It’s been a long time since we heard anything from kovane, and you might have been wondering if he was doing a little volunteer work with renovations in the basement of the Lubyanka. I’m happy to say that’s not the case, and that it was nothing more serious than good old-fashioned indolence. Since he doesn’t get paid, you can’t even really call it indolence.
Anyway, whatever one chooses to call the motivation for his lengthy sabbatical from publishing, I’m delighted he’s broken it. His most recent feature is on perhaps the most red-hot and polarizing figure in Russian politics today – Alexei Navalny. AGT had an excellent story on him recently (cited below), which was itself piggybacked on Julia Ioffe’s much longer and considerably more worshipful piece for the New Yorker. Everybody’s talking about this guy.
While I’m on that subject, it reminds me that I have lately been regularly visited with epiphanies, and one was motivated by a comment attached to another recent AGT post, on Navalny supporter Yulia Dikhtiar. The commenter tuned up on Putin’s ““народный фронт”, referring to it as “idiotic”.
“Suppose”, whispered the epiphany in my left ear, “Suppose that idea had been proposed by Navalvy! Then, then… well, then the theme from “The Love Boat” would begin to play softly, and on cue massed singers (perhaps the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus) led by Yury Shevchuk, his voice like the sound of large and very stubborn rusty nails being pulled from a wet 8 x 10 timber, would warble “Loovve…exciting and new….come aboard….we’re expecting YEEEWWWW!!” while a voice-over by some political activist or other would convey, in a voice quivering with emotion, that this was, well, exciting and new, and just possibly the bravest and most selfless political initiative in the history of politics.” And I thought, testify, epiphany – it’s only when the party in power (that you, incidentally, hate) does it that it’s a “cynical, shameless vote-grab”.
Anyway, born cynic that he evidently is, kovane appears less swept away by the Jamboree Bag of Wonderfulness that is Alexei Navalny, and more curious about the possibility he might be the thin edge of the wedge whereby interested outside parties hope to inspire another “Colour Revolution”, this time in Russia itself – a curiosity born of statements made by Navalny. Intrigued? Me, too. Let’s read on….
A DARK SIDE OF ALEXEI NAVALNY by kovane
It’s true that currently there’s no more intriguing person on the Russian political scene than Alexei Navalny. Not that he is the most popular – recent polls showed that only 6% of Russians know about his existence; an additional reminder that we’re not there yet when retwits and likes alone will topple the bloody Putin regime. But for those who call themselves “a thinking part of society” or whatever self-aggrandizing label they can come up with, Navalny is a well-known figure despite the fact that national television – the main source of information for the majority – doesn’t confer much attention on him. And he certainly stands out against the tedious background of political life in Russia.
Navalny’s undisputed fief is the Russian sector of the Internet, Runet. It is there his blog ranks high in all rating systems, and his posts gather thousands of comments. He commands a vast army of zealously loyal Internet users who pounce on anyone who is even slightly critical of him. At times it goes so far that when some poor clueless Internet dweller very remote from any politics merely states that all the fuss about Navalny is tiresome, his blog is immediately invaded by dozens of angry commenters who make clear that such indifference is inadmissible. And more importantly, all results of Navalny’s activity are posted on the Internet; it’s the main means of communication, PR and defence for him, and he owes his current fame solely to Runet.
So far the battlefield that distinguishes Navalny is his relentless struggle against corruption. Although he began as a politician – earlier, he was a Yabloko member, but quit, unsatisfied with the party course – now Navalny positions himself as a people’s tribune, unassociated with any party. One specific case that propelled him to the attention of the public was his revelations of alleged shady dealings in Transneft. Encouraged by this success, he started a new Internet project, RosPil, designed to bring to light financial abuses by the authorities. But is there more to Navalny than just a mere fighter against corruption?
