A few thoughts on Navalny as the ‘leader of the opposition’

I first heard the name of Navalny some ten years ago and I’ve been following quite closely his activity for four years — he became the topic of my PhD. These are a few thoughts on what Navalny means — as I struggle not to use the past tense and as he is now being treated in Germany.

During this decade, he was a fixture of Russian politics, a most familiar character. The journalist Oleg Kashin notes rightly that there was an element of stability, of ‘structure’ in Navalny’s position as the ‘leader of the opposition’. He would be harassed by all kind of thugs, prosecutors, his children’s WhatsApp would be hacked and published on some junk press outlets, he would be accused of being a CIA agent or a cokehead. But he would beat on. New investigations, new electoral strategies, new programmes would come out like clockwork from him, his team and his anti-corruption foundation: the ‘collective Navalny’. In Kashin’s words for the New York Times:

In recent years, Mr. Navalny’s undeniable leadership of the Russian opposition has also become a kind of sign of Vladimir Putin’s stability. The unchanging leader of the regime is Vladimir Putin; the unchanging leader of the opposition is Aleksey Navalny. It was hard to imagine him being arrested or killed. But everything changes.

He was the systemic in the non-systemic, so to speak. As so many asked: why was he allowed to thread on? The question was sometimes a genuine puzzle, sometimes a vaguely hidden accusation. Surely, if he is alive, there must be something shady going on between him and the FSB, some oligarch, some Kremlin clan, Putin himself, who knows? In any case, those who knew stayed silent, and those who didn’t know, chattered. After his ‘authoritarianism’, his ‘nationalism’, another criticism ran, and Navalny bitterly joked about it:

‘They haven’t killed me yet, which is unacceptable for a real opposition politician.’

But now that he is in a coma, finally transferred to a Berlin hospital, then what? Well, the joke doesn’t sound that funny — if it ever did. His poisoning will hardly end any of these discussions. We’ll read people saying that he was killed by his own, a ‘sacrificial victim’ of the Russian opposition. We’ve been there before, and only fools bet against the house and count on the truth being established. Of course, the Russian political field is now rife with all kind of speculations and conspiracy theories, that I will leave ‘specialists’ to debate.

It’s hard not to be taken by a feeling of impending doom. Because political violence has hit precisely him, at that unique position in the ‘system’. The phrase ‘leader of the opposition’ — either in the singular or as ‘one of the leaders’ — is tired, applied to all kind of personalities. But it suits Navalny better than most. Boris Nemtsov (shot dead in 2015) was surely ‘one of them’. But his assassination was different. For everything one could respect — admire even — in Nemtsov, he was already an old man; a man from the past — the Yeltsin years; one among others. Navalny is young — 44 — and he’s one of his kind. Vladimir Kara-Murza (poisoned in 2015), Piotr Verzilov (poisoned in 2018) are both deeply courageous and respectable opposition politicians, but no one would call them leaders in that sense, and no one would compare their status to that of Navalny. Ben Noble, for The Conversation offers interesting facts and insights as to the status of ‘leader of the opposition’ so often applied to Navalny. He is not ‘the singular opposition leader in Russia’, unknown (and hated) as he is to many Russians. He does not lead a party — as the authorities have always refused to let him do so. Even if we could agree on what exactly he is ‘leading’, he is contested, and ‘political opposition forces in Russia are fragmented.’

But he is unique. In contemporary Russia, no other politician has managed to acquire such a unique position as both a politician and the head of a ‘media-empire’. A politician, because, as many forget, the start of his career was as a political operative, in a party. He has built his leadership on his ability to relentlessly put forward new political projects — and abandon many of them on the way. He is, at the same time, one of Russia’s chief investigation journalist, the head of a genuine investigation title: the Foundation Against Corruption, available round the clock on all imaginable internet media from Twitter to YouTube. All of this happened as the Russian TV was literally destroyed, and countless newspapers were brought into submission — Lenta, Kommersant, RBK, Vedomosti, etc. There is still plenty of excellent journalism in Russia, but no other politician has built his own, to such success. And no other opposition politician has managed to create a style: straightforward, blunt, ironic, funny, acerbic, full of internet memes and pop culture, and at the same time uncovering all matters of dirty secrets. Here’s how Leonid Volkov, one of his closest and oldest associates described this style as it was in the making, in 2011: ‘a correct, much needed style. Not an endless reflection about who was right in 1993, or about the merits of some person in 1989, not a foaming at the mouth denunciation of the bloody regime, but applied politics: setting concrete problems, proposing concrete alternatives, a meaningful criticism with figures in hand’. And it was fun.

