A This is Hell! interview with your humble host.
This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Sobyanin Wins! Navalny Wins! The Kremlin Wins?”
I felt something strange while watching Sunday’s Moscow mayoral election: excitement. It had real drama. Sergei Sobyanin’s margin diminished with every counted vote, hinting at the possibility of an unprecedented second round. Like everyone else, I was stunned at Alexei Navalny getting 27 percent of the vote. The election appeared so real it was surreal. Everything in Russia seemed so unpredictable . . . so alive. I too quickly jumped on the Navalny-giving-the-Kremlin-a-bloody-nose bandwagon. And then I thought otherwise.
The unpredictably, not to mention the meaning, of Moscow’s mayoral election depends on what you think the purpose was. If you think this election was about Navalny and his surprise showing, then he made the Kremlin shake in its boots. If you believe the poll was about re-electing Sobyanin, then sure he won, but he has little political capital to show for it. But this election wasn’t about Navalny, though he played an important role. It wasn’t even about re-electing Sobyanin, though that was a key goal. This election was really about the legitimacy of the Russian political system. Given Sunday’s results the plan seems to have worked.
What does legitimacy mean? No leader or ruling elite can rule by coercion alone. Even the most brutal dictator needs the consent of key constituencies to maintain the legitimacy to rule. The Putin system had unquestioned legitimacy for a decade. The politically active part of the population was lulled by prosperity. Everything, however, changed with the 2011-2012 protests. The system was shaken as an important sector, Moscow’s educated, cosmopolitan middle class, broke with Putin. They openly declared the Putin system a sham and its representatives as irrevocably corrupt.
Putin launched a two pronged solution to this problem. The first, and most visible, was a tightening of the political screws. The other was to enact a controlled opening of the political system. This was codified in two reforms in the final days Medvedev’s presidency: the easing of rules on party registration and returning elections to governors and the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Sunday was the first test of the electoral reforms. And indeed, more political parties participated and, in the case of Moscow and Ekaterinburg, opposition candidates made a strong showing. Most importantly, the status quo remained. United Russia or its affiliates retained political dominance. Everything went off without a hitch. Most of all, in the words of Putin, the vote was “legitimate and transparent” to boot.
My latest for Russia! Magazine, “Navalny’s Neoliberalism,”
It’s no surprise that Alexei Navalny has come under the political microscope since his mayoral bid took off. Little is known of Navalny’s actual politics, and what is, has driven a wedge into the Russian opposition. There is universal support for Navalny the anti-corruption crusader, the victim of political repression, and street and internet activist. But Navalny as an electoral candidate? That is something else entirely. Can he be trusted as a politician? What dangers do his growing cult of personality present? Is Navalny part of a larger movement or is the movement merely Navalny? What about his nationalism? This last question has generated the most reticence toward Navalny. Even some Western commentators are urging caution. Recently, Anatol Lieven warned that Navalny’s “Russian ethnic chauvinism,” “anti-immigrant sentiment” with its “distinctly anti-Muslim edge,” and his connections to extreme right-wing Russian groups make him “closer to Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch populist, than to the hero of some western imaginings.”
Navalny is a right-wing populist. No doubt. But I would submit he’s more of an American variety than a European facsimile. His xenophobia comes with an anti-elitist élan tinged with a libertarian distrust of big government. If Navalny ran in a US election, he’d find common cause with the Tea Party. He’d make an excellent Fox News pundit if he added flamboyancy to his abrasiveness. And this greater affinity with American rather than European rightwing populism is visible in another, but much less discussed, aspect of Navalny’s politics: his neoliberalism. Navalny’s terse statements about social and economic policy speak to a faith in a world in which individuals with unfettered access to information set in a marketplace will allocate resources rationally and efficiently. Peppered throughout this base philosophy is a litany of neoliberal buzzwords: transparency, competition, openness, accountability, choice, and access. In sum, markets are the most efficient mechanism for governing social life.
Aleksei Navalny gets five years in prison. I’m shocked but not surprised. Shocked because I keep thinking that with each case, each showdown with the political opposition, and with each proposed idiotic law, the Kremlin will wake up and stop the skid. I’m not surprised because in each case the the Kremlin swings a harder and heavier hammer. It chooses to sooth political irritations with an electric sand belt. It decides to reveal its weakness, even fear, instead of confidence and strength. If there is any lesson to be taken from the Navalny conviction they are, obviously, that anyone who speaks up is a potential target and that the Kremlin is happy to perpetuate the spiral downward to satisfy its own fantasies that enemies are everywhere. Barring appeal or parole, Navalny will sit for five years in a Russian prison. Probably longer. They have four more cases against him, after all.
I was in Russia a week ago. And like most visits the life on the street didn’t reflect the life in the news. Still political events were in the air, Navalny’s trial being one of them. The political conversations I had mostly with Russian academics and university students were steeped in despair and pessimism. They were universally opposed to Putin and the system he represents. And some of these people were well connected with power. One historian I talked to is on familiar terms with Kudrin. He calls the ex-Finance Minister directly to put out often state manufactured bureaucratic fires in his university. Despite his connections with “above,” he didn’t mince words about the nature of the current system and the elites that inhabit it. When I asked a Russian human rights lawyer about Navalny, he told me that they’d give him four years to “appear liberal.” Not so liberal it seems. Putin has long ditched the pretense of keeping up appearances.
