous man of letters turned scandalous nationalist politician. Kasparov is a chess grandmaster turned politician. And Khodorkovsky, of course, was a billionaire oil oligarch turned politician who was thrown in jail for it. Navalny is only 37 years old, but he is a lawyer, the traditional training for politics, who has been involved in political work for over a decade. From the very first, he was focused on political activity. This is important.

Navalny is not from the intelligentsia. His father was a career military officer; he grew up in Soviet military towns. For a Russian, on first encounter with him, this is startling. Navalny is extremely intelligent, articulate, and even a very good writer; he is not someone who peppers his talk with prison slang, the way Putin enjoys doing; but he doesn’t have that particular form of politeness, circumlocution, over-thoughtfulness—the word in Russian is zasten’chivost’—that inexorably sticks to even such a “man of action” as Limonov. There is no hidden depth, no internal dialogue that Navalny, when he speaks, is trying to distill. What he says is what he thinks; what you see is what you get.

What do you see, what does he say? First, the good parts. He says that Putin and his cohort are terribly, criminally corrupt; he says that government needs to be much more responsive and more transparent. And almost single-handedly he has done a great deal to advance this agenda. He has bought shares in large Russian companies and used his rights as a minority shareholder to demand documentation and expose corruption; he has used a Medvedev-era reform (the online publication of government tenders) to publish the government’s own accounts of buying superexpensive German cars, and embarrassed them out of doing so. He is absolutely fearless and, again, admirably open: he spends more time answering critical Tweets and blog posts than people with a hundred times fewer followers. He is quick to offense and quick to forgive; he is, online, a witty, sharp, and consistent polemicist. Above all, he has a political mind. In a brief period of time he has shown what is possible to achieve in Putin’s Russia with hard work, creativity, and a great deal of courage.

The bad part is just as much on its face. Navalny is a right-winger. He is pro-market, pro-gun ownership (an uncommon position in the Russian political field), and anti-immigration. His electoral platform (he has announced his candidacy for Mayor of Moscow) includes language about creating “competitive” conditions for utilities, hospitals, schools. This comes straight out of the neoliberal playbook and, as the Russian Socialist Movement point out in their statement on Navalny, leads primarily to the closure of “non-competitive” schools, clinics, hospitals—and high prices for electricity. Navalny’s comments on the “nationalities” question—interethnic relations in the post-Soviet space—also come straight out of the antiliberal catechism. “You can’t have taboo subjects,” Navalny told Russian GQ in 2011. “The failure of the liberal-democratic movement [in Russia] was the result of the fact that they considered certain topics too dangerous to talk about, including the topic of national, inter-ethnic conflict. We need to admit that migrants, including from the Caucasus, often come to Russia with their own, specific values.” He went on to talk about the limitations placed on women by Muslims in Chechnya. “I don’t like it when people . . . establish their own rules here.” When a short war flared up with Georgia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia in 2008, Navalny called for all Georgian passport holders to be expelled from Russia. Just last week, while his politically motivated trial on invented charges was nearing its dramatic conclusion, Navalny found time to sign a statement from the nationalist wing of the opposition calling for a vigorous investigation of a killing committed by a young Chechen in the provincial town of Pugachev.

Navalny’s views on ethnic politics are no secret to anyone. A lot of people are willing to overlook them, at various times, because of everything else that is so genuinely appealing about Navalny. And this is understandable: he is the only person to emerge in the last decade with the vision, the intelligence, and the potential popular appeal to make a dent in mature Putinism. What his anticorruption platform is not—with its repeated insistence that if good, moral people were in charge of the government, instead of bad, immoral people, things would be entirely different—is a politics. It is obvious that it is better to have good people running things than bad people; it is obvious that when highly placed people steal from the government, or from government-owned corporations, or from private corporations, then there is less money for government projects or shareholders. Politics begins where corruption ends. What do you do with the funds freed up by a no longer corrupt system? How do you distribute them? Do you invest them in schools, hospitals, public works, or do you distribute them to the population in the form of lower taxes—and how do you structure those taxes, to benefit the rich or the poor? Good people in politics are better than bad people in politics. Now what?

