Navalny’s activism in a book by
Alexei Navalny was a candidate for the Presidency of Russia. Now he is in prison. What are his politics? How much support does he have in Russia? Is he, like Nelson Mandela, destined for years in prison before emerging to lead his country into a different future? Why is he the political enemy that Putin targets? This book, written by Russia specialists Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet and Ben Noble, sheds light on all these questions.
The problem with understanding what is happening in Russia is that most of the Western press covers only the sensational moments that are easy for Western reporters to write about, such as the poisoning of Litvinenko, the Salisbury poisonings, and the poisoning of Navalny himself when he was flown to Germany for treatment. We are aware of Russian oligarchs, like Roman Abramovich, when they buy a football club. Some are aware that Russia churns out a lot of misinformation via its TV station RT, and via Russian trolls on the internet. And that an awful lot of Russian money is sloshing around the London property market, London lawyers, Harrods and private schools in the Southeast. But, for many, the menace of the Russian regime only became real with the invasion of Ukraine.
What chance is there that the Russian people themselves will overthrow Putin’s kleptocratic regime? This new book about Alexei Navalny, tracing his 15 years of activism, helps to shed light on this.
Navalny’s anti-corruption activism
He began his anti-corruption campaign in 2008 when, having started to invest in some Russian firms, he noticed some anomalies. He started to attend shareholders meetings to ask awkward questions. He started a blog about what he found. His followers formed an anti-corruption community, with many contributing to the data-collection. The first section of this book details this anti-corruption activism, noting that it had appeal both to right and left political supporters. They usually joined because of some personal experience with corruption. As the blog gained more followers, the Kremlin began to bite back. Criminal cases were opened against Navalny personally, with flimsy, distorted evidence. This has been one of the main tools to hinder Navalny’s attempts to oppose the kleptocracy of the Putin government.
Was Navalny using his anti-corruption campaigns to step into opposition politics? His blog shone the spotlight on misuse of public funds. As the blog generated more and more supporters, he needed a team to work with, and a website. So from 2011 his movement formalised. A website, Rospil, crowdsourced investigations into State corruption. There were other anti-corruption campaigners at the time, for example Nemtsov, who had been a leading politician in the Yeltsin era, or the scholarly Ivan Begtin. But the work of the Navalny team reached far more people. He was a skilled user of social media.
By 2012, he pulled together his various anti-corruption campaigns into one umbrella structure of the FBK, with two prominent sponsors, Boris Zimin and Vladimir Ashurkov. Up to that time he had financed the activities by crowd-sourcing. Now he and his team could depend on regular salaries. Coming from a career in finance companies, Ashurkov took on the role of finance manager. Zimin, with a telecommunications company, donated every month to FBK, and from 2019 sponsored Navalny personally.
Navalny as candidate for Russian presidency
In 2016, Navalny at 40 became a candidate for the Russian presidency for elections due in 2018. He issued a three-minute video on YouTube about inequality, wages, taxes, mortgage rates and foreign policy. In a normal democracy this would have been broadcast on the national media, but not in Russia where Putin’s governing party has total control of the media.
Navalny’s politics can be traced across two decades. In 2000, just as Yeltsin handed the presidency to Putin, Navalny joined the small liberal party, Yabloko, because he claimed it was the only pro-democracy party that talked about ideas and did not trade these for money or office. He was paid as a party functionary, but he also went beyond party work to campaign against corrupt property developments in Moscow. By 2006 he was organising public political debates. His international reputation grew and he spent four months in the US as a Yale World Fellow.
