Anyone with even the slightest interest in Russian politics is familiar with the name Alexei Navalny. During Navalny’s relatively short public and political career, he has managed to become the subject of various myths and has been called a social climber, a nationalist, and a populist, among other things. Olga Khvostunova analyzes Alexei Navalny's biography, his interviews and his blog in an attempt to separate myth from reality.
Subject for Discussion
Recently Boris Akunin, a well-known Russian writer, called Navalny the brightest contemporary political figure and the only relevant politician in Russia. At the same time, according to April 2011 polls by the Levada Center (a Moscow-based independent research organization), only 6% of Russian citizens knew who Alexei Navalny actually is and what he stands for.
Such low awareness might be explained by the fact that Navalny is a new type of politician: he relies mostly on more modern means of communication, such as the Internet and his LiveJournal blog, to stay in touch with his audience. But for the vast majority of Russian citizens, heavily regulated by the Kremlin Russian state television is still the main source of information. In a sense, Navalny was forced to use these new technologies: the lack of freedom of speech in the Russian media forced many opposition leaders like him to transfer their activities to the Internet.
If the political and civil rights of Russian citizens were not so infringed upon, if political competition in the country was not so heavily suppressed and freedom of speech was not so limited, if corruption hadn’t reached such devastating levels, then Navalny might have chosen a different modus operandi.
Observing Navalny’s evolution as a public activist, politician, blogger, and whistleblower, the conclusion is evident: the political regime in Russia has transformed from Yeltsin's immature democracy into Putin's rigid authoritarianism, and has thereby created its own enemy and opponent.
In Russia, mentioning Navalny's name or activities always provokes heated discussions. The range of emotions and opinions on him is decidedly wide, and, as a result of many different interpretations, facts from his biography and his stated positions are often misrepresented.
For example, in one of his video lectures, Sergei Kurginyan, a pro-Kremlin political scientist, suggested that Navalny is plotting a revolution in Russia: “What does Mr. Navalny, whose genesis is very clear to me, say? He has a fairly serious international project in mind, one that is not far from what I would call an Egypt/Tunisia-like scenario.”
While debating the idea of nominating Navalny for President, Vladimir Milov, a politician and opposition leader, doubted his management skills: “Navalny is an awesome leader. But I'd like to remind everyone that being the Russian President is a serious job, and a nomination for Presidential candidacy is a big deal. Some tend to treat it as a ‘retweet’ or a ‘Like’ on the social networks.”
There is also Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist from Russia’s Institute of Modern Development, who criticized Navalny for his nationalism: “Navalny has confirmed his condemnation of the term Rossiyanstvo [being a Russian citizen as opposed to being ethnically Russian – transl.], which he had announced a few years before in the manifesto of the NAROD movement. This is an unacceptable position for any real democrat, Russian or European.”
The well-known independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, in his article about Navalny, concluded that the latter should not be trusted in general: “What kind of a ‘project’ is Navalny, for God’s sake? He is just an ambitious, combative person with an excessive hunger for power and an obvious adventurous streak. He can transform anyone into a ‘project’ in order to advance himself. He has no qualms about getting help from the U.S. or from Lubyanka [the name of the Moscow square where the KGB is headquartered – transl.]. […] Navalny is actually telling the truth. But one should be very cautious about trusting him. He is certainly a product of his generation!”
In all of the above arguments, one thing remains indisputable: Navalny’s role in Russian contemporary political discourse is unique and requires a closer look.
Myth #1: Navalny lacks political experience
It is a common belief that genuine political activities translate into endless and highly explosive debates, lots of clever public speaking, parliamentary struggles, exciting scandals, intrigues, and embarrassing disclosures. This is how political careers are represented by the media, and, as a French sociologist Pierre Bourdier put it in his article “On Television and Journalism,” it is the television media that should be blamed for anchoring this view in the public conscience. In reality, however, about 99% of every politician’s daily routine is spent on thorough and boring work, trying to achieve his or her party’s goals. For obvious reasons, this work does not qualify as breaking news and never makes it into the contents of newspaper articles.
Navalny’s name started to get some media attention around 2004. At the time, he had been working for the Yabloko party and had already become head of the party’s Moscow chapter. As Navalny explains in Konstantin Voronkov’s book Alexei Navalny: Threat to the Crooks and Thieves (2011), his reason for joining Yabloko during the 1999 parliamentary elections was that “it was the only consistent democratic party that spoke about ideas and did not trade them for money, political appointments, or [Presidential] posts.” Navalny says he went into politics “to ban certain people from power while empowering a number of others”: “We wanted to promote specific candidates, we wanted them to get elected, so that we would be their aides. Most of all, I was interested in how political competition worked, in the strategies of some candidates' fights against other candidates. At the same time, we wanted to show that the election campaign didn’t necessarily mean stealing all the money while doing nothing for the people.”
