Charisma, authoritarianism and party-building

When the life and limb of Navalny were under threat, many could not but ask: what will happen with what Navalny has built, if anything happens to him? In spite of all the talks about his talent, personality, leadership or charisma, Navalny has turned into something bigger than himself. Navalny has led a number of projects — some defunct — and he is now the leader of an organisation, the Foundation against Corruption (FBK), and the leader of a party that was never allowed to exist. But, without him, what would remain of these projects, in other words, what’s Navalny without Navalny?

The FBK was founded in 2012, as a way to round up several projects that Navalny had initiated in the years before. Rospil, was dedicated to embezzlement in public spending and tenders; Rosyama, to the dire situation of Russian roads; Rosvybory, to election monitoring. It is with that project that Navalny definitively stopped to be a ‘blogger’. It allowed for a change in dimension, in particular in terms of financing. Rospil had already showed that Navalny was able to raise money through fundraising, and the FBK managed to raise even more. When launched in 2012, Vladimir Ashurkov, a former banker and executive director of the FBK, estimated its budget at $300,000 per year. That money was raised by public donations from several business people and personalities. In 2019, according to the BBC Russian service, the FBK managed to raise more than $1 million, mostly through small donations.

The money raised by the FBK has been put to efficient use. In comparison to the usually quite stale and anaemic agitprop put forward by other Russian parties, the FBK communication, videos, website, agitation material has a slick and professional outlook. In a previous piece, I mentioned how Navalny’s FBK have been considered to constitute a ‘media-empire’ present on all social media. If Navalny is indeed ‘the guy from the internet’, he’s not alone.

What is obvious from this success is that Navalny has been able to gather a team of young, dedicated and talented professionals, a ‘collective Navalny’. Charisma can only go so far. The top-level of this team has proved relatively stable and has operated without loud scandals, scissions or crises. The poisoning revealed that the organisation was able to operate — if only for some time — without its leader. Ivan Zhdanov, the FBK director is in charge of the administration of the FBK. A 33 years-old lawyer, Zhdanov was the head of the legal department of the FBK until 2018 when he took over as director from Roman Rubanov, who had fled Russia to London.

Ivan Zhdanov (Instagram)

Leonid Volkov, 40, who has been working with Navalny since 2013, is in charge of the network of ‘Navalny headquarters’ in the regions, a business in which Navalny himself is not directly involved, according to Zhdanov. Lyubov Sobol, 33, is the producer of the ‘Navalny Live’ YouTube channel. Also a lawyer, Sobol is one of the longest-serving Navalny associates: she joined him in 2011, as the first lawyer of Rospil.

Lyubov Sobol (Instagram)

The most prominent investigator among the team is Georgy Alburov, 30, who has been working with Navalny since 2012. In terms of internal organisation, the poisoning of Navalny led to a revelation. The FBK does have at least one secret staffer (something that Navalny denied): Maria Pevchikh, who heads the investigation department, while living in London.

Maria Pevchikh and Georgy Alburov

While Navalny and his team in general have had to bear their share of criticism, these have not touched the professionalism of his team. Cronies they are not.

What is lacking to this construction? A party.

When Navalny started to acquire a national profile and audience, that is, in the years 2011–2012, he appeared sceptical of the idea of party-building. In June 2011, in an interview for MK, he declared that:

If you want to create a party, you need to raise $2 million per year to support it, and go the Ministry of Justice to register it. This is not struggle for power. It’s a senseless waste of time. I’m choosing another way. Weakening the legitimate support for United Russia — the fight against swindles and thieves — this is my political campaign, my struggle for power. It is many times more effective than any party.

In 2015, when Navalny’s Progress Party conducted one of its congresses, some people were still wondering: why build a party when there’s already an organisation, the FBK? Leonid Volkov answered:

It’s exactly like the Sinn Fein and the IRA, as we usually joke. A political wing and a non-political one. The FBK is an NGO realising important public projects… A party is a political organisation, whose goal is the fight for power. A party is a mechanism ensuring the representation of a group of citizens, in the case of the Progress Party, those who support the European way for Russia.

The idea of party-building come largely from Leonid Volkov himself, who became a proponent of ‘cloud democracy’ during the 2000s. An independent member of the Ekaterinburg Duma, Volkov was one of the founders of the PARNAS liberal party. While involved in this party project, he became interested in radical, tech-inspired ideas about party-building. Together with political scientist Fedor Krasheninnikov (also from Ekaterinburg), he published a book, Cloud Democracy that extolled the virtues IT could exert on parties. These ideas would find their first putative realisation in a party project based on an online voting platform: Demokratiya2. Volkov deplored the absence of a ‘normal’ party life in the regions, because of the ‘lamentable state of the political field’. There, ‘parties’ were mere emanations of Moscow-based leaders, who used party brands to further their mercantile interests. Volkov and Krasheninnikov imagined radically new, bottom-up party structures, with independent branches in the regions.