Navalny, as Novaya Gazeta put it in an excellent investigation of his ‘media-empire’, is ‘the person from the internet’. His career, his very style are impossible to imagine without the internet. He has lift up from LiveJournal, where he opened a blog in 2006 to all social media, where any of his videos gather many millions of views. His investigation of Dmitry Medvedev’s wealth stands at 36 million views. Barred from appearing on TV, he has now his now his own weekly TV show (on Youtube): Navalny Live. This style has made him embody a new generation of Russian opposition politics, neither intelligentsia — a point well-made by Keith Gessen — nor technocrat. There are elements of these two types in Navalny: the insistence on truth and morals from the intelligentsia, the attempts at presenting detailed, informed political programmes from the technocrats. But he is neither. In this, there was always an element of future in what he did and embodied.

If he is such a leader, who exactly was he trying to lead, and where? Here again, that future-oriented quality stood out. Since he was expelled from the liberal party Yabloko in 2007, Navalny has relentlessly tried to move beyond established political cleavages. That project took at first a direction I would — if I were Russian — probably disapprove of. He tried to move Russian liberals out of their ‘culturally left-wing’ ghetto, by which he meant their refusal to embrace a ‘healthy’ dose of nationalism. He stood for gun rights and against immigration from Central Asia. Almost simultaneously he renewed, politicized and made a trademark out of the struggle against corruption. Even though he could use tropes from previous anti-corruption fighters, he used his lawyer’s skills, his communication talents to turn the theme into something new again, something concrete and graphic, something political. He was hated — especially by old-school, principled democrats — because he was never shy in collaborating tactically (some would say, cynically) with other opposition forces, be they communists or nationalists. And again, he could make his strategy and his ideas graphic, concrete and catchy. For reasons that still remain mysterious to me, he then moved back to the centre of Russian liberalism, opposed the annexation of Crimea, abandoned nationalism, stopped peddling anti-Caucasian racism. In his latter ideological move, he tried to move to the left on socio-economic issues, once again to lift Russian liberalism out of its niche, out of its ‘cannibalistic’ free-market ditch. He has succeeded, but not in the sense that he has ‘united’ everyone against Putin around him — he hasn’t. He has succeeded in the sense that those against the Putin regime have to position themselves with regards to his projects, his agenda. Whether liberal, left-wing, or nationalist.

It’s hard, of course, to do justice to a political career spanning close to twenty years. But what remains is the energy, the will to devise new strategies, new ideas, new slogans. It would never again be 2003, the year when liberals were ousted from parliament, and entered a never-ending decline. Navalny brought, better than anyone, a future-oriented, innovative outlook to Russian politics. No wonder his (aborted and repressed) party was called the Party of Russia’s Future. He constantly repeated that this future would be ‘beautiful’, that Russia was not doomed to despair. We all know that the future is not written, and that the future he offers Russia can fail. But in his doggedness to bring forward this idea, he succeeded. Precisely for that, whether one agrees with him or not, he was a leader, and one of his kind. In Russia — as everywhere — they say ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’, and of the poisoned and comatose, too, I suppose. I could list endlessly what he was criticised for, rightly or wrongly. I’ll leave the last word to Oleg Kashin — who was never shy in criticising him:

‘In any case, a Russia without Navalny will be worse than a Russia with Navalny.’

Nothing but health for him.


This piece was written on 21 August 2020, and updated on 24 August.

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