Allowing Navalny on the ballot for Moscow mayor is now a cruel Kremlin joke. The Kremlin was clearly taunting the Russian opposition with the prospect of having an election with “real politics.” Navalny has pulled out the race. He has more important things to worry about now. And playing along with electoral politics will undermine his own call to “leave the world of fantasies and fairy tales.”
I’m not a partisan for Navalny’s politics. I’m skeptical of his political positions. I abhor his nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. But his integrity is without question. The importance of his anti-corruption work is immeasurable. No politician, except for Putin, has had more of an impact on the Russian political scene in the last few years. There are many reasons to believe that Russia’s political future is Navalny’s if he manages to connect to people beyond his circle of supporters.
This is why Navalny is going to jail. It’s not that he’s currently a threat. He’s a potential one. His conviction is a preemptive strike to blacken his name and position. Many decry the lawlessness of the Russian system. But the rule of law is exactly what this trial is about. In Russia, you see, the law is an instrument of state power. Raw political power. It’s not that it’s selective. And it certainly has nothing to do with justice. Rather the rule is that legality is a scalpel to cut out imagined malignancies. And with each slice, the Kremlin misses the real cancers that rot its insides further.
Another member of Medvedev’s camp has left the building. Sergei Guriev, the renown economist, Medvedev advisor, and rector of the New Economic School in Moscow has fled to France after being questioned by the Investigative Committee about the “Yukos Affair.” What drove him abroad has become a familiar pattern. According to two Guriev confidants, he fled Russia to avoid criminal prosecution by the Investigative Committee. Putin’s oprichniniki raided the NESh looking for Guriev on suspicion that the economic institute received money from Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Another case of embezzlement, it seems. Guriev also has a long rap sheet of silovik designated “crimes.” He defended Khodorkovsky and called his prosecution a sham. The New Economic School receives money from abroad, hosted a Barack Obama speech in 2009, and has regular contact with US Ambassador Michael McFaul. In the atmosphere of “foreign agents,” it’s surprising that it took Bastrykin this long to break down RESh’s doors. But perhaps Guriev’s real sin is that he’s working with Aleksei Navalny, the currently reigning enemy of the people. The Kremlin, of course, has denied Guriev’s politics has anything to do with anything.
Once again purging in Russia is not just what you do, it’s who you’re connected with. If all of this is true, Guriev becomes another “Medvedev liberal” turned enemy of the people for cozying with the opposition.
Granted, it’s all still a theory, but Forbes.ru is running with it. In an article, “The Guriev Case: How Liberals Stopped Being Fellow Travelers,” Boris Grozovskii argues that the Investigative Committee’s targeting of Guriev is another strike by the siloviki to purge out the technocrats. “The siloviki no longer need the services of disloyal specialists.” This evokes a tragic historical reminder:
Liberal economists, who up to this point were former “fellow travelers” and aides, like the bourgeois specialists during NEP, still haven’t been accused of being “wreckers,” but they are already becoming “internal enemies.” The siloviki, who reigned in the background of the Orange-democratic threat, are getting rid of more of them. It’s like when the engineers, technicians and economists of pre-revolutionary Russia became no longer necessary during the transition from a quasi-market to a command economy in the beginning in the 1930s. Therefore the [siloviki] are eating up the liberals.
Is Grozovskii engaging in historical hysterics or just highlighting another casualty in silovik war on corruption liberals? Either way, every week another from Medvedev’s connected technocrat suddenly gets routed.
It’s a few days old, but I wanted to draw readers’ attention to an article I wrote for the Exiled on Alexei Navalny as a potential unifier of Russia’s middle class and nationalists. Here’s a snippet:
On December 5, the day after Russia’s Duma elections, the anti-corruption crusader and popular blogger, Alexei Navalny, told a raucous crowd, “I want to say to you: Thank you. Thank you for playing you part as a citizen. Thank you for telling these assholes, ‘We’re here!’ For telling the bearded [Electoral Commission head Vladimir] Churov and his superiors: ‘We exist!’ We have our voices. We exist! We exist! They hear that voice and they are afraid! They can chuckle on their zombie-boxes. They can call us “microbloggers” or ‘network hamsters!’ I am a network hamster, and I will slit the throats of these cattle!” Shortly after giving this speech, Navalny was arrested, and by the next morning, sentenced to 15 days in a spetspriyomnik (special detention center) outside of Moscow. Navalny was released on December 20, and has been considered among many the de facto leader of the Russian opposition.
