“Why are you still alive?” CBS news show 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl asked Alexei Navalny in 2017 as he was building momentum in Russia ahead of the presidential elections. He was facing an uphill battle — partly because he was up against Vladimir Putin and his political machine of ballot stuffing, voter suppression and corruption, and partly because he was not even allowed on the ballot due to an illegitimate, politically motivated Russian court case in 2013 and 2014 in which he and his brother, Oleg, were convicted of embezzlement. Alexei got a suspended sentence; Oleg has been imprisoned to this day. The Russian constitution states that a person convicted with a criminal charge shall not be eligible to run for high office: this precluded Alexei Navalny’s chances. The European Court of Human Rights stated this case violated his right to a fair trial, and he received over €63,000 in compensation from six different complaints. Despite this, his original convictions were never overturned in his home country. Still, he rallied his supporters to boycott the election and partake in protests across the country supporting him.
“That is a favourite question of my wife…” he joked. Three years later he was poisoned with Novichok just prior to flying from Tomsk to Moscow. Rushed to Berlin through an emergency evacuation, he barely escaped with his life. However, this near-death experience did not deter him from continuing his crusade for a better Russia; rather it has only appeared to steel his resolve. Less than five months later and despite understanding the risks associated with returning, Navalny boarded a flight back to Moscow and was immediately arrested and separated from his wife upon landing. He has since been detained, and convicted for three years in Matrosskaya Tishina, which Politico called “Moscow’s most notorious prison.”
There is a fascinating relationship between Navalny and Putin. Putin portrays himself as macho, intelligent and politically untouchable. This is quintessential to understanding why many in Russia fell for Putin: for he is the ideal Russian man. But Navalny strips back the facade and enlightens the public on the coward beneath the cold exterior and political calculus. That is why Navalny is so dangerous to Putin – in fact he is the man Putin is most afraid of. Putin is like the Wizard of Oz and Navalny is the one exposing him. And the irony is that Navalny is the one that fulfils those criteria. Surviving Novichok, and other politically motivated attacks, are as macho as it gets. Navalny, in returning to Russia and forcing Putin’s hand, made himself politically untouchable. Putin had three choices: kill Navalny and make him a martyr, imprison Navalny and make himself look weak and afraid, or let him free and allow his movement to grow ever larger. So, they imprisoned him.
Despite everything the Kremlin throws at Navalny and his supporters, his anti-corruption, anti-Putin movement has only grown more powerful. Navalny’s unwavering resolve and inclusive campaign for liberal ideas such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the freedom to marry who you choose, combined with his stance to better the lives of those living in poverty across Russia has inevitably garnered countrywide support for Navalny with mass protests in at least 85 cities. This is a country weary of being held in ironclad clutches of the Kremlin, but possibly a country contemplating a new path.
Russia gives the impression that it is a prosperous nation, but under Putin, nothing could be further from the truth. According to award winning economist Paul de Grauwe, “Russia is economically weak”, and the figures bear that out. Russia’s GDP, according to data from the world bank, is a relatively modest $1.7 trillion. Whilst Putin did take over a struggling economy from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, GDP growth in 2019 was 1.3% lower than in 1997, when the economy was struggling due to the controversial “shock therapy” economic strategy which involved immediately shifting from state control of the economy to a private system. However, as de Grauwe points out, “Russia is an important supplier of raw materials, including oil and gas,” ensuring relative stability in our carbon-based global economy. As more countries move to adopt green environmental agendas, however, Russia’s economic outlook looks worryingly bleak. This becomes even more concerning when it’s taken into account that 21 million Russians (14.3%) fell below the poverty line in the first quarter of 2019. This figure, despite Putin’s intervention, has only grown due to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Navalny’s strategy has been to uncover and expose the fact that, despite the economic hardships faced by everyday Russians on the ground, those in and around Putin’s circle of influence have brazenly and immorally enriched themselves on the taxpayer’s cash. Through his blog posts and YouTube documentaries, Navalny has investigated corruption at the highest levels of government and business. His most recent documentary, which now has over 100 million views, divulges how Vladimir Putin himself has built a palatial compound using taxpayer money equalling ~$1.35 billion. (For those Kremlin agents who are avid Cherwell readers, I should note that this is only alleged, and that oligarch and childhood friend Arkady Rotundburg has claimed ownership. However, if we apply a legal standard equivalent to Russia’s treatment of Navalny, I think we can convict without a fair trial).
