Can Navalny Trump Putin?
Brian Whitmore December 14, 2016
In his state-of-the-nation speech this year, Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia is immune to the antiestablishment fever sweeping the West.
Aleksei Navalny is betting that he is wrong.
When he announced that he intends to run for president in 2018, the anticorruption blogger and opposition figure pledged to be "the voice of those tens of millions of people who work honestly, raise children, pay taxes, love their country, but whose voice the authorities do not hear."
He also vowed to make Russia "rich, free, strong, and modern."
Sound familiar? All that was missing was a promise to make Russia great again.
Navalny has clearly learned something from the populist wave that led to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France.
Hours after Trump's victory was confirmed on November 9, Navalny released a video in which he argued that regardless of how Russians view the U.S. president-elect or his program, the lesson they should draw is that "a candidate who none of the pollsters, politicians, and experts believed in managed to win."
We should "try to achieve the simple goal of having such unpredictable elections in our country," he added.
Just as populists like Trump, Le Pen, and Nigel Farage caught Western establishments flat-footed and capitalized on their complacency, Navalny appears to be banking on doing the same in Russia.
And he's off to a good start.
Political analyst and former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky told The Moscow Times that Navalny's announcement that he would seek the presidency caught the Putin regime off guard.
"They don't like surprises over there, and it was most certainly a surprise," Pavlovsky said.
Like his Western counterparts, Navalny also taps into a populist cocktail that includes ethnic nationalism, anger about corruption, and fatigue about an entrenched elite.
But unlike his Western counterparts, Navalny comes across as urbane and cosmopolitan -- and therefore manages to appeal to liberals as well.
It's a potentially potent combination.
"Espousing a firm stance against illegal immigration and federal subsidies to the Caucasus republics, Navalny seemed to stand for a kind of modern, Western European nationalism: Rabid xenophobia was out, rule of law and democracy for one's own culture coupled with exclusion of others, was in," Mark Galeotti, a senior policy fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, and Anna Arutunyan, author of the book The Putin Mystique, wrote recently.
"It is not a great reach to see these ideas, especially when infused with hostility to corruption and a comfortable elite regarded as having sold out the country to get those comforts, having some wider appeal."
But, of course, unlike his counterparts in the West, Navalny will not be competing in free and fair elections.
He still faces a retrial in a corruption case widely believed to be politically motivated -- and a conviction would disqualify him.
And even if he is acquitted, the Kremlin will use all of its resources to either keep him off the ballot or to marginalize him completely if he is allowed to run.
In 2013, when the Kremlin was trying to create the pretext that elections were plausibly fair, Navalny was able to run an unorthodox, lively, and surprisingly strong campaign in Moscow's mayoral elections, nearly forcing incumbent Sergei Sobyanin into a runoff.
In 2018, with much more at stake and the Putin regime much more confident, "the Kremlin will not create such a good script for Navalny," political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote in Republic.ru.
"The choice," she added, "is between a tough script, a very tough script, and a cruel script."
So Putin is correct, Russia has some immunity to the antiestablishment wave -- but only to the extent that politics as usual Putin-style is able to endure.
The populist revolt sweeping the West, the one that is upending politics as usual there, is essentially an uprising of those disenfranchised and economically left behind by globalization -- and there are many such people in Russia as well.
But while in the West the losers of globalization can vent their anger through the safety valve of the democratic process, in Russia, when the anger reaches critical mass, they will have no place to go but the streets.
And Navalny has a proven ability to put people on the streets.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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