How a Russian Nationalist Named Alexei Navalny Became a Liberal Hero

The arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has sparked mass protests against Vladimir Putin's authoritarianism. Navalny's journalism has highlighted the cronyism of Russia's elites — but his chameleon-like shifts between liberalism and anti-immigrant nationalism show he's no champion of working-class Russians.

Alexei Navalny at a march in Moscow in October 2013. (Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr)

In 2020, massive protests erupted in over forty countries — and Vladimir Putin’s Russia looked like an island of stability. But Sunday, January 23 saw the largest demonstrations in decades, organized by the team around opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Navalny had spent five months undergoing treatment in Germany for poisoning, which he blames on the Russian authorities. When he announced his return to his homeland on January 17 — allowing Russian authorities to arrest him — he again asserted himself as Putin’s most prominent opponent. But the current protests are also fueling a wider political crisis, whose outcome remains far from clear.

Who Is Navalny?

Like most politicians in modern Russia, Navalny’s worldview was formed under the total dominance of right-wing, market liberal ideology. In 2000, he joined the liberal Yabloko party. In those years, by his own account, he was a classic neoliberal, supporting a regime of low public spending, radical privatization, reduction of social guarantees, “small government,” and total freedom for business.

However, Navalny soon realized that a purely liberal politics has no prospect of success in Russia. For most people, this ideology was discredited by the radical reforms of the 1990s. It symbolized poverty, injustice, inequality, humiliation, and theft. And after pro-Western liberal ideology had lost so much luster in the eyes of the population, it ceased to be of interest to the ruling class either. Following Vladimir Putin, Russian officials, politicians, and oligarchs proclaimed themselves as patriots and true inheritors of the Russian state. Liberal parties turned out to be of no use to anyone.

Navalny soon found a new ideological niche. In the late 2000s, he declared himself a nationalist. He participated in the far-right Russian Marches, waged war on “illegal immigration,” and even launched campaign “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” directed against government subsidies to poor, ethnic minority-populated autonomous regions in the south of the country. It was a time when right-wing sentiments were widespread, and urban youth sympathized with ultra-right groups almost en masse. It seemed to Navalny that this wind would fill his sails — and partly, it worked.

But Navalny did not get lost among the petty nationalist “führers.” He found a special niche that made him a hero far beyond the boundaries of the right-wing radical subculture. He became the country’s main fighter against corruption. He would buy small amounts of shares in large state-owned companies and thus get access to their documents. On this basis, he conducted and published high-profile investigations. Many of them were brilliant journalistic work — though some critics suspected that Navalny was simply involved in the “media wars” among rival financial-industrial groups, receiving “orders” from them and information that compromised their competitors.

A rally in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, in 2013. (Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr)

In any case, the liberal narrative that corruption is the cause of the ineffectiveness of the state brought Navalny the sympathy of the mass of the middle class. Corporations’ top management and businessmen saw corruption as a major obstacle to their own success. Many subscribed to Navalny’s blog and increasingly sent him monetary donations.

In 2011-13, Russia was swept by a mass movement of protest against the rigging of parliamentary elections and growing authoritarianism, symbolized by Putin’s return to the presidency. Navalny took part in this — but failed to lead it. He got support mostly from middle-class people in the capital and the largest cities. But the working class, and the poor majority in general, did not trust him. They remained indifferent to his anti-corruption agenda, seeing corruption as only one of the techniques for enriching the elite and not the foundation of class inequality.

Indeed, it turned out that left-wing values ​​still have some influence in Russia. In those protests, thousands of people demonstrated under the red flags, and the leader of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, became one of Russia’s most popular politicians. Navalny’s closest aide, Leonid Volkov, said in an interview that it was necessary to convince the Russian elite that an opposition victory would be better for them than a corrupt Putin government. But to do this, it was necessary to get rid of left-wing allies, who scared off big business.

So Navalny split the oppositional coalition and when leftist leaders were thrown in jail, he declined to intercede on their behalf.

From Trump to Sanders?

From the protest rallies of 2011-13, Navalny learned an important lesson: it is not right-wing nationalist, but left-wing, social populism that brings real popularity among the people. And although he has often been compared to Donald Trump, he has increasingly turned to a social agenda.

Navalny travels around the country and demands an increase in pensions and salaries of state employees. The program of the “Party of Progress,” which he created in the mid-2010s, had declared the need to raise the retirement age. But when this unpopular measure was taken up by the Putin government, Navalny began organizing rallies against it.

The social-populist tactics worked: the number of Navalny’s supporters grew. In March 2020, Navalny even claimed that he “rooted for Bernie Sanders” in the US Democratic primary. This has sparked outrage among his right-wing allies, but worked as an alibi for everyone else: across Russia, popular opinion has shifted noticeably to the left.

In line with this, Navalny has changed the language he uses to describe corruption. Now he is discussing not so much the inefficiency of the state as social inequality. He compares the luxury of Russian oligarchs and officials to the poverty of ordinary people.

The audience for such problems is much larger: many investigations have already collected millions of views. Navalny’s last film, released on January 20, set a new record: in one week it had over 91 million hits.

