The Cable

Russia’s Latest Presidential Hopeful Is Another Anti-Establishment Populist. Sort Of.

The lawyer turned anti-corruption blogger and activist wants to make Russia great again. That doesn't necessarily make him like Trump.


Alexei Navalny, the Russian lawyer-turned-anti-corruption blogger and occasional political prisoner-turned-one-time Moscow mayoral candidate, is running to replace Vladimir Putin as president.

“Presidential polls will take place in our country in 2018 and I have decided to take part in them,” Navalny said in an email to supporters on Tuesday.

Navalny helped lead the anti-Putin, anti-electoral corruption protests that swept Moscow’s streets in 2011. He received a suspended sentence in 2013 for embezzlement charges (which he has said are politically motivated) and was under house arrest until 2015. His conviction was overturned this year, but he is facing a retrial. If he is found guilty, he cannot run for president, as convicted criminals cannot run for president — and which some might suggest was the point of putting him on trial in the first place.

In some ways, Navalny does indeed fit the profile of the increasingly popular anti-establishment populist candidate. And Navalny may be running in the hopes that Putin was wrong when, in his annual address to the federal assembly this month, he said Russia is immune to anti-establishment fervor. Navalny has long been nationalist. He supported the 2008 war against Georgia, and admitted to using an ethnic slur in referring to Georgians at that time, although he has also said he regrets having done so. And Navalny’s platform currently calls for introducing stricter visa controls for migrant workers travelling to Russia from Central Asia.

But that is perhaps where the comparison ends. For one thing, anti-Putin sentiment is still a small segment of Russian nationalism, according to Timothy Frye, the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and the chair of Columbia University’s political science department.

“Early on,” Frye explained to Foreign Policy, Navalny “was more associated with the nationalist groups, and it made many liberal-leaning Russians nervous. I think he’s moderated his stance somewhat, so he is on the right side of the Russian nationalist issue in the Russian political context” — that is, so that he is not xenophobic.

And unlike American President-elect Donald Trump or, for that matter, other Russian opposition leaders like oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky or one-time presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, Navalny is attractive in part because he is a man of the people, out stomping the streets in jeans. “He’s not Prokhorov,” Frye said. “He’s not Trump.”

Nor is he akin to French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, or Brexit-champion Nigel Farage, or even those Russian opposition figures who came before him — the pro-Western forces of the 1990s or the oligarch-friendly figures of the early aughts. Navalny is focused primarily on corruption. He created the Foundation for the Battle Against Corruption — as Frye noted, “largely from scratch based on local sources. In this sense he can point to something concrete that he has done.”

So, too, can Navalny point to his 2013 Moscow mayoral race, in which he received around 27 percent of the vote. That was better than expected, considering that the state slapped him with embezzlement charges and also controls the media.

And here, perhaps, is the greatest difference between Navalny and those to whom he is being likened. Le Pen, Farage, Italy’s Beppe Grillo or Putin supporter Matteo Salvini, and even Donald Trump — all are anti-establishment figures. But they are protesting an establishment of democratic republics with relatively free and fair media and little risk of political persecution. That can’t be said of Navalny. He isn’t anti-establishment in the West. He’s anti-establishment in Russia.

But that is a reality by which he evidently remains undaunted. “He comes across as something as a tough guy,” Frye said. Navalny is perceived as someone who is “not afraid to stick his chin and out say what he believes. That’s part of his appeal.”

Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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