Requiem for a man – not for a dream

More than a week has passed since Alexey Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison colony – a death which, while its exact circumstances have not been revealed, can, in my opinion, rightly be called a murder, for which Vladimir Putin as the head of a system where such killings – from Natalya Estemirova to Boris Nemtsov and others – can happen without consequences, bears ultimate responsibility. It is also terrible news for those believing, like Navalny optimistically did, in a different, better Russia of the future. However, reactions to Navalny’s killing over the past week have also shown why the Kremlin considers him a threat, even in his death.

First, Navalny was able and willing to organize and energize local movements and turn them into a potential political threat.

Indeed, as Jeremy Morris pointed out in his “curmudgeon’s obituary”, beyond his views on corruption as the source of all evil, Navalny was ideologically vague, even inconsistent. However, he did much more than simply exposing corruption and capturing the minds of urbanites by exuding optimism. Recognizing, perhaps after his strong, but ultimately unsuccessful run for Moscow mayor in 2013, perhaps after Sobyanin’s city hall poured money on the problem in the form of costly urban improvements, that the epicenter of protests was shifting, as the government would not be able or willing to replicate the same largesse across the country. His creation of headquarters across the country added organizational capacity for disgruntled citizens in depressed regional cities.

The remainders of competitive politics in Russia have been pushed back gradually onto the regional and, in recent years, local levels. But when Navalny’s regional network shot up, this process was still in an earlier stage, midway through the Kremlin’s efforts to strengthen the vertical of power between the Presidential Administration, the government and regions; it did not seem outlandish to think that with consistent and focused work one could turn local grievances into votes and seats, and frustrate regional power arrangements. Perhaps he was late. In the end this only happened on a smaller scale, e.g. in Novosibirsk and Tomsk where independent deputies supported by Navalny gained mandates in local assemblies, and managed to use their authority to support further local initiatives and occasionally put a stick in the Kremlin’s spokes.

It is not that Russian regions did not have myriads of grassroots movements and local political opposition (including deputies backed by local business elite) without Navalny; but Navalny’s headquarters gave local actors a wider framework and attempted to make them more directly political, more about seizing power where this was possible. In spite of his public persona as an optimistic idealist, he was not picky about the characters he was trying to work together with. The purpose was exactly denying the Kremlin the initiative, as well as the luxury of pre-arranged power sharing deals.

This network was first intimidated, then systematically outlawed and destroyed after 2021. Many of his local organizers who stayed in Russia were arrested and jailed to deny the emergence of local standard-bearers and risk-takers that are important for any protest movement in an autocracy. But the shameful theatrics around his funeral and the long back-and-forth between the authorities and Navalny’s grieving mother about turning his body over to her point at the fact that the authorities are still concerned about Navalny’s ability to draw crowds. Similarly, in several regions officials have been busy banning protests and commemorations of all sorts, including withdrawing permits from previously agreed ones, seemingly afraid that any of these might turn into a pro-Navalny protest. (Note that it is plausible that these orders are not even coming directly from the Kremlin; it is enough if regional officials are afraid that they are going to make trouble for their superiors.)

The second thing that Navalny’s killing and the wider crackdown on the non-systemic opposition in Russia underlines is that in recent years, the distinction between political enemies and traitors, which Putin had been keen to point out in earlier years, has vanished. This was a gradual process, which the full-scale invasion of Ukraine accelerated, but which had started earlier, even before Putin’s covid-era isolation that likely increased the influence of information gatekeepers in the security services.

The way in which an ever growing array of domestic political issues had been viewed through the lens of national security had been evident from ever more frequent mentions of separatism, often in relation to peaceful popular movements as well as in the 2020 constitutional amendments; in the 2021 National Security Strategy that expanded the definition to encompass areas such as culture; the gradual expansion of the “foreign agent” legislation, allowing the authorities to label whomever they please a “foreign agent”; the rhetorical expansion of the “fifth column”, which in one of its latest incarnations even includes the former participants of cultural exchange programs, etc.

This is terrible news for all remaining political prisoners, of which there are many, from major political figures like Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin to regional journalists like Maria Ponomarenko. They are all in grave danger. While the Kremlin is risk-averse, the aftermath of Navalny’s killing is also a stress-test for the system. It will give the authorities an idea of what they are able to get away with. Similarly to extrajudicial killings in the West, a key element of the Kremlin’s coercive toolkit in this new, harder authoritarianism is suggesting that it does not matter how important a dissident is or how far they manage run, the Kremlin has the ways to make them suffer or disappear, without fearing major consequences; and thus domestically citizens should use only the avenues created by the authorities to voice their frustrations, without drawing their own conclusions or organizing horizontally.

The killing of Navalny, the most formidable opposition politician of the Putin era, is just the latest in a series of reminders why there cannot be a return to business as usual with Russia while the current regime, a grave threat to its own citizens as well as to others, is in charge. But it should also remind us that there will be, it is to be hoped, a different Russia after them. To honor Navalny’s legacy, the West needs to understand the above two lessons and act accordingly. It should support and protect political prisoners and persecuted dissidents actively and without discrimination. And it needs to do what it can to help along what made Navalny a threat to autocracy: empower Russians who are willing to act to deny the Kremlin full control.

The Kremlin is not weak: it can and it will take people’s life. But this is not a show of strength, either – or at least, not yet. The reactions betray the Kremlin’s fears and paranoia, which will continue haunting Russia’s rulers and lead to mistakes even after Navalny’s killing. Unless Russians and those around the world interested in a democratic Russia stand idly by.  

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