Navalny’s critics often state that the recipe for his exposures is a modicum of solid fact from open sources plus a pinch of rumors, and a great deal of meaningless foam. There’s certainly a share of truth to these words, but they forget one important issue. Navalny shouldn’t step in for law-enforcing agencies, and he himself stated more than one time that this wasn’t his intention. He is more of an activist than an immediate fighter against corruption. His goal is to draw public attention to alleged corruption and lead by example, rather than to prepare a complete criminal case. So, if he errs on the side of excessive suspicion, the wronged party should be able to explain away any irregularities: it’s part of their responsibilities, after all. And knowing how abysmally Russian corporations and government officials perform PR functions, such pressure is only for their own good. Learning to deal with defamation is important, since it’s in the standard arsenal of raiders and various swindlers. But if Navalny’s accusations turn out to have grounds, then the police are under close scrutiny and can’t just shrug the case off.
Despite his presently assumed political indifference, Navalny’s roots certainly lie with the liberal movement. It can be seen in his origins, in the company of people he associates with now and, of course, in his views. But nevertheless, he is at a great remove from the former image of the liberals that were often characterized by the word ‘demschiza’. Instead of the blatant Russophobia of predecessors, Navalny avows himself a moderate nationalist; this issue was explored well by blogger A Good Treaty. The ability and desire to work within the current legal framework replaced a former petulance and sullenness. In general, people like Navalny give hope to the idea of sensible, united and strong liberal opposition, something that can benefit Russia greatly.
Still, he is not without fault, and often could be more effective if he paid more attention to the issue at hand, rather than the PR side of it. For example, here Navalny considered all tenders with unrealistically short-term contracts inherently fraudulent. Other users pointed out (1,2) that such “suspicious” tenders are due to the specifics of the state budget code, when money allocated in one year doesn’t carry forward to the next year. So these tenders are held to pay for already fulfilled contracts. Interestingly enough, Navalny didn’t acknowledge these corrections. Such a lack of legal knowledge doesn’t become any lawyer, but for a man who pretends to fight against financial abuses in the state budget, it’s unforgivable.
There’s another aspect of the struggle against corruption in Russia that eludes some of Navalny’s followers. The idea that he is some lonely champion is better left to future legends and movies. If it were true he would be long gone; serving a couple of years in prison for, say, stealing a cart from a supermarket. It’s not a big secret that there are no white knights among Russian elite groups, and all are complicit in financial crimes to differing extent. A man such as Navalny is could be an effective tool in the quite practical dynamics of power struggle. On the one hand, nothing stops the said groups from cleaning up their act, unprompted (maybe the improbable scenario of Hell freezing over does), or at least employing their own Navalnys to fight back. Needless to say, if every group began to expose each other’s crimes in a strictly legal way, society would benefit. On the other hand, the unlikelihood of such developments is evident, so there’s no need to expect much from Navalny. The basic idea is that whoever stands behind him – Batman, the CIA or even Satan himself, Navalny’s current activity can’t do much harm and may have some positive potential.
Identifying the groups which patronize him is not that difficult, by the way. For example, in 2010 Navalny won the right to participate in the Yale World Fellows Program. Winners are eligible for a stipend of $32,500 and the right to bring the family. By some remarkable circumstance, Yale overlooked the implicit demand of the program that all participants should speak English fluently (Although now, after half of a year in the US, his English is better). I mean how lucky is this guy? Looks, fame AND Yale? Within the list of the referees, two names stand out – those of Sergey Guriev and Aleh Tsyvinski (he couldn’t think of a better transliteration of the name Oleg?). The former is a Rector at the Russian Economic School, the latter a professor at Yale. Together they published some works and they evidently have a good relationship. Russian Economic School is reknowned for its close ties with the liberal wing of Russian politics (Dvorkovich, Aven) and President Medvedev himself. Another clue comes from the only political statement Navalny constantly makes, i.e. his branding of United Russia as “a party of thieves and swindlers”. It’s worth recollecting that UR is Putin’s sole counterweight to Medvedev’s presidency, so eating away at its reputation is clearly playing into certain hands.