NAROD, Navalny’s new party
But the liberals were not doing well in the elections and failed to get a single seat in the Duma. At this point, Navalny founded a new party NAROD in league with other liberals and also with nationalists. Anti-migrant emotion was running high in Russia, against the influx of workers from the former Soviet zones to the east, from ethnic Asiatic groups that looked different from European Russians. At worst, this led to neo-Nazi skinhead attacks on migrants. But liberals like Navalny (who were of course against these attacks) favoured controlling economic migration by a visa system. They hoped to strengthen the anti-Putin movement by linking liberalism and nationalism. But this became more contentious when a campaign about Chechnya, under the Kremlin-financed dictator Kadyrov, increased racial incitement against people of the Caucasus. Navalny was not linked to this, but the accusation of racism is still raised on the evidence of this “nationalist” phase in his politics.
For the elections of 2012, Navalny promoted a campaign asking voters to vote for any party but United Russia (Putin’s party). There was also another movement promoting spoiling ballot papers. Both were part of a growing protest against sham elections. When the manipulated results were announced, there was much public protest including one in Moscow, as Navalny put it in December 2011, “I see enough people here to take on the Kremlin.” He outlined a four-point plan: 1-for new Duma elections; 2-protest movement should grow and stay on the streets; 3-candidatures for Presidency elections scheduled for March 2012 must be liberalised not suppressed; 4-negotiations between the protesters and the authorities. This was dubbed the “For Fair elections” movement but it fizzled out, unlike the similar protests in Ukraine which successfully got democracy back on track.
Sham legal trial and assassination
In 2013 Navalny was allowed to become a candidate for Mayor of Moscow but, when polls showed he might win, the authorities quickly pulled him into a sham legal trial facing five years in jail. Inexplicably he was released in time to continue the campaign on the slogan “Change Moscow Change Russia.” The outcome was a 27% vote for Navalny in a low turn-out. But there was at least liberalisation for political parties, and he was asked to lead a part of the opposition called “People’s Alliance” to prepare for the 2016 Duma elections. It mostly consisted of small liberal parties who were dubbed unpatriotic supporters of the West and Ukraine. But one of the leaders, Nemtov, was assassinated and the other, Kasynov, was humiliated by a sex scandal. The liberal alliance lost heavily.
Left wing, right wing, nationalism
Navalny had to rethink his strategy for 2018, with a new slogan “Stop feeding the oligarchs” which was more left-wing (increasing minimum wage and benefits) and right-wing (taxing privatised infrastructure and against monopolies). On nationalism, he struck a patriotic chord in supporting the Russian take-over of Crimea, but he was not in favour of more expansionist wars (such as in the Donbas) as Russia cannot afford these.
He created a huge structure for political outreach across Russia, with offices in 83 cities, and 200,000 volunteers. In the end, a real election did not take place as the Kremlin wheeled him back into the old sham court case (which the ECHR later condemned). It was impossible for Navalny to become a “normal” politician, as in countries more democratic than the Russian Federation, which has become more and more authoritarian in reaction to the very movements that Navalny led.
Poisoned, but returns to Russia
In August 2020, news about Navalny hit the international headlines. In emergency care, he was flown from Russia to Germany where specialists confirmed he had been poisoned. With the help of Bellingcat investigators, it has been proved to be the work of Russian agents. Nonetheless, as soon as he was well enough, in January 2021 Navalny returned to Russia.
Most of the team of anti-corruption investigators had relocated to Latvia. But many courageous activists still led the opposition movement from local offices. Since then many have been jailed or have had to flee into exile.
Symbol of resistance
Navalny knew he would face further court cases. The sentence was jail for nine years and, in 2023, this has been increased by 15 years under harder Gulag-type conditions. Is he like Nelson Mandela, the leader who eventually emerged from cruel imprisonment to lead his country in fair elections? In an election held today, Navalny would probably get less than 20% of the votes and Putin would win. But this is a country where the media is totally under Kremlin control, and many think it is unpatriotic to oppose Putin. Navalny knows he is a symbol of resistance. The uncertainty created by Putin’s war may be the beginning of the end of Putin’s leadership. What a post-Putin leadership would look like is uncertain. But what is clear from the events described in this book is that Navalny and the movement he created continue to play a part in anticipating a different Russia of the future.