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How to approach Navalny’s rise?

While Navalny is for many Europeans not an ideal alternative to Putin, he has become a significant figure with regards to Europe’s political future. Navalny’s rise over the last few months has severely disrupted Putin’s system of rule. This suggests that the re-emergence of genuine political pluralism in Russia may now be possible.

March 17, 2021 - Andreas Umland - Articles and Commentary

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches on Tverskaya street in 2017. Photo: Evgeny Feldman wikimedia.org

As a result of anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny’s recent transformation into a significant factor in Russian politics, much attention has been given to his personal history. Delving into Navalny’s past has led many observers, however, to express doubts about the Russian opposition politician. A number of Navalny’s older, clearly nationalist statements are now frequently discussed in press reports. This is particularly true in Ukraine, where Navalny’s unclear position on the country’s independence and the future of Crimea has generated considerable pessimism regarding his possible future rise.

In many Western capitals too there is general sympathy for Navalny’s fate and campaign. However, this does not always translate into full political support for him. He would certainly be viewed as a better Russian president than Putin. Yet, given Navalny’s mixed political history, Russia may not become a proper liberal democracy under his possible future rule many fear. Support for Navalny is thus determined by general concerns regarding the rights of Russia’s political opposition. However, such support should not be driven by any hope – some warn – that Navalny may fundamentally change Russian politics.

In light of Navalny’s earlier nationalist and even imperialist statements, there are good reasons to perceive him in this way. In Ukraine, there is an old political proverb that states, “Russian liberalism ends where Ukrainian independence begins”. Many Russian politicians and intellectuals are in favour of democracy and freedom for the Russian people. However, they become less tolerant when it comes to the rights and liberties of other people in and around Russia. When push comes to shove, such is a bitter lesson from Russian history, imperialism trumps liberalism. This has been true with regards to both the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign affairs.

Such skepticism of Navalny and Russia’s entire opposition is understandable. However, it can hinder full recognition of the immediate political relevance of the Navalny phenomenon. To be sure, it is unclear what lies in Navalny’s political future. In the worst case, he could die in prison. In the best case, he could become Russia’s next president. Perhaps something in between could happen. What seems clear, however, is that his recent rise in popularity has unsettled the current regime in Russia.

Seemingly healthy cautiousness regarding Russia’s opposition underestimates the role of the peculiar post-Soviet Putinist context of some of his Navalny’s historical comments. It is also important to admit a potential for his political evolution. Finally, one should not diminish the transformative power of the Navalny phenomenon with regard to Putin’s political system.

While a number of Navalny’s nationalist statements are inexcusable (such as his comments about Georgians), others need to be seen in their specific current Russian setting. For example, Navalny’s refusal to immediately return Crimea to Ukraine should he become Russian president is unacceptable to most Ukrainians. The idiosyncratic context of such statements, however, is widespread neo-imperial daydreaming that has become common among many Russians due to Putin’s propaganda over the last twenty years.

Immediately after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Navalny stated in an op-ed for The New York Times that “Putin has cynically raised nationalist fervor to a fever pitch; imperialist annexation is a strategic choice to bolster his regime’s survival.” Navalny’s proposal to hold a second referendum on the peninsula’s future is not acceptable to Kyiv. Despite this, the very announcement of such a plan inherently delegitimises Putin’s 2014 land-grab.

This is because the annexation was based on a pseudo-referendum that the Kremlin’s local agents had organised in Crimea in March that year. Navalny’s idea of another, presumably real referendum is thus sheer blasphemy within the context of Russian politics. Other ambivalent statements made by Navalny may also come across as less worrisome once properly contextualised within Russia’s current public discourse.

At the same time, Navalny has been and probably still is undergoing a personal evolution from a mere activist to a national leader. While it is difficult to say in what politician he will eventually turn into, there is reason for hope that he may become more mature, moderate, and balanced. While the West should be worried by his various early nationalist statements, his political evolution may still not lead him to become a second Putin or Lukashenka should he ever assume power. Whereas Putin’s stay in East Germany in 1985-90 did not lead the future Russian president to become a political liberal, Navalny’s involuntary stay in united Germany last year may have different effects. Given that he seems to view Russia as part of the European rather than Eurasian realm, it is reasonable to expect that Navalny’s political evolution has been and will be influenced by EU norms and standards.

The Navalny phenomenon’s most crucial aspect is its disruptive effect on Putin’s peculiar system of political power, personal patronage, public dominance and social influence. Navalny’s rise over the last few months has created an alternative political centre that is not rooted in the patron-client relationships that define the Putin regime. Instead, Navalny has built up considerable popular support outside Russia’s governmental structures and without links to the ruling elite’s old boy networks.

As a result, Navalny’s rise is a very different story compared to the palliative presidency of Dmitry Medvedev in 2008-12. Although Navalny has harshly attacked Medvedev, the two men’s political visions of Russia as a European, modern and democratic country are, in essence, not so different from each other. While Medvedev is also a reformer, he is a product and hostage of Putin’s system, however. The more grassroots Navalny phenomenon is poles apart and could seriously damage Russia’s current system of government. This is true even if Navalny never becomes president.

By undermining the logic of Putin’s rule and social control, the Navalny phenomenon presents a chance for pluralism to re-emerge in Russia’s party landscape, mass media, and political life in general. The importance of such a transformation of Russian state-society relations cannot be overestimated. Should national TV channels, for example, become platforms for meaningful journalism and open debate again, many crucial episodes in Putin’s history may be placed under fresh scrutiny. This includes his initial rise in the late nineties, as well as his foreign escapades over the last fifteen years.

A cautious approach regarding Navalny must be taken should he ever be released from prison and acquire political power. Today, however, his political rise and emerging movement serve as a key challenge to Russia’s corrupt political system in general and Putin’s increasingly repressive authoritarian rule in particular. A more pluralist and democratic Russian state would moderate the domestic and foreign behaviour of any future government – even one led by Navalny himself. In the absence of any alternative path towards reform in Russia, Navalny and his Russia-wide network deserve more than sympathy. He and his emerging opposition movement should have the full political support of everybody who hopes for a new Russian democratisation.

Andreas Umland is a Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and General Editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” in Stuttgart.

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