After five years of more or less political calm in Russia, a growing movement has emerged in opposition to President Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian government. But while the last big wave of protests, in 2011 and 2012, contained a wide range of political groups demanding fair elections and democratic rights, the new movement is completely dominated by one man: the right-wing populist Alexey Navalny.
Other well-known opposition leaders have been eliminated in various ways. The radical Left Front leader Sergey Udaltsov was imprisoned five years ago. The prominent liberal Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015. And other opposition figures, such as Gerry Kasparov and Ilya Ponomarev, have been driven into exile.
Navalny has survived the crackdown relatively unscathed, continuing his political campaigning in comparative freedom. But whether he will be allowed to challenge Putin in next year’s presidential election is another question.
Who Is Alexey Navalny?
After annexing Crimea in 2014, Putin enjoyed a boost in public support. But that spike has since subsided, and falling oil prices and Western sanctions have brought growing economic problems and everyday difficulties for most Russians.
Turnout in last year’s parliamentary elections dipped to a record low, signaling a lack of public confidence in Putin’s party, United Russia, despite its first-place finish. Putin knows he can’t afford such a Pyrrhic victory again. In 2018, he needs to claw back public support and secure a true mandate to continue governing under stable conditions.
One way of doing so would be to defeat a real opposition candidate, someone who could be presented as a public enemy and an external threat to Russia in the state-controlled media. That person could be Alexey Navalny.
Navalny has a background in the liberal party Yabloko, but has also been very active in far-right politics. He participated regularly in the annual ultranationalist “Russian March” in Moscow, and has made a series of racist statements about Muslims and people from the Caucasus and former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. Even worse, he expressed support for the 2013 Biryulyovo race riots, in which Russian skinheads attacked immigrants in a Moscow district.
Navalny is most famous, however, for his anti-corruption journalism. Together with a team of supporters, he has broken significant stories about the Russian political elite, first publishing on a private blog and now running a YouTube channel with well over a million subscribers. One of his most recent documentaries — which accuses Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of taking millions in bribes from the country’s oligarchs — has attracted tens of millions of views on YouTube and triggered a 10 to 15 percent decline in public support for the Russian government.
Navalny has made it clear he intends to run in next year’s presidential contest. Despite attempts by the authorities to smear and obstruct him, he has started fundraising, opened offices in most major cities, and attracted more than three hundred thousand volunteers to register as campaign workers.
One explanation for Navalny’s growing popularity is that he has finally presented a clear political program, while speaking about the country’s social ills. During the 2012 protest movement, Navalny mixed neoliberal economics with nationalist rhetoric and was extremely vague about what policies he actually stood for. He declared his opposition to Putin, “illegal immigrants,” and corruption, but never articulated a clear alternative.
But now Navalny has begun to focus on some of the injustices that plague the country, and started inveighing against the oligarch class that has stolen the country’s wealth since the 1990s. He has come out in favor of an increase in the minimum wage and more generous pensions, and he says that health care and education, which have been hit hard by privatization in recent years, need more resources.
In many ways, Navalny appears more and more like a Russian version of Donald Trump. Just as Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington and save the US economy using his business acumen, Navalny is promising to deal with the infamous Russian bureaucracy, reduce the influence of the state, and create a better-functioning capitalism. He blames a large part of Russia’s problem on “illegal immigrants,” and wants to establish a visa regime that would bar admission to former Soviet citizens from Central Asia — poor workers who come to Russia by the millions hoping for a better life.
And like Trump, Navalny’s anti-establishment veneer is just that. Several of those who now back Navalny come out of the Kremlin themselves, like the right-wing neoliberal Vladimir Milov, former deputy energy minister in Putin’s government, who designed Navalny’s economic policy program. Milov has been critical of Putin, but when it really mattered, during the protests of 2012, and Sergei Udaltsov became a popular left-wing voice of the movement, Milov publicly supported Putin instead of Udaltsov.
Another of these behind-the-scene characters is Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s campaign manager, who is working hard to persuade the oligarchs and the big companies that Navalny does not pose any threat to their property — unlike Udaltsov, who would seriously challenge their economic power.
In particular, Navalny is courting the section of Russian capital that is tired of Putin’s power monopoly and wants to see an alternative. Just like in the US and the European Union, there is a growing schism within the Russian elite between the neoliberal internationalists, who want to continue selling Russian raw materials like oil on the world market, and the classical industrial capitalists, who rely on the domestic market and are more inclined to support protectionist policies.
The End of Quiescence
During last year’s US election, Kremlin media made no secret about their support for Donald Trump, and his victory was at first greeted with cheer in Moscow. But now Putin is facing a challenge from Trump’s Russian doppelgänger, a figure who espouses xenophobic nationalism while attacking a group of rulers that many perceive as a corrupt political elite.
Young people in Russia can’t remember having a ruler not named Putin. But that doesn’t mean they are willing to accept it. It was the same generation — Millenials, as they say in the US — that refused to support Hillary Clinton, and instead flocked to Bernie Sanders’s campaign in droves. When Clinton won, it turned out to be a victory for Donald Trump.
So if Russia now has its own Donald Trump, is there a chance that a Russian equivalent to Bernie Sanders will appear?
Udaltsov — who will be released next month after five years in prison — would be the obvious candidate. However, another left-wing leader, Leonid Razvozzhaev, who was recently set free after four and a half years of imprisonment, has received a two-year ban on participating in demonstrations and other political events. It’s very possible that Udaltsov will get slapped with a similar proscription.
Meanwhile, Putin seems to be taking his power for granted. But the long period of political quiescence in Russia is coming to an end. The next year will likely be marked by a dramatic struggle for power.