There is very little new in the film. It is built on a compilation of well-known facts and theories. Environmental activists had already found Putin’s $1.5 billion palace on the Black Sea coast back in 2010. But the film’s success is still guaranteed by the relevance of the problem of class inequality and injustice. With the film, Navalny is addressing not so much his traditional supporters (for them, everything is already clear), but rather the formerly pro-Putin majority.

Navalny’s Strategy

Navalny faces a daunting task. Fighting for the sympathy of the majority, it is important for him at the same time not to intimidate and not alienate the ruling class.

In a hospital ward in Germany, Navalny was visited by Angela Merkel. The Russian oligarchy is facing serious difficulties due to the Cold War with the West and increasing sanctions. Big business and the top of the bureaucracy will not miss the signal sent to them. In their eyes, Navalny is turning into a figure through which the escalation of the conflict with the West can be stopped or even reversed.

The Kremlin has always suspected that Navalny enjoys the tacit support of part of the elite. In 2012, the correspondence of some of the leaders of the liberal opposition was published, and it spoke of the possible financing of Navalny by a group of prominent oligarchs.

Each new investigation by Navalny fed similar suspicions. Who can be supplying him with exclusive facts and materials?  The film about Putin’s palace demonstrates many intimate details of the life of the country’s top elite. So, how did this oppositionist manage to look into the president’s luxurious bedroom? Or see the hookah lounge with a pole for striptease, which schoolchildren are now discussing on social networks? It doesn’t matter if this has any real basis: it has a real impact, in feeding suspicion and contributing to a split at the top of the government.

It is also important for Navalny that his criticism of social inequality does not turn the ruling establishment against him. Therefore, he is careful to make sure that his social populism does not overstep the line. Sharp criticism of the luxury of Putin’s entourage does not lead him toward radical social demands. Navalny is against revising the results of the criminal privatization of the 1990s or the redistribution of the national income in favor of working people. The most he agrees to is a small “compensation fee” that some oligarchs must pay to legitimize the property seized in the 1990s.

Vladimir Putin on June 14, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Pool / Getty Images)

For a sense of what this involves, it’s worth noting that a similar step was taken by Tony Blair in Britain in 1997. The so-called Windfall Tax affected the owners of companies privatized in the 1980s (including the British Airports Authority, British Gas, British Telecom, British Energy, Centrica). This measure cemented the results of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies and legitimized the radical redistribution of property and power  toward the rich. In Russia, Vladimir Putin was the first to suggest implementing a similar policy in 2012, but these policies never saw the light of day. Now, the idea has been picked up by his staunchest critic, Alexei Navalny.

Inequality, then, will remain intact. Among the points of Navalny’s program on “fair courts” and political freedoms, there is also one on future privatization. And this is exactly what would likely alienate most Russians from him if it did reach the spotlight. Therefore, Navalny and his supporters’ task is to replace the discussion about the program of change with a discussion of the leader’s own personality. Then the confrontation between different ideologies, left and right, socialists and liberals, will be replaced by one between a “coalition of stagnation” and “coalition of change.”

And this is where talent, political flair, and personal courage come into play. Navalny’s return to Russia was an elaborate, albeit adventurous, operation with a drama worthy of Hollywood. The archetypal hero, back from near-death, returns to his people with “Victory” (the name of the Russian low-cost airline, whose plane Navalny flew to the Moscow airport). And he was immediately seized by the guards of the unrighteous ruler, depriving him of freedom, just as they denied it to Russia itself. Of course, the hero immediately falls into the spotlight — and the political struggle.

In September 2021 Russia faces parliamentary elections. They are essential for the government — if Putin is to go on as president after 2024, he needs a fully loyal parliament. Therefore, the authorities did everything to prevent radical critics of the regime, including Navalny and his supporters, from participating. Only loyal parties and candidates are allowed to participate — that is, ones who will not challenge the foundations of the existing socio-political order, or even the officially announced voting results (even if that means their own defeat).

Even Communist Party leaders are mostly prepared to play this game. Since it is impossible to gain power in elections, the struggle instead has to be taken elsewhere. Through the spectacle of his return, Navalny is solving this specific problem.

Before being taken to a prison cell, he cashed out his media capital by encouraging supporters to get out onto the streets. The plot of the election campaign as written by the Kremlin was interrupted.

Now, nobody is interested in parliamentary parties with their programs. The whole struggle in the streets is associated with Navalny. After twenty years of stagnation, all hope for change is now affixed to his name — with no room to discuss what that change should mean.

This is an ideal situation for a coup to take place. It could even be carried out with the aid and assistance of most people — but with no accountability to them, just like when the USSR fell or during the “color revolutions” in post-Soviet countries.

These events have left a legacy of social ruin, deindustrialization, rising inequality, and cultural reaction. And the result has been the endless disappointment of working people, who feel themselves used and betrayed.

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Alexey Sakhnin is a Russian activist and a member of the Left Front. He was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin protest movement from 2011 to 2013. He later emigrated to Sweden and lived as an exile there, before returning to Russia to continue his work as a left oppositional activist and journalist. He is also a member of the Progressive International Council.

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