Christian Caryl

The Fight for the Soul of Russia’s Opposition

As nationalist fervor intensifies, Vladimir Putin's opponents face some tough choices.


Earlier this month, the Russian opposition movement celebrated a noteworthy moment. The anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny took on the Kremlin in Russia’s most important city — and won what many observers described as a "moral victory."

On Sept. 8, Muscovites went to the polls to choose a new mayor. They faced a choice between Navalny (shown above) and incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, the candidate favored by President Vladimir Putin. Under normal conditions, the actual vote would have been somewhat superfluous; in the topsy-turvy world of Russia’s "managed democracy" it’s Putin’s stamp of approval that usually decides election results. If you’re a pro-Kremlin candidate, you’re virtually guaranteed oceans of free media coverage, plenty of cash from pro-government tycoons, and a helping hand from the administrators and factory bosses who tell their underlings how to vote. If your opponent is particularly pesky, he or she might even get some unwelcome attention from the police. But a vote, a farce though it may be, is still what seals the deal.

Navalny himself, indeed, was recently convicted of embezzlement in a trial dismissed by most impartial observers as a political farce — and was then released on appeal so that he could enter the mayoral contest, presumably because the Kremlin figured he’d win just enough votes to make it look like more of a race. If so, it was a dramatic miscalculation. Campaigning with the help of legions of (mostly young) volunteers who pounded the pavement and knocked on countless doors, Navalny managed to garner 27 percent of the vote — nearly forcing a run-off. None of this was supposed to happen. "I know that a third of Moscow voters cast their ballots in our favor, and I know that this is a victory," Navalny declared afterward in a public rally. "A large opposition, a genuine political movement has been born in Russia."

Is he right? Is this the birth of a viable counterweight to Putin’s political machine? It would be great if it is. If there’s one thing Russia needs, it’s a serious opposition that can offer real political competition to the current authoritarian regime. But there are still plenty of problems in the way. The current anti-Putin movement remains deeply fragmented, a bewildering array of constantly shifting (and bickering) small parties with scant funding and little organization. Just a few days ago, several key figures withdrew from the opposition alliance that was formed during the big anti-Putin demonstrations last year — effectively marking the end of the most serious coordinated challenge to the Kremlin in recent years. And despite the impressive rallies that the democrats managed to stage in several big cities, on the whole most Russians remain notably cool to liberal ideas.

But these are tactical issues. The real challenge is a strategic one: What does the opposition ultimately stand for? What sort of alternative policies does it offer?

Most Western media coverage of the Russian opposition movement tends to focus on activists who adhere to a fundamentally Western model of development, one based on genuine parliamentary democracy, civil liberties, and a market-oriented economy. But the anti-Putin movement is also home to a wide range of increasingly noisy nationalist groups who don’t necessarily subscribe to such liberal views. They’re tapping into a rising sense of anxiety and anger among rank-and-file Russians over racial and ethnic issues. In a word, "opposition" doesn’t necessarily mean "liberal."

One problem is the flood of immigrants from impoverished parts of the old USSR (especially Central Asia). Russia now has the second-highest number of migrants in the world, right after the United States. It’s estimated that around 3.65 million foreigners are in the country illegally, abetted by Russia’s sketchy immigration policy and corrupt businesspeople eager to exploit a source of cheap labor. The authorities in Moscow have recently staged a series of crackdowns on migrants that spurred criticism by human rights organizations. At one point, the city government threw some 1,500 detainees into a tent camp on the city’s outskirts.

The continuing violence in Russia’s restive South (especially in the majority-Muslim republics of Dagestan and Chechnya) is also fueling tensions. In July, unrest broke out in the southern Russian city of Pugachev after a Chechen teenager stabbed a Russian man to death in a fight. Such incidents seem to be happening with growing frequency — and Russian nationalist groups, eager to show up what they depict as the permissiveness of the current authorities, are increasingly intent on publicizing them.

Navalny believes that these problems offer a perfect opening for the opposition. He believes that Putin’s critics should attack the government for its failure to address the immigration problem — and he’s not at all shy about doing so. During his mayoral campaign, he repeatedly blamed much of Russia’s violent crime on immigrants (though there appears to be little factual basis for the claim). "For me this isn’t just a number," he said in one of his speeches. "For me it means one simple thing: that the women in my building are afraid to go out on the street at night."

That didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who have followed Navalny’s political career over the years. He’s participated in events staged by a nationalist group called "Russian March" that has taken up overtly xenophobic positions — a part of his background that has caused him to be regarded with considerable suspicion by many in the anti-Putin camp. He’s also been accused of ethnic slurs. Yet he remains unapologetic about his belief that the opposition should embrace identity issues. Here he is an interview two years ago (my translation):

I believe that we shouldn’t treat this topic as a taboo. The failure of our liberal democratic movement is connected with the belief that there are some topics that are too dangerous to be discussed, such as the problem of ethnic conflicts. Yet this is a real issue. We have to acknowledge that migrants, including those from the Caucasus, often come to Russia with their own peculiar values…. For example, women in Chechnya who go around without headscarves are shot at with paintball guns, and then [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov says, "Well done, guys, you’re real sons of the Chechen people!" Then those Chechens come to Moscow. And I have a wife and daughter here.

For the record, I don’t think that Navalny is an extreme right-winger; there are plenty of them in Russia these days. He’s probably best described as a conservative populist, a stance that, coupled with his strong stance against corruption, plays well among a populace that’s deeply averse to radical change. Add to that his undeniable personal charisma, and you’ve got someone who’s uniquely well-equipped to challenge the Kremlin. (It remains to be seen, of course, just how far Putin is willing to tolerate Navalny’s growing strength. And no one’s expecting the government to make life easy for the rest of the opposition.)

But even if the authorities decided to cut him some slack, there are obvious risks to Navalny’s approach. Lilia Shevstova, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, notes that Navalny has so far succeeded in straddling the political divides within the opposition movement: "He’s the first leader of the younger generation who tries to appeal to all groups. But sooner or later he’ll have to choose his ideology. He’ll have to decide whether he’s a liberal or a national populist. And this is the crucial choice not only for Navalny but for the whole opposition."

I think she’s right. Immigration and the complexities of the multicultural society pose tough challenges even for well-established democracies. For Russia, which in many ways is still in search of a stable post-Soviet identity, the task is far harder. Navalny is right to say that liberals shouldn’t shy away from these fraught questions, but his often demagogic rhetoric doesn’t actually offer much in the way of genuine solutions, and tends to deepen divisions rather than heal them. A good start might be defining "Russianness" through citizenship rather than ethnic identity, and to propose clear and comprehensive immigration reform based on that distinction. To do otherwise, in a society as diverse as Russia’s, is playing with fire.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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