The most succinct formulation of the problem of contemporary Russian liberalism was made by the poet Kirill Medvedev: “They think that under Yeltsin everything was going well, and then this bad person Putin came to power.” Whereas in fact Putinism, ugly as it is, is far more continuous with Yeltsinism than discontinuous: it is the political structure of a society where a small group of people control a nation’s wealth and dictate its priorities, and that structure was created in the 1990s. The failure of Russian liberalism in the 2000s was not, pace Navalny, its refusal to talk about Chechen and Central Asian migrants; it was its refusal to rethink its commitment to American-style hypercapitalism. (When Russian liberals express reservations about Navalny, they are always about his nationalism, never about his neoliberalism.) The passion for the good person Navalny as opposed to the bad person Putin is the apotheosis of the good-Yeltsin/bad-Putin account of recent Russian history—an account that anyone who witnessed the misery of much of the Russian population in the 1990s should have trouble stomaching.

(Parenthetically, on Navalny’s nationalism: far from being a particularly Russian phenomenon, the mixture of a virulent nationalism with pro-American, free market policies is the norm in post-1998 Eastern European politics. This was as true of Victor Yuschenko, hero of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, as of Mikhail Saakashvili, hero of the Rose Revolution in Georgia. “But America doesn’t like nationalists! Especially in a place like Ukraine, where nationalism will shade over inevitably into anti-Semitism!” False: America likes them just fine if their nationalism means anti-Russianism. America aside, there is probably a deeper dynamic at play whereby a commitment to denationalizing economic globalization is paired with or mitigated by a violent renationalizing along ethnic or “historical” grounds. What makes the Navalny case unique is that he’s a Western-style, pro-market, Russian nationalist, i.e. his nationalism does not serve the wider geopolitical agenda of containment of Russia. How this will play out in the long term is unclear, but Navalny in this sense represents something new.)

What do you do when presented with an energetic, inspirational figure whose politics you strongly dislike? The Russian left is now in the process of trying to figure this out. The small, youthful Russian Socialist Movement this past week posted a series of articles at their website, www.anticapitalist.ru, taking different positions on what to do. Some argue for “ethical support” for Navalny’s battle against the Putin regime even as they reject his right-wing politics; others say the left must stay as far away from Navalny, and even the protests around Navalny, as possible, because you cannot “critically support” a movement that has no interest in or solidarity with you. One author warned that Navalny was just Yeltsin all over again: the same populism, the same charisma, the same politics. “Maybe, as Heraclitus said, you can’t step in the same river twice, but nowhere is it written that you can’t wind up again in the same pile of shit.” In the end, the RSM put forward a statement that split the difference: “No” to political repression, no to Navalny, yes to protests.

Meanwhile, the drama of Navalny hurtles forward. Last week, despite the absence of any evidence, he was convicted of embezzlement by a Russian court in the provincial city of Kirov and sentenced to five years in a prison colony. That same day, a significant protest erupted in Moscow, bringing thousands of people to within a block of the Kremlin. That the imprisonment of one person could call out such a response must have been a surprise to Putin and company, who have imprisoned a number of people without hearing so much as a peep, and they backpedaled. Navalny was released pending the hearing of his appeal; he returned to Moscow a hero and immediately resumed his campaign for Mayor. What will happen next is anyone’s guess. Navalny has a lot of support among young, plugged-in Muscovites, but it is unlikely he’ll be allowed a platform to reach anyone else. The chances of his going back to prison before the mayoral campaign is finished seem small, but Navalny himself has warned that the Putin playbook calls for stepping back when the pressure is on and advancing again once people’s attention has turned elsewhere. Navalny’s strategy in such a case would be to continue to escalate the situation. And, as the great political analyst Dmitry Furman once warned, in the post-Soviet space, violent eruptions of popular unrest most often take place around elections, when their results seem to have been fixed or faked. The voting for Mayor of Moscow takes place September 8.

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