Alexei Navalny: The anti-Putin the Kremlin can’t neutralise
Anti-corruption crusader has built formidable grassroots movement in Russia and dreams of becoming president. Putin has other ideas
When Alexei Navalny greeted viewers on his YouTube channel, broadcast this week, the Russian anti-corruption crusader and staunch Kremlin foe joked – not for the first time – that it was remarkable he was not in jail.
Widely considered as the only opposition activist charismatic enough to present a serious challenge to Vladimir Putin, Navalny has been detained four times by police in the last year alone and served two prison sentences for violating Russian demonstration laws. He has also come under attack from unidentified assailants including a man who doused him with a toxic green dye that almost cost him the sight of one eye.
Navalny wants to be president of Russia. Intense official harassment has not stopped him from building a sizeable grassroots political movement dedicated to ending Putin’s 18-year grip on power.
The Kremlin sees Navalny as a threat and has barred him from standing in the forthcoming presidential election in March that Putin, in power either as president or prime minister since 2000, will almost certainly win.
Excluded from the presidential race, Navalny is determined to rain on Putin’s parade. He’s campaigning for a boycott of the election, betting that a low turnout at the polls will undermine the legitimacy of Putin’s fourth term in office and expose the entire Russian election process as a cynical sham.
Navalny, aged 41, lives with his wife and fellow political activist Yulia Navalny and their two children in a high-rise flat in southern Moscow. He presents as an ordinary man who has done something extraordinary in reviving politics in Russia to take on Putin’s powerful and ruthless regime. He is good-looking, witty and charismatic and – most of all – extremely ambitious.
A lawyer by training, Navalny became visible on the political scene after 2008 when he began blogging about alleged official corruption. His strategy was to buy small equity stakes in state-controlled companies, gaining the right to attend shareholders’ meetings where he could raise awkward questions about the use of finance.
Corporate insiders also helped, providing leads for investigative reports published by Navalny’s Foundation for the Fight Against Corruption that often target members of Putin’s inner circle and have caused embarrassment for the Russian elite.
While the Kremlin clamped down on conventional independent media, the internet was still largely unrestricted. Navalny made use of Russia’s lively social network chatrooms to urge voters not to support the pro-Putin United Russia Party in the approach to the 2011 parliamentary election.
United Russia – famously dubbed by Navalny as the “Party of Crooks and Thieves”, won the poll amid allegations of widespread vote-rigging. Navalny joined other opposition leaders to organise a wave of street protests in Moscow that were the biggest anti-government demonstrations seen since Putin came to power.
After Putin won the presidential election in 2012, law enforcers began cracking down ferociously on dissidents. As the opposition movement fizzled out, Navalny set out to compete in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, where he won 27 per cent of the vote, almost forcing a run-off with Sergei Sobyanin, the Kremlin-backed incumbent.
Navalny’s success in mobilising support in the mayoral race took the authorities by surprise and partly explains the Kremlin’s determination not to allow him anywhere near the presidential ballot.
In Putin’s Russia, the judiciary is often used to punish the regime’s opponents. In 2013 a court in Kirov region in northwest Russia convicted Navalny of defrauding a local timber firm of millions of rubles and served him with a five-year suspended sentence. After the European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that the trial had been unfair, the court staged a repeat of the proceedings, finding Navalny guilty once again.
As a lawyer, Navalny knew full well that convicted felons in Russia were not allowed to run for president. But against all the odds he declared his candidacy in late 2016, a full year before the official election campaign got under way.
Navalny has spent much of the past 12 months travelling around Russia recruiting thousands of volunteers to run his campaign. For the first time the opposition movement has spread beyond Moscow and Saint Petersburg to establish a strong foothold in the regions, where he has drawn large crowds of supporters at rallies in dozens of provincial cities.
Law enforcers have taken stern measures, beating and arresting Navalny campaign supporters, confiscating leaflets and prosecuting dissident bloggers.
Most of Navalny’s political fans are middle-class urban Russians dismayed by the fall in living standards brought about by a three-year economic slowdown that is unlikely to end unless the government overcomes its resistance to introduce sweeping institutional reforms.
They are eager enough for political change to risk their safety at demonstrations and reach into their pockets to contribute to crowdfunding efforts that have raised more than €1.4 million to support the campaign.
Polls indicate that Navalny’s time has not yet come, and that even if he was allowed to stand at a free and fair election he would not be able to muster enough votes to beat Putin, who is still widely popular in Russia.
Even within the anti-Putin camp, some liberals are wary of Navalny, citing his overriding ambition, his unwillingness to align with other opposition leaders and his past support for for ultra-nationalist events.
In a more open political environment such questions could be discussed in public. But Russian state television refuses to give Navalny airtime. Putin cannot bring himself to mention Navalny by name and has suggested that his main opponent is favoured by the United States.
Navalny has stepped up efforts to discredit the election, lambasting nominally opposition candidates as Kremlin puppets hired to give an air of legitimacy to the poll
Navalny’s election manifesto, published in December, is populist in nature, trespassing on Putin’s man-of-the-people image. With a series of sweeping economic promises he called for the re-channelling of funds lost to corruption and wasteful government spending, to support social programmes in healthcare and education and a big hike in the minimum wage.
Navalny also declared war on the vertical power structure Putin has built, pledging a switch to a parliamentary system, a reduction in presidential terms, and an overhaul of the judiciary that would put biased judges on trial.
His campaign has put him on a collision course with opposition leaders running for the presidency. As the Central Election Commission finalised the ballot list this week, Navalny has stepped up efforts to discredit the election, lambasting nominally opposition candidates as Kremlin puppets hired to give an air of legitimacy to the poll.
In a move that could burn bridges with former liberal colleagues, he accused Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran leader of the Yabloko party, and Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and TV presenter who is running as an independent, of falsifying the number of signatures they had gathered to win admittance to the ballot.
Navalny’s horizons stretch way beyond the March 18th poll, but he may face a challenge to maintain political momentum once the buzz of the election is over. A nationwide election boycott would allow him to claim that low turnout reflected support for the candidacy he had been denied, bolstering his political relevance.
But his “Election Strike” campaign has not been uniformly embraced by the broader opposition. Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister and co-founder of the Parnas opposition party, says the boycott would set a dangerous political precedent, undermining popular confidence in the democratic process. “Elections are the only mechanisms for changing power,” he wrote on Facebook.
Maxim Katz, a liberal political analyst, says skipping the vote is a cop-out, tantamount to “an admittance of defeat”.
Navalny was making fun of the authorities this week as the Russian Investigative Committee called him in for questioning over allegations that he kicked a policeman during his arrest at a rally to flag the election boycott in Moscow last January. “AA Navalny dealt me a blow with his left leg on my right leg inflicting acute pain in the area of the knee. Wow,” he wrote on Twitter.
Navalny says state prosecutors will take steps to ensure he is in jail on election day to prevent any disruption of the vote.
However, political analysts believe the Kremlin will not risk creating a political martyr by putting the country’s most famous opposition leader behind bars.
“The authorities simply don’t want Navalny to be seen as a persecuted victim of the regime, as that would further boost his popularity across the country,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, the head of the Russian Domestic Politics programme at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Thus the best way is to ignore him and disrupt his activities in every possible way.”