Russia’s Last Opposition Hero
Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic has survived crackdowns and intimidation. But Alexei Navalny’s latest gambit against the Kremlin may be his last.
A useful idiot?
Navalny’s resilience has led some within the opposition to question whether he is not quite what he seems. Conspiracies swirl as to whether his opposition is somehow a bit too useful for the Kremlin. Few, after all, have managed to criticize those at the very top and survived to drink cappuccino. Sergei Magnitsky, a fellow lawyer who raised corruption concerns, is dead. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, the opposition’s only other charismatic leader, was killed within sight of the Kremlin — quite possibly in an act of independent entrepreneurship by a group looking to impress Putin. On Feb. 2, Nemtsov’s ally, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was hospitalized following organ failure and rumored poisoning. In Russia’s anarchic system of outsourced state harassment, the physical dangers facing those who refuse to play by the political rules are arguably as acute as they have been since the death of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1953.
Navalny rejects the line that he is in cahoots with the government — his brother is in prison, after all. “The Kremlin makes its decisions based on what it can and can’t do at any given time,” he says. “Maybe I was lucky in 2009-2010, when I wasn’t too well known. Then, it was difficult to send me to jail. It’s a different paradigm now. We’re at war. We’re shooting down passenger jets.”
Political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky — a onetime Soviet dissident who famously chose a path of collaboration with the authorities, later becoming a senior Kremlin advisor — suggests that Navalny is, in fact, playing a controlled game.
“On an intuitive level, he realizes Putin is watching him, and in a way he doesn’t watch other opposition leaders like [Garry] Kasparov, [Mikhail] Kasyanov, or even Khodorkovsky,” Pavlovsky says. “There’s a corridor of what is and isn’t allowed, and, by and large, Navalny is observing the rules.”
Navalny’s move to enter the 2018 contest, however, has tested the limits. According to his legal team, the judge was initially told to deliver a custodial sentence — though it now seems more likely that the sentence will be a repeat of the five-year probational sentence brought against him in 2013. The Kremlin certainly has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, too. Whether or not he is sent to prison, there is little chance Navalny will be allowed to take his big-city electoral appeal beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. In a time of economic belt-tightening, the Kremlin is in no mood to experiment with liberalizing its system and giving an opportunity for Navalny’s anti-corruption populism to catch on across Russia.
“You can’t even compare today’s Russia with the Russia of 2011. The comparisons that work are Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe,” Navalny says. “And, believe me, our express train is already speeding along rapidly down that route.”
Top image credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images