Yet another interesting story is Navalny’s fund-raising efforts for his RosPil project. Intending to gain even more perceived affinity with common people, he decided that the enterprise should be funded by citizens’ donations through the Yandex money system. The undertaking turned out to be a tremendous success – in just one day, more than $30,000.00 were gathered. This elicited jubilation on the part of Navalny’s supporters, and wry smiles from anyone who is familiar with fund-raising on the Internet. The institution of charity is fundamentally weak in Russia; common Russians have been burned too many times by various scammers, which turns them into the stingiest of misers. Even the noblest of causes, such as fund-raising for children with cancer, usually progresses slowly. Alas, not the best trait of Russians. So Navalny’s quick triumph and the quite unusual characteristics of the donations – most of them were made on the first day, while usually the distribution of donations is different – justly raised many suspicions. The answer lies in the specifics of Yandex-money – money on its accounts can be transferred from other accounts OR from street terminals. Knowing the ease of obtaining unaccounted cash in Russia, any money can be whitewashed in this way. For all we know, all donations could have originated with bin Laden himself, and there’s no way to tie this to Navalny. Once again, that doesn’t change the big picture; even if he cheated, so what? That only cemented his credibility as a people’s tribune, no harm done.
They say that all praise and good words are immediately invalidated if followed by the word “but”. Well, but. It’s only recently that Navalny has started to reap the fruits of his stardom, giving interviews left and right. The New Yorker featured him in a long-winded piece, commending his efforts, naturally. Answering questions later, the article’s author – Julia Ioffe, a well-known Russian patriot and an expert on Russia with a world name – expressed her views that Navalny is “Russia’s best hope”. Aww… should we take better care of Russia’s best hope? Maybe give him some free milk? By the way, Navalny’s success at collecting donations is explained in the piece as “tapping into a huge demand for a grassroots movement”. Double aww… in another amusing moment, Navalny later confessed that the magazine fact-checked such small details as if it were true that the table in Navalny’s office was half-round. Truly, they can’t be wrong about anything, then!
But the following interview was much more interesting. It’s with The New Times, a Russian magazine. Its editor-in-chief is Evgenia Albats, a quite famous member of the liberal opposition (and one of the people who helped Navalny get in to Yale); the magazine often publishes articles by Kasparov, Nemtsov and Sergei Guriev, among others. But back to the interview. Navalny goes large right off the bat and says “I think that the power in Russia will change not by an election process; they can elect whoever they like in March of 2012, but everything will be finished by April”, and then clarifies – “by something like a Tunis scenario”. Answering the question “Do you expect the wave from the bottom”, he says – “No, I don’t wait for it, I’m organizing it. We don’t know when it will happen, but it’s within our power to bring it closer. The current Russian authorities are thieves and swindlers. We must fight against them, exert pressure on them, create problems for them, and involve more and more people in creating problems. This pressure can be of different kinds – from simple negotiations to mobs on the streets that drag civil servants from their cabinets and hang them. And the faster authorities realize that and start negotiating, the less plausible the violent scenario becomes. I don’t think that any political technologies or twitter can make people come out on the streets and chase away thieves and swindlers, so normal people could take over.” (emphasis mine) . He goes on and on vilifying the current Russian power, MVD and FSB in particular. And later makes another interesting remark – “Medvedev knows that there’s a grey system of money bonuses for high-ranking officials in our state, which was created during the time of struggle against YUKOS, ostensibly so evil Khodorkovites weren’t able to bribe anyone. All these people receive cash monthly in one of the state-owned banks.”
Well… first of all, let’s just recall that every state has the right to defend its constitutional system by force, and such citadels of democracy as the UK and the US have no qualms about invoking it. Secondly, the Russian criminal code has the article “Violent takeover of power or violent retention of power”, punishable by from 12 to 20 years in prison. And I don’t remember anything in the Constitution that says that hanging of government officials is a legitimized feature of a democratic process. The code also has the article “Calls to extremist actions”. But let’s leave that aside for a moment.