Leonid Volkov (Instagram)

In 2012, the stringent party legislation was liberalised, raising hopes that parties could again be built. Volkov teamed up with other members of Navalny’s growing team — Vladimir Ashurkov, Georgy Alburov, Vladislav Naganov — to create the ‘Popular Alliance’. Radical, ‘cloud democracy’ ideas quickly faded, and the party adopted a more traditional platform. From the start the party positioned itself as a ‘party of the opposition’, and, while refusing to use the term ‘liberal’, the centrality of ‘European democracy’, ‘civil society’, etc., in its platform make the party close to that orientation. In interviews, Volkov insisted on the opposition to ‘paternalism’: ‘the most important value is the individual (chelovek), his voice, his ability to decide’. Ashurkov — who from the start seemed more sceptical of the utopia of ‘electronic democracy’ — insisted on these classical liberal points: ‘restoration of democratic norms, free press, independent courts, real elections, increased efficiency in the work of the state’. He has called for the party occupy a sort of ‘centrist’ position: ‘we should be at the centre, and capture people’s mind to the maximum.’ The platform was devoid of any nationalistic points.

In September 2013, Navalny announced his readiness to lead the party, and he would, unsurprisingly, be elected its chairman in November. The reasons he stated for changing his mind are unclear. He had said that his very name could bring trouble for the party, he did not explain why this was not the case anymore, apart from remarking that with or without him as a member, the party could not be registered anyway. Why Navalny ended up leading a party is most probably due to the centrality of parties in the Russian electoral system. I will not dwell here on the specifics of that system, the main point being that, without a registered party, it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to participate in elections. At that time, Navalny had already turned into an electoral politician: he was a candidate for the Moscow mayoral elections, where he had gathered 27% of the vote. He could be a candidate to that election because he was endorsed by the old liberal party RPS-PARNAS (and because United Russia had allowed him to do so). But he needed his own brand, and could not be content with joining one of the other liberal parties, tainted as they were by their ‘negative background’.

Then, trouble ensued. It’s difficult to participate in elections without a party, it’s even more difficult to register a party. Far from being a declarative formality, registering a political party in Russia is a exhausting and costly bureaucratic process, riddled with arbitrary. Navalny and his team full of competent lawyers tried nine times — to no avail. His dire predictions of 2011 came true. It is now well-know that Russian officials do not, as a rule, pronounce his name. A similar fate has doomed his party registration attempts. Only this time, the name of his party that was stolen. In 2013, Andrey Bogdanov, a political operative whose main business is, literally, to sell parties, renamed one of his party properties into ‘Popular Alliance’. When Navalny tried to register his party under the name ‘Progress Party’, Bogdanov, with the help of one disgruntled Navalny supporter, managed to steal that name again. Last, in 2019, the name ‘Party of Russia’s Future’ was stolen by a spoiler party.

Navalny without Navalny is not nothing: a working organisation capable of implementing political projects and, first and foremost, investigation corruption. But Navalny remains without a political party, he created an IRA without its Sinn Fein. If the FBK can probably work without him, what it lacks is a institutional mechanism allowing for deliberation and decision-making without him. If such institution exists, it is not public, it is not a congress or a political council. As Ivan Zhdanov said: ‘We don’t have a plan in an envelope that we can open if something happens to Aleksey’. Navalny’s strategic decisions are never presented as the result of collective deliberation. Is Navalny to blame for that situation?

Navalny is frequently described as an ‘authoritarian’ leader, unable to withstand criticism, bent on acquiring power for himself, blocking the emergence of new leaders. These criticisms speak to both his personal failings and his political underachievements. It is true that Navalny has got himself in a number of political fights with opponents from the liberal opposition — Dmitry Gudkov, Maxim Kats, Ksenia Sobchak, to name a few. Should we care? I am not to judge: I’m not familiar enough with the specifics of these fights or with Navalny’s personality. But what I’m familiar with is that fights, especially within a specific space of the political field are the most banal thing in politics. In any country. Besides, I find the claim that Navalny is ‘blocking’ new leaders utterly bizarre: why should he give way to anyone? And if so, to whom? He is 44, and without doubt the most well-know opposition politician in Russia, why should he think about retirement?

Navalny may be an ‘authoritarian’ leader, in the sense that he commands ‘charismatic’ authority over his own political movement, that is he is irreplaceable. If he is ‘alone’, the Russian political regime is to blame. Navalny has struggled to become a normal politician, with a party, elections, and the like. He has devoted much resources and energy to creating, from scratch, a network of supporters in the regions. If these people were allowed to participate in elections, some of them would certainly be elected, and Navalny would seem less lonely. If his party was registered, it would likely have the discussions and congresses that are the stuff of party life. Navalny is considered a quite unusual politician, and he surely is. But he is a ‘normal’ politician, in the sense that he is in politics because he wants power, and power for himself. How strange it is that those who advocate for European-style democracy would blame him for wanting what any European politician wants. As Russian liberals and Navalny among them like to say (with some reasons), Russian is not a ‘normal’ country, by which they mean a European democracy. Russia is not a country where there is a space for a normal politician, with a normal party. It’s not Navalny’s authoritarianism that is to blame, but someone’s else.

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