Is It hopeless for Navalany to Run Against Putin?

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

In early July, Russian media reported Vladimir Putin’s decision to run as an independent candidate in the 2018 presidential election.

To do this, it seems, he plans to propose his own candidacy on general grounds, rather than as an official representative of United Russia—the party that since its creation in 2001 has identified itself exclusively as the party of Putin.

The path of an independent candidate is extremely laborious and unpredictable in Russia, requiring that the candidate collect 300,000 voter signatures throughout the country just to be nominated, and so the Russian-language segment of Facebook and Twitter broke out in a storm of wisecracking: “Wow! Putin now envies Alexei Navalny: he also wants to be a self-nominated candidate going around collecting signatures. Now we’ve got two whole independent candidates!”

To be sure, Navalny—Russia’s eternal would-be independent candidate—has been in the spotlight over the last two years. His anti-corruption investigations have become runaway hits, particularly since he started putting them up on YouTube in the form of eye-catching, humorous videos.

The videos get millions of views, while Navalny’s personal social media accounts hover at the top of the ratings of most followed bloggers on Russian-language Facebook and Twitter.

Navalny’s supporters conduct their street protests under the same anti-corruption slogans he uses in his investigations, and the protests, which come across as colorful and creative, draw a lot of attention.

Very young people, sometimes teenagers, who are immune to the blunt state propaganda on the staid state television, have turned out to be the most appreciative audience for Navalny’s blogs and videos.

Still, many question Navalny’s ability to bring large crowds out into the streets. In 2011 he organized the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the nonprofit, privately funded organization, which has become the main headquarters for his wide-scale anti-corruption investigations directed against many high-rank Russian officials.

It has also become the headquarters for organizing mass anti-corruption protests. According to ACF’s own numbers, just 25 to 30 thousand Moscovites responded to Navalny’s call for a day of anticorruption protest on March.

And even by the most generous estimates, no more than 100,000 people responded to Navalny’s call to come out into the streets on June 12—hardly an overwhelming figure for a country with more than 140 million citizens.

Even the most optimistic polls give Navalny no more than 2 percent support in the upcoming elections and Putin no less than 63 percent. And anyway, one could say that this electoral competition as a whole looks like wishful thinking and, in the cold light of day, a largely theoretical exercise.

Navalny has two convictions for grave economic crimes, and even though the courts suspended both sentences, he is prohibited from running in elections. The election ban directly violates several articles of the Russian constitution, and Navalny’s lawyers have promised to challenge it at the Constitutional Court and then to file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, but no one in the Kremlin is disturbed by that prospect.

It looks as though there is no real possibility for Alexei Navalny to get his name on the ballot, much less gain solid electoral support.

Nevertheless, for the last several months he has been running an informal electoral campaign and doing it energetically and creatively, with the result that he has acquired political gravity as well.

Navalny’s success can’t be described in the dry numbers of his supporters. What’s far more important is the dynamic of the geographic coverage of his support and his growing influence on Russia’s political situation as a whole.

Each step moves him forward, perhaps just a little bit, but the overall distance he has covered over the last five years looks enormous—counting precisely from the moment when the anti-Putin street protests of the winter and spring of 2011–2012, which were bringing together over 100,000 people at a time, started to taper off, and the popularity of their leaders began to diminish.

A few months before Moscow exploded in protest in 2011-2012, The New Yorker published a detailed profile of Navalny, painting him as a talented muckraker digging up dirt on corrupt Russian officials and as an author of a few courageous and well-informed posts. At the time it seemed that his career path would one of a popular blogger, Putin’s eternal public nemesis.

But a lot of important things have happened in his life since then.

The first time he tried to interrupt the trend in the decline of street protests was in 2013, when he unexpectedly announced his candidacy for the position of Moscow mayor. His chances of avoiding a total loss were viewed as virtually nonexistent.

He was running against an incumbent mayor who had the backing of the Kremlin and unlimited administrative and financial resources. The incumbent could draw on the entire propaganda machine, the entire army of government bureaucrats and municipal civil servants in that gigantic megalopolis.

At the beginning of the mayoral campaign, by contrast, Navalny had a handful of volunteer supporters and negligible financing compared to his rival. Nonetheless, he managed to collect nearly a third of the votes, which put him in second place. The Kremlin candidate barely escaped a second round of voting, whose outcome would have been far less predictable.

