The September regional and gubernatorial elections will open Russia’s most important and most unpredictable political season for at least six years. Alexei Navalny, the man who is on his way to make next year’s presidential election be about him without being on the ballot, has recently upped his game with a masterful series of investigative videos about corruption in Vladimir Putin’s closest circle. These are logically leading to attacks on Putin himself; but an even more important effect of the videos is that Navalny is gradually changing the perception of corruption, the fuel that Putin’s system runs on. He has gotten far, but he is forced go further and be incalculable. The autumn months will be essential.
Alexei Navalny’s rise has shown how important substance and presentation are in politics. He also showed the importance of staging: choosing your targets wisely and in the right sequence. Before, in his latest video published on 30 August, he took aim at Vladimir Putin himself, he had unveiled corruption related to prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, prompting countrywide protests with the first and changing the discourse on corruption in Putin’s immediate circle with the other. Taking on Putin personally was a logical consequence and the start of Navalny’s presidential campaign.
Both Medvedev and Peskov are, in different ways, close to Vladimir Putin. Medvedev is a symbol of the Putin system almost as much as the president himself; the one person whom Putin trusted enough to cede the presidency to. Medvedev is also the longest serving prime minister of post-soviet Russia and the head of United Russia, a role that he is increasingly identifying with, as evidenced by his campaign tour in Russia’s regions this year. But Medvedev is also a person who demonstrated his reliability and subordination to Putin in such a spectacular way as the 2011 ‘castling’, thereby losing most of his significance as an independent political entity. His political base was eroded, his popularity, which in 2008-11 moved together with Putin’s, was detached from the president’s years ago. The gravity of decision-making was shifted from the government to the Presidential Administration. Medvedev is Russia’s most important dispensable politician whose succession is likely to be more significant than himself.
Peskov, on the other hand, is a face more than a symbol. However, he is not just any face in the elite. As Putin’s press secretary, he is the public official seen with Putin the most often. He sits next to Putin at his yearly press conferences; when the president is not present, he articulates his views. Just as Medvedev, Peskov is a dispensable cogwheel in the machine. Just as Medvedev, he is difficult to replace for the reason of what such a move would imply.
In the past years, Putin himself has gradually become a political symbol rather than an operational leader. This is why attacking him personally was a risky step. By choosing his targets wisely, Navalny had been able to criticise Putin without attacking him personally. Corruption had long since been a political issue in Russia. A regrettable phenomenon that people accepted, but which, as it was understood, ultimately served political purposes, as did the fight against it. As Oleg Kashin observed, however, Navalny was shifting public discourse on corruption to a moral level. Perceptions are changing. A moral issue is something that even an apolitical electorate will care about. Ask Angela Merkel.
The Kremlin has also refrained from attacking Navalny personally. For a long time, the story they told was that Navalny is too insignificant for the government or the president to even mention him. To this day, Putin still refrains from mentioning Navalny in public and save for a few instances of detention for a couple of weeks, courts have pulled their punches on him. His prison sentence in the Kirovles case was suspended, twice, while other, less significant opposition personalities, i.e. Sergey Udaltsov, a left-wing leader, were jailed for years.
This strategy may have made sense five years ago, but as Navalny grew into Russia’s single most significant opposition politician, it has become grotesque. Clearly, he is the opposite of insignificant: he has managed to build up 60 campaign offices all around Russia; he raised almost 1.5 million euro in support; he recruited more than 120 thousand volunteers for his campaign. Yet, save for the attacks committed against him (ostensibly by a nationalist organisation) with a green antiseptic liquid, authorities have not upped their game against Navalny. Instead, they have targeted his associates: his brother was jailed; his former boss, Kirov governor Nikita Belykh accused of corruption; people working for his campaign are regularly attacked or harassed by the authorities.