On the whole, the interview create an obnoxious aftertaste and the impression that it was given by an extremely naïve or, alternatively, a very devious person. Navalny clearly states that he’s working towards a typical colour revolution. First, I don’t know what can be more undemocratic than a handful of raucous people changing power by riots and violence, simply because they don’t like the government, the outcome of some election or any other quality. The opinion of the rest of the people is commonly ignored. It’s also usually accompanied by tens or hundreds of corpses. Second, a common misconception is that power is transferred from bad authoritarian groups to “the people”. That’s a brazen lie; power simply gets transferred from one group to another, and the benefactor is well-known beforehand. Did anyone doubt that Yuschenko would become president when the Orange revolution succeeded? Or Saakashvili in Georgia? Third, and this is the most important point – there have been plenty of such revolutions. Has a single country benefited from it? Saakashvili’s more and more authoritarian rule and the unleashed war are something that the Georgians dreamed of in 2003? Yuschenko’s rating lying in the gutter is what the Ukranians stood in Maidan Square for? The deposing of Bakiev in 2010 by yet another revolution was worth launching the first one in 2005? Navalny suggests that “normal people will take over”. Needless to say, that one statement will inspire laughter in any politologist worth his salt. Will these “normal people” spontaneously inherit another law framework and its institutions? Obviously, no. Then we have to take their word that after they come into power, these mysteriously benevolent “normal people” will start to limit their own authoritiy in favour of common people. Please remind me; how often has that happened in history? But OK, let’s be believers for a while, so let’s assume that they really are that incorruptible. In order to improve governance, the state should have better institutions and laws, so after the coup someone will have to write them. But what’s stopping “normal people” from drafting them now, even promoting them? Maybe the current power will adopt them, so there will be no need for a revolution! And finally, who will determine the suitability of these people? Navalny? Boy, I hope he is a better judge of character than he presently appears.
Navalny’s vilification of the present power structure is also disturbing. Apart from hackneyed accusations of corruption, he comes up with new ones. Allegedly, they get additional money behind everyone’s backs from a special bank. What’s next? Allegation that they gather at the top of the Bald Mountain, dance naked under the moon and eat Christian babies? Navalny says that this system was introduced in order to fight off YUKOS’s harmful influence. That means that the system must have been up and running at least for 7 years. Admittedly, I’ve never been a minister or even a deputy minister, but how many of them resigned during these years? How many people are involved in it? And this information surfaced only now, dug up by Navalny? I liked folktales only while I was very young… all these words look like an attempt to drive a wedge ever deeper between the authorities and the rest of the people. Something that sure does come in handy for a colour revolution.
I sincerely hope that this whole interview is just idle thoughts, and Navalny doesn’t vest any serious meaning in them. But alas, evidence suggests the contrary. All the traditional components are present – branding authorities as hopelessly corrupt and despotic, the government’s consummate demonization and alienation; praise from abroad of one group, presenting them as progressives; the preparing of key people in the West. It’s also useful to attach to the big picture the recent interview of Kasparov, in which he repeats Vice-President Joe Biden’s threat that if Putin should be reelected in 2012, the US will topple him with a colour revolution.
Even today, Putin and United Russia enjoy wide popularity, much more that any leader or party in the West. It could be fairly disputed whether the opposition has adequate access to the media, or if the elections are completely fair, but the ratings are proven by both state and independent agencies. And of course there are plenty of those who are not so enthusiastic about them, myself included. But no matter how much I can’t stand Putin, Nashi or United Russia, I would choose them over any colour revolution any day of the week. Russia has had too many great revolutions, military coups and small palace overthrows. And they’ve never brought any good; only tremendous suffering, giant losses and lost years. And if some yappy thinks that he can take a shortcut to power and skip all the tedious process of consolidating different forces, creating a cogent strategy and managing a party just because it’s hard to compete with Putin, then I will support any measures to point out to him how wrong he is. I’m sure that this sentiment is shared by the majority of Communists, Nationalists and those who vote for United Russia. Other than that, Navalny is my hero, and more power to RosPil.
Sages in the Kremlin are no fools, and I doubt that they are inclined to take chances. It will be interesting to see what measures they will take to hedge risk in the most unobtrusive way. Russia has a damned interesting year ahead of it.