This electoral result, which caused a sensation, could not, however, be considered Navalny’s biggest political success. Much more important was the realization that the campaign itself could help a human ecosystem coalesce around a leader, an ecosystem that was capable of maintaining and enhancing his popularity. It also became clear that a campaign creates an organizational structure that doesn’t disappear after the votes have been counted.

Moreover, Navalny managed to create a situation in which the Moscow mayoral election would have lost legitimacy without his participation. It would also have demonstrated the cowardice and weakness of his seemingly unassailable rival, rendering the incumbent’s victory meaningless.

Navalny’s “virtual” campaign today for the unattainable presidency is precisely an attempt to apply the approach he discovered in the course of running for mayor to the country at large.

Like the campaign of four years ago, today’s campaign is not a battle to succeed in a specific election but an attempt to build an efficient political structure that can survive in the long run. Once again, the very process of an opposition leader interacting with a community of politically active citizens becomes increasingly valuable in and of itself.

Under these circumstances, the answer to the question of what Navalny will do if he is not allowed to run—a question that is raised over and over again—is very simple: nothing will change, the campaign will go on, because in this case, to engage in the process is far more important than to reach a given vote count.

Clearly, the biggest success for Navalny in this situation would be to set the same trap in which the mayor of Moscow got caught. This time it is important for him to have Vladimir Putin face the fact that an election without a real opponent and fierce critic is nothing but a shameful farce.

Navalny skillfully balances atop the conflicting interests and ambitions of the different players in the Kremlin’s ambit. He forces some groups of Russian high-ranking officials and oligarchs competing for power and influence with the Kremlin as well as access to public financing to supply him with new materials for new anti-corruption investigations compromising other clans. He pits law enforcement bodies against the security services, which traditionally compete against one another

The very fact that no one has ever succeeded at putting him behind bars for long also stems from his adroit balancing act. Apparently, he manages to make those at the Kremlin who make final decisions believe he is easier to manipulate as a free man, that his suspicious-looking “immunity” to long jail sentences is a discredit to him. In the meantime, he himself calmly goes about his work, as if he has learned to ignore the fact that any day could be his last day of freedom.

Technically speaking, over the last six months, Navalny’s electoral campaign has turned into a massive effort to construct a network of campaign offices across dozens of Russian cities. The stated goal of this activity is to prepare a nucleus of supporters who can mobilize on “D-Day” the collection of the 300,000 signatures required to formally nominate a candidate. But in fact the rationale is still the same: the process of creating an opposition structure has inherent value.

By early June, the number of campaign offices had reached sixty. And each visit of Alexei Navalny with his team to a city becomes the main event of that city’s life. Noisy meetings with local activists, mostly young and bursting with enthusiasm, hold the attention of local media for several days.

The only thing that the Kremlin and its infinitely loyal regional elites can offer against Navalny’s methodical march across the country is violence and power abuses.

Thus a fierce scandal accompanies the opening of a Navalny campaign office in almost every city. Police and various officials such as tax and fire safety inspectors exert pressure on landlords willing to rent space to the campaign office. They are harassed by thugs and in some cases beaten up, while the police appear unable to protect them, for some unfathomable reason.

Campaign headquarters lose electricity or water service; there are arson attempts and demands to evacuate the premises because of a supposed bomb threat. Doors are welded or glued shut, windows broken with stones and bottles, and walls covered with offensive graffiti.

Aggressive groups of pro-government vigilantes never fail to show up at Navalny’s meetings with activists, looking for any excuse to start a fight. Visitors are pelted with eggs, paint, and offensive substances.

Navalny was personally attacked at least three times this spring and sustained a serious injury to his eye after an attacker splashed acidic liquid disinfectant in his face.

However, even if all those offices are destroyed, even if the signatures are never collected and the nomination never happens, the infrastructure of Navalny’s movement will never go away. One can lock the offices, destroy the computers, and burn campaign posters, but the people who volunteered to participate in the joint opposition effort will remain, and it will be much harder to disperse them.

Navalny is essentially forcibly constructing a nationwide political party. Twice he tried to register it officially in early 2014 and was denied. Now he is creating a functional structure without a formal license but with advantages that matter far more—namely, large-scale participation, broad geographic scale, and the real enthusiasm of the participants.