Coupled with the Navalny’s arrest, the well-timed release of this documentary has led to widespread protests from Moscow to Siberia leading to over 5,000 arrests. The sight of peaceful protestors, who braved below-freezing temperatures, using snowballs as a method of self-defence as they were beaten and arrested indiscriminately by the police led to international condemnation from government officials, including both foreign secretary Dominic Raab and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy. Meanwhile, worldwide protests sprung up in solidarity for Russians from London all the way to Tokyo. Even Oxford got involved as placards supporting Navalny were spotted outside the Radcliffe Camera.
Considering the circumstances, though, it is easy to presume that there is no hope of change. Putin’s grasp of the Kremlin and the oligarchy means the traditional form of change from the inside of the political system is impossible unless Putin dies or retires. However, should Navalny play his cards right, there is a genuine possibility of a grassroots movement able to shift public opinion towards a more democratic future.
In light of this fight for freedom, I am reminded of the saying which my boyhood football club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, is proud to display “Out of darkness cometh light”. Navalny’s movement needs to use this idea — fighting even when things look impossible — to have a chance at success.
Achieving this success lies primarily in how Navalny’s movement does two things: expanding their local support across all ages and drawing the world’s attention towards the corruption and increasing desperation of the autocratic regime, whilst also being an acceptable, competent political alternative with a transparent and inclusive agenda. Navalny could, perhaps, take inspiration from another political outsider who created a grassroots political campaign to surge to become leader of their nation against all the odds in the face of adversity: Nelson Mandela.
Mandela, Navalny should note in light of his larger and harder to control protests, made non-violent protest the key pillar of his campaign as he knew violence would lead to failure. Aside from any other implications, violence makes coalition building harder. It could put off people otherwise sympathetic to the cause. For those who disagree with the movement, it allows for an easy propaganda opportunity to paint themselves as victims. The backlash from the propaganda could lead to heavy and potentially bloody clashes. This violence may tar the reputation of the movement. Furthermore, the international press coverage and views from the international community will become a lot less sympathetic which takes the pressure off the government in charge. Without the international support, internal pressure from the Kremlin will crush the struggle. Navalny’s movement has so far stayed peaceful but the risks of straying are great.
Navalny must capitalise on this success and expand his support. Despite having widespread geographic appeal, Navalny’s support mainly comes from a younger demographic. The internet — mainly used by the young — is the one medium of communication not controlled by Putin (despite his best efforts), so Navalny’s success here has helped his movement to grow. However, he needs to find a way to crack into the more mainstream news sources in Russia, those predominantly consumed by the older Russian population who are more wary of him. If he can’t do that, he must find a way to compete with these mainstream news sources. Stunts such as turning his trial into a way to expose Putin’s corruption, calling Putin “underpants poisoner“, and spreading his message on social media are a great start. The mainstream news has shown these live, thus reaching audiences Navalny may not have accessed otherwise.
Bringing Putin to the negotiating table may sound ludicrously naive, but he is ultimately a pragmatist when it comes to retaining his power — for instance, he took the less powerful position of Prime Minister in 2008 to preserve his executive power after being President for two consecutive terms which is the longest the Russian constitution allowed at the time. If Navalny managed to garner widespread political support, abroad and at home, Putin will attempt to find a way to save his own power. It is plausible, in that scenario, that Putin may consider entering negotiations, wherein Navalny would need to be clear in his vision for Russia or else risk Putin rolling him over. For Putin has been here before: he hijacked Russia’s first attempt at democracy in his rise to power. If he has the chance, he will hijack what may be its last in Putin’s lifetime. If there ever was a country that Navalny’s crusade could succeed, however, it would be Russia; it has already drastically changed politically so many times in recent history. From tsardom to communism to oligarchy to autocracy in the space of just over 100 years — why not add democracy to the list?
Change may not occur immediately, but the tides of history have shown that even the most powerful individual can be dispensed when supported by the right conditions. Russia should know — they’ve done it before.