Mark Galeotti wrote recently that the Putin system carried the attributes of Mussolini-style fascism: it was not all-out totalitarianism, but “whenever it matters to the state, it has the right to conscript/co-opt anything and anyone”. There is ample evidence to support this, ranging from Rosneft’s victorious court cases and acquisitions to the recent arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov, an acclaimed theatrical director on bogus charges. Yet somehow so far Navalny seems to have been able to escape this rule. This is most likely due to his extraordinary ability to grow and develop. Navalny exists together with his potential, which was underestimated several times by the Kremlin. While his latest video might prompt a nervous response, until the authorities manage to delimit this potential, they are unlikely to touch Navalny himself.
This is a difficult task. For most of the past 18 years, opposition in Russia officially meant the “systemic” opposition: the three parties other than United Russia allowed in the Kremlin. The two bigger ones had history of their own that predated the Putin era. The Communist Party was an heir of the CPSU, a potent force in the 1990s that thrived on Soviet nostalgia. The Liberal Democratic Party, a party with strong links to the KGB was created to carry the vote of the twice disillusioned; those who were disappointed with Boris Yeltsin but also with the Communist nomenclature. They were joined, in 2006, by A Just Russia, a left-wing fusion of three smaller parties.
The system was reminiscent of the so-called block parties of the country where Vladimir Putin was stationed as a young KGB agent: the former East Germany. Here a constant group of political parties, some of which had counterparts in West Germany, maintained the semblance of democracy in a dictatorship. Parties competed in elections, but did not question the leading role of the Socialist Unity Party until the agony of the Communist regime began. For most of the Putin era, but certainly since the so-called Crimean consensus of 2014 when all but one deputy of the State Duma voted for the annexation of Crimea – this has been the role of the systemic opposition too.
However, this was a Potemkin system built on perceptions of the 1990s, for the purposes of the 2000s. With a whole generation having grown up under Putin and less and less people having first-hand experiences of Russia’s decade of chaos, it became obsolete. For one, the Liberal Democrats are almost superfluous. One of their campaign ads last year reminded Russians how the Russian government has been carrying out policies proposed by Zhirinovsky years or decades ago, ranging from the annexation of Crimea to the tearing up of the Kharkiv agreement.
As regards elections, Russian voters have faced an almost unchanged list of presidential candidates and party leaders for the past 13 years. But it is not only national elections that became performances rather than vehicles of change. In 2001-06, out of 75 gubernatorial elections, 29 ended in a run-off. In 2012-16, out of 71 elections, only one did, while the effective number of candidates – a number that shows how concentrated votes are – went down from 6.4 to 2.8.
The systemic opposition has become a farce. But this was not always going to be the case.
For one, Navalny has tried opening to the systemic opposition before. In 2011, he called on voters to support any other candidate than the ruling party’s. Then it seemed to be a sensible strategy. In the years of the Medvedev presidency and especially following the global economic crisis, systemic opposition parties started to act freer. There was widespread disillusionment with Putin’s decision to return to the presidency in 2012. However, this worked only partially: due to widespread rigging, United Russia held onto a majority in the State Duma, while opposition parties were coerced into cooperation following Putin’s reelection in 2012.
Dilemma on both sides
The question for Navalny is, therefore, how he can continue growing. One of the available strategies is calling for a boycott of the election – especially if Navalny is not allowed on the ballot. This strategy is built on the lowest common denominator: offering a tacit coalition to disillusioned voters who nonetheless are not ready to support Navalny actively. The problem with a boycott is that its real impact is difficult to measure. While originally the Presidential Administration aimed at a 70 percent turnout with a 70 percent vote share for Putin, these numbers disappeared from public discourse and expectations are now managed to be lower. To achieve a turnout lower than the 47 percent in the 2016 legislative election, while Putin’s approval ratings are still above 70 percent and the election is regarded as a plebiscite would require demobilisation on such scale that is probably beyond Navalny’s means at this point.