Why Navalny? One reason is that declarations like “I will slit the throats of these cattle,” though metaphorical, are no mere puffery. Unlike many in the Russian opposition, Navalny puts his words into action, and in a climate where more than a few government critics have met their demise, this action puts his life on the line. Yet, he remains fearless. “It’s better to die standing up that live on your knees,” he told the New Yorker’s Julia Ioffe last spring. With that kind of gumption, it’s safe to say that Navalny has become a nagging pain in the ass of Russia’s corrupt elite. He’s done so not by staging rallies, leading a political organization, or seeking political office. Navalny is an activist of the 21st century: his weapons are a blog, Twitter, and a crowdsourcing website. His army is motley of “network hamsters” ready to root out big moneyed corruption by combing through dry contracts posted on his site Rospil. The results are impressive. Since Rospil’s creation in December 2010, Navalny and his army are responsible for the cancelling of $1.2 billion worth of state contracts. Given all this, it’s amazing that someone has yet to slit his throat.
But Navalny is more than an anti-corruption crusader and renowned blogger. The thirty-five year old Muscovite lawyer is also emblematic of two forces that were once supporters of Putin, but are now increasingly turning against him: the urban, educated middle class, or ROG (russkie obrazovannye gorozhane) as pundit Stanislav Belkovskii has dubbed them, and Russians with nationalist sympathies. On the surface these two groups appear antithetical to each other. The former are often described as “hipster-gadget-lovers” (khipstery-gazhetomany) more interested in Moscow’s cafes, clubs, and sushi bars, and, until two weeks ago, showed no interest in politics besides ranting on their Live Journal blogs and Twitter accounts. The nationalists are portrayed as racist working class street thugs whose sense of Russian victimhood speaks through fists and boots to the heads of migrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. Nevertheless, both groups share common ground: they’re by and large suspicious of the West and the Russian liberals who extol its values, patriotic, despise corruption, view immigrants as destroying the integrity of the Russian nation and increasingly loathe Putin and his cronies. With a foot in each world, Navalny is emerging as the logical person who could unite them around a new mass political movement based on what Alexei Pimenov recently called “an anti-corruption pathos plus the national idea.”
You can read the full article here.
Given that Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny coined “The Party of Liars and Thieves” as a euphemism for United Russia, it was only a matter of time before the Party of Power unleashed it’s “administrative resources” to discredit the blogger and his anti-corruption organization RosPil. According to Novaya gazeta, such a effort is already in the works as United Russia has given a Moscow PR firm 10 million rubles ($325,000) to unleash an black PR campaign against the blogger. The plot plans to include the following tactics:
During a “brainstorming session” [at the PR firm] the idea was born to find a person who looks like Navalny and to hire a make-up artist to make him absolutely look like him, and shoot videos with him participating in various “compromising situations.” The idea was approved and the firm set to work on it. It was also agreed to launch a series of “exposés” using “documents” made with Photoshop.
They decided against the use of bots to spread the information. A headquarters was established with real users of social media and the recruiting of bloggers already began last week. The desired “qualifications”: the existence of a blog registered no later than January 2010 and having no less that 200 “friends.” On the next day, according to Novaya gazeta‘s source, almost 500 bloggers were already paid $100 per post on the Russian language section of Facebook, LiveJournal, and those that reside outside of Russia (the majority in Ukraine.)
I, of course, assume that some of these bloggers for hire are affiliated with Nashi. After all, Nashi All-Father Vasilii Yakemenko denounced Navalny as an “enemy of the people” seeking to destroy the Russia. And dragging Navalny’s good name along the asphalt of the information superhighway was one of the ways they were going defeat his evil plot. So if you see a sudden uptick of anti-Navalny screeds on Nashi affiliated blogs, you’ll know why.
Navalny, however, was hardly surprised. In response he told Novaya gazeta:
“I read some kind of article from Alexei Chapaev, one of United Russia ideologes, that “Navalny feeds a great number of political technologists close to the Kremlin” for which they’ve allocated an enormous budget. I have no doubt that this struggle is not against me but against the movement that is associated with me, and it will grow as our work becomes more effective. I think that these people must go to prison. And we will apply all our strength so that they will sooner or later. You understand that the liars don’t want to go to jail and will defend themselves by any means.”
In the meantime, Navalny has begun a contest for the best song about the “Party of liars and thieves.” You can see the entries here, here, here, here, and here. The winner gets 150,000 rubles (about $5000).
Here’s one entry to titillate the eardrum.
The Russian non-party opposition is trying to figure out what to do about the Duma elections in December. Boycott? Lampoon? Participate? Vote for anyone except United Russia? In a recent post, anti-corruption crusader and blogger, Alexei Navalny, concludes that the best short term strategy is to vote for anyone except the “Party of Liars and Thieves.” Here’s his reasoning:
1. It’s realistic. A hundred thousand activists from other parties support it.
2. It will unite: Everyone against United Russia.
3. The majority of anti-government oppositionists already support it. I suggest looking at Denis Bilunov’s post where he gives the results of a poll of people who signed the petition “Putin must go.”
4. It will naturally continue after the elections.
5. It is completely legal and therefore really make a change to the political structure.
6. It will cause the government real problems.
7. It’s based in honesty, clearly evident in the idea “Vote against United Russia–the Party of Liars and Thieves” and therefore needs no explanation.
Sounds like a plan.
Here are some posters from the art group RosAgit to help spread the idea: