NY Dispatches: crackdown on Navalny

Recent weeks saw the Russian authorities conducting an unprecedented crackdown on Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which included labeling it as a “foreign agent”. Below I am trying to answer the questions of what triggered this crackdown and whether the goal of the authorities is to eliminate the foundation altogether.

It started with searches and seizures in the offices of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) before the Moscow election (which culminated in the Moscow District Attorney’s Office asking the courts to seize the apartment of Alexei Navalny), it continued with the leak of a database of Navalny’s alleged associates and sympathizers on Telegram. Then last week FBK was labeled a “foreign agent” by the ministry of justice, a designation that will prohibit its participation in Russian elections in any form and allow pro-Kremlin media outlets to pummel the foundation as a means of foreign interference in Russia’s domestic political matters. The accusations were supported by two transfers by foreign individuals to the FBK’s bank account, which, as a consequence of previous seizures, was conveniently frozen and in debt, so that the foundation was unable to return the suspicious donations. Meduza tracked down two donors, one of which was a Russian citizen in Florida, while the other one was a former Spanish bouncer who admitted to making the donation but didn’t know anything about the FBK and got confused by the questions asked of him very quickly.

The suspicious nature of the incriminating transfers is of course unlikely to change the designation of the FBK as a foreign agent. Neither did the fact that the database leaked on Telegram included the names of completely random people who had no connection to Navalny, the opposition in Moscow or the protests in the capital. It seems that plausible deniability is no longer the goal of the authorities; instead, citizens should make sure that they can plausibly deny their association with opposition movements.

Navalny and the FBK had been far from untouchable before this crackdown: the foundation and its associates had been suffering from constant harassment by law enforcement, with occasional jail terms. The most recent moves, however, seem to be the first serious attempt since 2013 (when Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison) to take down the whole organization. Several commentators have suspected for years that Navalny had a krysha – a protector – in the Federal Security Service (FSB) that allowed his organization to work and publish compromising material on certain members of the political elite, protection that some say he has now lost. There is no proof to determine how much of this is true. However, even without speculating about Navalny’s FSB connections it can be argued that in recent years the FBK has gradually grown to represent a degree of unpredictability, with which the authorities may have been comfortable a couple of years ago, but they are not any more.

In 2017 I wrote:

“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.”

So did the authorities finally delimit this potential?

It was never sure if the political costs of not taking down the FBK entirely would outweigh the benefits of having Navalny around as a safety valve and a check on elite corruption. One could argue that as long as the Presidential Administration and the FSB had the means to control the political agenda – via the idea of the “Crimean consensus”, television channels or by hijacking Telegram groups – having a degree of unpredictability in the system worked. However, the FBK was successful enough in establishing a presence in Russia’s regions to change public discourse and “smart voting”, while far from being a clear success, raised the possibility of the Kremlin losing control of which politicians it has to make a deal with.

Indeed, the moves against the FBK are most probably about access and control: access to political competition and control of the discussions taking place in the public space. An article in Vedomosti claimed that Navalny’s “smart voting” was deemed dangerously successful in the Presidential Administration. This sounds odd given that “smart voting” made little difference beyond Moscow and even in the capital the authorities’ moves to intimidate voters seemed to be successful, not to mention that the Moscow protests mainly damaged the reputation of mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a political adversary of Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, in charge of engineering electoral campaigns. But in an atmosphere where long-term strategies are replaced by short-term political engineering and crisis management – and Kiriyenko’s approach to governance seems to be such – even a small degree of unpredictability is undesirable. And as long as there is a consensus within the political elite about controlling access to political competition, it will be easy to find the necessary support for a serious crackdown on Navalny and the FBK.

Alas, the foundation is unlikely to disappear. But its designation as a “foreign agent” will defang it: Navalny will likely not be able to conduct political campaigns, publish investigative material on politicians before elections or press ahead with “smart voting”. It will make it more difficult for Navalny to expand his network at the countryside or to open towards the “systemic” opposition. As I wrote last week, it is entirely possible that controlled political competition in the party system is beyond repair and we will see a controlled competition for Putin’s succession emerge. This, however, hardly means that the Kremlin is ready to cede ground to initiatives such as “smart voting”. Quite the contrary.

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