Navalny can also try to talk to movements opposing Putin’s system in Russia. There are two broad (though far from homogeneous) groups. One of these groups is made up of disillusioned nationalists who rallied around the Kremlin in the years following the annexation of Crimea and ushered in the ultraconservative cultural agenda that became the political backbone of Putin’s third presidential term. As Tatiana Stanovaya recently pointed out, the Kremlin has gradually started to disengage from these groups, which themselves had become a source of conflict within the political elite. Nationalists would be Navalny’s natural allies, himself having participated several times in nationalist rallies in the past and articulated nationalist positions, notably on migration. He recently participated in a public debate with one of Russia’s fringe nationalists, Igor Girkin ‘Strelkov’, apparently in a bid to offer an alternative to nationalist voters.
The second group consists of the untapped political reserves of the Russian left. These are the attendants of the hundreds of increasingly politicised protests in Russia’s regions against wage arrears, growing poverty, as well as new, unpopular fees such as the Platon road fee introduced last year. The problem here is the left’s animosity towards Navalny whom some dislike for his nationalism and some for his liberalism. On 1 August, a well-argued and much-discussed piece on Jacobin by Ilya Budraitskis, Ilya Matveev and Sean Guillory tried to build a bridge between Navalny and this alternative Russian left by arguing that while Navalny was not perfect, at this point he and the downtrodden of Russia had more in common than what separated them.
No wonder that when Sergey Udaltsov, the head of the Left Front, a far-left organisation and one of the prominent protest leaders in 2012 was freed following a 4 ½ year term in August, pledged to revive his organisation, cooperate with left-wing parties but not with Navalny, many suspected a collusion with the Kremlin. There is no direct evidence to suggest this. Navalny is, after all, a controversial figure on the left and Udaltsov is an uncompromising ideologist. It is doubtless, however, that the presence of Udaltsov, a man of calculable appeal, in the political arena, potentially limits Navalny’s growth potential.
This opportunity is not lost on the Communist Party either. In recent months, the party has behaved visibly bolder. Party leader Gennady Zyuganov complained to the president because Communist candidates were refused registration for the September local elections in North Ossetia and Buryatia. Communist candidates want to debate United Russia candidates as the representatives of the main opposition force. The Kremlin might as well welcome this development, in the belief that increased political competition spurns turnout. As long as it is calculable, of course.
More importantly, the Kremlin has realised that the political framework created in the 2000s and updated in the 2010s has to change. The consequences of Russia’s self-inflicted geopolitical isolation have reached a critical proportion of both the population and the political elite. As Gleb Pavlovsky sharply observed in 2014, while Russia’s prosperity is dependent on globalisation, the political survival of its leaders is now too dependent on its criticism. Vladimir Putin himself wants to put the notion of change at the forefront of his electoral campaign, which according to Kremlin insiders he will start in a youth camp in October. A campaign based on the realisation that most Russians now want change, but they might differ on the kind of change that they want.
For both Udaltsov and Zyuganov, as well as the rising left-wing parties curated by the Kremlin, this situation might and almost certainly will seem like an opportunity. Change might mean growing political competition on the local level. It might mean replacing an obsolete party system with a new one that is more suited the late Putin era.
What Putin’s change will definitely not mean is more genuine democracy and a stronger opposition. Putin’s preferred Russian left is one of small, competing political entities, each one limited in its abilities and calculable in its actions. For many of the left-wing organisations, this may be good enough as long as it comes with more influence and more opportunity to communicate issues that they hold important.
For Navalny it is not.
Navalny is the man best suited to become the real leader of the Russian opposition. Moreover, he may have gotten far enough on this road, especially after the publication of his most recent video, for his only alternative to be total demise. As soon as his appeal becomes limited by co-opted alternatives, the risks of his removal from the political scene become calculable and manageable. The only way forward is to remain an incalculable risk for the Kremlin’s spin doctors. This requires him to open up to the left; to talk to people who have less to lose than himself; to make corruption not just a moral but a bread-and-butter issue.
This electoral season might seem like only a routine rehearsal for the Kremlin before the big act next year. But it might as well be the start of something radically new. Not all 21 regions where gubernatorial or legislative elections are held on 10 September will matter equally in next year’s presidential vote or to Navalny personally. But they will matter to his opponents.