If he succeeds, this structure will be the only oppositional organization of such a scale and compass in Russia. And Navalny will end up with a unique political resource in his hands, one whose value will endure regardless of the 2018 election results.

This enormous work demands remarkable cool-headedness, courage, and an extremely well-finessed  and methodical organizational effort on the part of Navalny and his supporters.

There likely isn’t a single person left at the Anti-Corruption Fund who hasn’t been interrogated in connection with some absurd, often unstipulated charge, who has not experienced a search or detention; staff have had their offices trashed, their private e-mail hacked, and their laptops and phones confiscated.

The official head of the election headquarters, Leonid Volkov, and the fund’s executive director, Roman Rubanov, have been subjected to administrative arrests. Navalny himself has been behind bars twice this spring alone, for fifteen and then for twenty-five days, his most recent detention having ended Friday, July 7.

As a politician, Navalny has no choice but to be tough, determined, and highly focused. As the only opposition leader able to achieve real success, he builds relationships with his colleagues in the opposition camp in a reserved and pragmatic way. He insists on being the leader.

And when he needs to make decisions on his own, even though it means presenting his natural allies with a fait accompli, he does so again and again, earning rebukes for a perceived unwillingness or inability to collaborate.

Commentators increasingly explain this tough managerial style by claiming that Navalny leans toward political authoritarianism. It has become somewhat fashionable to draw similarities between Navalny’s and Putin’s dictatorial manner and to discuss their inner political affinity and even the closeness of their worldviews. Several popular authors from the Russian liberal flank have recently published amazingly similar articles on that topic over the past few weeks. (See Vladislav Inozemtsev, Ilya Ponomarev, and Oleg Kashin here.)

Accusing the opposition leader of being ready to become “just another Putin, only an angry and a hungry one” is an exciting opportunity for an attention-seeking columnist and polemicist. But hastily applied labels are absurd and unfair. Behind such labels is the ridiculous notion that Navalny is a fully formed political subject who will develop no more.

However, just the opposite is true: the logic of constructing a powerful opposition resource forces Navalny to develop more than just the organizational structure. Indignation over corruption alone won’t help draw universal attention and support.

Day after day, Navalny has to hold increasingly more complex conversations with his supporters and undecided voters. He has to search for new stories and topics and reconsider and clarify his own positions. This is all becoming a prerequisite for the further development of his cause.

Navalny is above all a growing politician, one who keeps searching for his true cause and his natural style. He is developing quickly and evolving with ease, learning new things and abandoning ideas that have outlived their usefulness. A couple of years ago it was fashionable to search for and find in him a tendency to flirt with Russian nationalists. Where are those chastisers now?

What distinguishes Alexei Navalny today is that he is alive and awake. He has a keen intuition and is passionately involved in what is happening around him. He has already sacrificed a lot and is ready to sacrifice even more for the right to play what could be a decisive role in this adventure.

In today’s Russian political reality he is like Viktor Shklovsky’s “live silver fox in a fur store,” on the edge of losing his freedom as a person while working tirelessly to construct an oppositional organization that can thrive without him. [1]

[1] When in 1932 the novelist Viktor Shklovsky traveled to the White Sea Canal, which was being built by gulag prisoners, an OGPU officer asked how he felt about being there. Shklovsky quipped, “Like a live silver fox in a fur store.”

Sergey Parkhomenko is a Russian journalist, publisher, and editorialist. He is a former political reporter and commentator at popular daily newspapers; founder and first editor-in-chief (1995-2001) of 'Itogi', Russia's first current affairs weekly, published in cooperation with Newsweek; editor-in-chief of several publishing houses producing translated fiction and non-fiction literature; editor-in-chief of 'Vokrug Sveta', Russia's oldest monthly magazine. Since August 2003 Parkhomenko has been presenting 'Sut' Sobytyi' ('Crux of the Matter') on Radio Echo of Moscow, a weekly programme making sense of the events of the past week. Parkhomenko was instrumental in organizing mass rallies in Moscow in Winter 2011 – Spring 2012. He organized the 'Vse v sud!' ('Go to court!') a civic campaign helping people to file lawsuits against widespread election rigging. One of the founders of 'Dissernet' ('Dissertation Web'),a network community dedicated to exposure of dissertation plagiarism, and “Posledny Adres” ("Last Address") civil campaign helping people to create a collective memorial dedicated to the victims of political repression in the Soviet Union and Russia.

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