Navalny and Political Protest in Putin’s Russia Part I
Although Putin rules Russia with an iron fist, he is not without resistance. Well-known regime critic Alexei Navalny has been both poisoned and imprisoned over the past year, and Putin continues to deny his name. Why will the regime get rid of him, and will it solve Putin’s problems?
- Who is Alexei Navalny?
- What kind of political regime do you have in today’s Russia?
- Why is the Putin regime cracking down so hard on the demonstrations?
- And what opportunities do Navalny and the Russian opposition really have to challenge Putin’s monopoly of power?
Russian anti-corruption hunter , blogger and regime critic Alexei Navalny returned to Russia on January 17, 2021, after a lengthy hospital stay in Germany, where he had been treated for acute poisoning.
Back on Russian soil, he was immediately arrested by police. The arrest triggered some of the most extensive political demonstrations we have seen in Russia in several years – and an unusually harsh response from the authorities.
2: Who is Navalny?
Alexei Navalny is 44 years old, born and raised in Moscow. After completing a law degree, he entered politics in 2000 – the same year that Putin was first elected President of Russia. His political career began in the Jabloko party, the largest and most important of Russia’s liberal, “Western-oriented” parties. But in 2007 he was expelled from this party due to nationalist propaganda.
In the years that followed, Navalny made a name for himself as a corruption hunter. His goal has been to uncover abuses of power, misrule and public officials and politicians’ attempts to wrongfully enrich themselves.
Russia is struggling with widespread corruption, it scores the worst of all European countries on Transparency International’s corruption index , and Navalny’s team has uncovered a number of corruption scandals through creative methods.
In parallel, Navalny continues to pursue a political career. His biggest success in this respect is the second place in the mayoral election in Moscow in 2013, when he against all odds obtained as much as 27 percent of the vote. But when he tried to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, he was refused a candidate because he had a conditional sentence for embezzlement from 2014 – a verdict Navalny himself claims is politically motivated.
3: Navalny’s method
Navalny has marked himself as a new type of Russian politician: modern, fearless and charismatic. Much of the success is due to his effective use of social media. Navalny has been very good at getting media attention and creating catchy slogans and viral campaigns.
An example is the documentary he published to mobilize for anti-Putin demonstrations when he returned to Russia. Here, Navalny reveals how Putin, with corrupt money, allegedly built a lavish palace on the Black Sea (in retrospect, one of Putin’s closest friends, businessman Arkady Rotenberg, has come forward and claimed to be the palace’s owner). Since the end of January, this movie has been viewed more than 116 million times on YouTube.
Navalny has sought to demonstrate an alternative to continued Putin rule. The Kremlin has long cultivated the image of Putin as an indispensable father of the country. An entire generation of Russians has grown up without knowing any other reality than that Putin is in power – either as president (2000–2008 and again from 2012) or as prime minister (2008–2012).
Navalny is challenging this myth and the widespread political inaction created by Putin’s “eternal” presidency. Both are dangerous for the Kremlin.
4: Elections without options – and «smart voting»
According to Indexdotcom, Russia has been described as a “hybrid regime”, that is, as a cross between a (deficient) democracy and a pure dictatorship.
Such hybrid regimes are characterized by the fact that – like democracies – they regularly hold elections, but that it is not the voters who decide who wins. Instead, the authorities, through control of election legislation, registration processes, the judiciary and the media, ensure that only opposition parties and candidates who have been pre-approved by the regime are allowed to participate.
Most things are thus decided in advance. At the same time, choices – even in hybrid regimes – always involve a certain degree of uncertainty. We saw this most recently last autumn in Russia’s neighboring Belarus, where the authorities’ manipulation of the election result led to hundreds of thousands pouring into the streets demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, resign.
Navalny has sought to exploit this uncertainty in the electoral process. In the last couple of years, he and his team have promoted “smart voting”: Using an app, you get to know who has the best chance of beating the candidate from the United Russia, Putin’s support party, in a given constituency. By voting tactically for the candidate in question, voters in several places have succeeded in challenging the regime’s monopoly of power .
In addition, Navalny has built up an extensive network of local election campaign staffs around the country. It was during a visit to one of these in Siberia ahead of the local elections last autumn that Navalny was poisoned. On the flight home, he became acutely ill and the plane had to make an emergency landing. After a few days, he was transported on to Germany for specialist treatment. There, the doctors determined that Navalny had been poisoned with a variant of the very deadly Russian neurotoxin novitsjok.