A tale of two politicians

Alexei Navalny was preparing to become the newest hero of the Russian opposition, an opposition that is now much wider, stronger, and more diverse and thus has much more opportunities than ten years ago, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted. When he registered as a mayoral candidate and throughout his trial, he behaved like a showman, showing no fear but uninhibited impertinence and cynicism facing a repressive system, sure about being convicted. He was trying to put the authorities in an awkward position by bringing about a situation where both convicting and letting him go would hurt the regime. At the end, he was both convicted and let go. The main role is clearly Navalny’s. But we should not forget about the man who plays the main supporting role in the saga either: Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Let us be clear: we are witnessing two people aiming at becoming real politicians here.


In April, I wrote:

“For all he can do, Putin may get a sentence, but if he doesn’t manage to convince the real jury – Russian voters – that Navalny’s corrupt, he won’t get a conviction.”

This sentence still holds. It looks now as if Sergei Sobyanin had understood that putting Navalny behind bars would destroy his chances to become a real politician.  Surely, Sobyanin was not the only factor behind the decision to set Navalny free. As Gazeta.ru explained, there is a whole set of intricate and intertwined interests within the Russian elite that have, by now, reached a point where a decision can be taken and instantly overturned in public, showcasing rather than hiding the differences between elite groups.

Sobyanin on a rare springboard

The system is clearly rotten. The fact that privatisation is shelved again and again and that in spite of the worryingly widening budget shortfall, civil servants get a raise tells that the system needs to have its most important supporters rewarded.

And now, apparently, the Navalny affair created a new fissure within the inner core of the elite: between those that want to play hardball with the opposition (just like so far) and those that want to crush opposition figures with more subtle tools (i.e. elections). This fissure is a new phenomenon: Polit.ru, for example, mentions a rift between the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, and Sobyanin – two figures that had, by now, seemed to be allies. Sure, it would be hard to imagine Volodin not supporting a harsh crackdown on the opposition. These movements are important enough inasmuch as they, as so many have rightly pointed out, constitute a new stage of flux in the system. But let us come back to them later.

Sobyanin, on the other hand clearly thinks that the inclusion of Navalny in the list of candidates for Moscow Mayor may be a tactical loss, but one, which can later be turned into a strategic gain. He may not even mind about the effects that Navalny’s candidacy will have on the system – as it is –, as long as it helps to promote his own interests: to position himself as a successor to Vladimir Putin.

The destiny of the construction of the elite as it is, and the destiny of Sobyanin are not intertwined.  Toppling some of the columns of a political system will actually help those inside that want (personnel) change – unless of course, they themselves are toppled. Knocking out bricks from the wall of Putinism may therefore actually help Sobyanin.

After all, with the exception of the 1917 revolution, no bottom-up political change has ever taken place in Russia. The new leader has always come out from behind the “overcoat” of the previous one. In this sense, if you’re not a Lenin, or the situation does not make you one, not being part of the system is a bad omen.  The situation is clearly not revolutionary now, and with the absence of a push from below, in a traditionally, strongly top-weight system like Russia’s, the essential supporters of any future rulers are to be found in the politically connected business elite. And business leaders do not want leaders like Navalny. At least not the Navalny everyone else wants.

Navalny as a canonball

It is very important to state that the Kremlin, or, more accurately, the Russian political elite has not lost the opportunity to take initiatives. The conviction and the sudden release put Navalny in a very awkward position. No wonder that his reaction – pulling out of the race, then entering again – was hesitant.

This of course, does not nearly mean that Navalny is losing his game. As much as it is clear to everyone that his real target is not Moscow, so it is clear that he is not able to set his sights higher than that, for the time being.

I agree with Nikolai Petrov in saying that – even considering the truly impressive protests that his conviction sparked in Moscow – any double-digit result would be a huge success for Navalny. And this is not only due to the administrative advantage of Sobyanin and his team. It is also due to the fact that Navalny is not a “positive politician” at this point. He is still rather a protest symbol, highly divisive and not universally attractive, even among those that have been let go of by Putinism.

Surely, Navalny is a monumental figure compared to the rest of the Russian non-systemic opposition. He is a self-made man who does not only understand the Zeitgeist but is bold and ambitious enough to make use of it. But just as Dmitry Medvedev seems to be a weak politician now because of the contrast of his presidential term, Navalny may often seem to carry more weight and strength than he actually does, because of the weakness of his predecessors and challengers.

A couple of days ago, Alexander Baunov lamented on the false choice between spirituality and honesty offered by the government to Russians. Indeed, integrity and honesty is not nearly enough to make someone a successful politician – and has never been so. Nor has being tech-savvy and bold enough to challenge the regime. To succeed, Navalny will need a positive message. Something that really puts him not only above obsolete figures from the 90s and present-day challengers on the opposition side like Sergei Udaltsov, but also above Putin. There it is: in this list of cheap advices of political scientists, compiled by Slon.ru, there is actually one that really counts: “Come up with clear slogans”. If Navalny manages to do this, he will consequently also “politicise the election”, “enhance turnout figures” and “turn supporters into activists” – three of the remaining advices to defeat Sobyanin. Or rather, to score an impressive number of votes, enough to put him firmly on the map of Russian politics. After all, this is what is really at stake.

More than that, Navalny has already scored an important victory. Whether there was really a rift between Volodin and Sobyanin or there was only a clash between the existing elite groups – the “oldschool” siloviki who resort to imprinted reflexes of a decade ago, and the “Volodin group”, the fact that the elite now has to position or realign themselves according to their respective positions to Navalny already signals major changes. And in this sense, just like Sobyanin, by signing up for a tactical loss, Navalny may just have scored a strategic victory.

This situation carries major challenges to both sides. Moreover, it may mark the birth of a strong opposition politician. Mind you, of a pro-government one, too.

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