Political rumors about the Kremlin raising the minimum percentage of votes a party must get in order to enter the State Duma clearly influenced Navalny:“Yabloko had plenty of problems, including the cult of personality of its leader [Grigory] Yavlinsky, the party’s partial transformation into a sect, as well as its lack of management. Nevertheless, these were people who staunchly defended their political views. They had an ideology, a value system, and overall, they acted accordingly. […] When rumors about the minimum percentage raise first came out, it was obvious that the restriction was aimed at Yabloko. So I said, I’ll join this party on principle! And I did.”
For seven years (2000-2007), Navalny worked for Yabloko, and for seven years he followed his own daily political routine. Information about his party’s projects is not easily found in the Russian media, especially considering that the trend of pushing opposition parties out of the public eye, which first started in the early 2000s, was gathering momentum. Navalny speaks about some of his projects in Voronkov’s book:
“We were the first to do ‘street politics.’ I was in charge of organizing public events. […] It might seem strange now, but back then no one was organizing actions on a regular basis. Everyone was doing it to coincide with one or another important anniversary. We, on the other hand, decided to invent occasions. That was very important, since at the time Yabloko was declining in popularity and struggling for survival. [Sergei] Mitrokhin, head of the Moscow chapter, who later replaced Yavlinsky as party president, supported this idea. So when the 2003 elections came, I headed the Moscow campaign office. We worked like crazy. For instance, a van with campaign materials would arrive at 4 am. I would call [Ilya] Yashin and tell him: go to Biriulyovo and unload this van. So then he would go and hire some Tajiks to help him unload this van. Naturally, it was all fueled by pure enthusiasm. Our salary amounted to $300 a month. But we were very politically motivated.”
Yabloko failed to win Duma seats in the 2003 elections, getting only 4.6% of the votes nationally. The only region where Yabloko performed better than in the previous election was Moscow, where the party managed to get over 10% of the region’s votes. Yabloko’s success in Moscow allowed Navalny to work with the Committee for Protection of Muscovites, a public organization that fought against illegal infill construction in Moscow. Sergei Mitrokhin was the head of this organization, and Navalny was soon appointed Executive Secretary. During this time, he offered legal support to Muscovites by filing their complaints against illegal construction, attended protests, and communicated with the press.
“My work with the Committee for Protections of Muscovites got me started with what I do today,” says Navalny. “It is not an abstract ideology, it is about taking a problem and making it political, while trying to solve it at the same time. […] We fight against corruption, against illegal construction, against some very specific people who are responsible for creating this system. One is surrounded by politics and ideology here: if you vote for us and against them, you might get to save your kids’ playground.”
Within several years, the Committee for Protection of Muscovites managed to accumulate a great deal of information and data on illegal infill construction in Moscow. Because of its limited capacities, the Committee’s attempts to bring public, media, city hall and prosecutors’ attention to this problem weren’t always successful: “With its poor financing, Yabloko had to confront the largest development companies in Russia (like DonStroy) and fight the powerful construction lobby of then Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, owned Inteko, a company that controlled one-fifth of the construction market in Moscow. Despite this, Navalny’s Committee gained authority and respect among ordinary Muscovites.
Nationalism or Patriotism?
Myth #2: Navalny is a nationalist
In 2007 Navaly quit Yabloko and, in a rather unexpected turn of events, co-founded NAROD — the Russian national liberation movement (which also means “people” in Russian). (A year earlier, Navalny participated in The Russian March as an observer representing Yabloko. In 2008, he participated in the same march as a member of NAROD.) In associating with nationalists, Navalny shocked and alienated many of his former colleagues and liberal-democratic members of the public at large. But reading the movement's manifesto, it becomes obvious that Navalny's political and ideological views regarding nationalism are not so cut and dry.
The key thread running though this manifesto is a strong criticism of the existing regime and of the Russian government, responsible for bringing Russia to the edge of a national catastrophe:
“An attempt to create a new modern democratic state on the territory of the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic has failed. All the basic attributes of a democracy — the concept of the separation of powers, the institution of free elections, a federal form of government, local self-government, the independence of the courts and many others — were liquidated. They were replaced with the “vertical of power,” a system of commercial clans who usurped the functions and powers of government and saw power as a tool for gluttony and not as a tool to serve the population.”
Further on, NAROD’s manifesto calls for political change, so that Russia can start following a truly democratic path. Some major values defended by NAROD include Russian national renaissance, freedom for all, and a fair justice system. By national renaissance they meant “ending Russian civilization‘s decline and creating the necessary conditions for the preservation and development of the Russian people, their culture, language, and historic territory.” It is important to specify that the manifesto’s authors do not appeal to conventional nationalist philosophy, nor to ethnic romanticism. Only elements of a liberal, civilized, so-called cultural nationalism can be found in this manifesto, and not one example of the extremism inherent to the National Bolshevik Party.
If one examines this manifesto while keeping in mind the general political and social situation in today’s Russia, a few contextual issues become obvious. First, the lack of a distinct immigration policy of any kind, the failures of the social reforms and national projects, and the inability of the country's government to conceive a clear national idea or to create an ideology of their own. All these factors increased social tension, which, along with economic and political problems, created a demand for a patriotic rhetoric that, for many reasons, was — in the media and public discourse — labeled as nationalism.
Navalny and some of the other NAROD manifesto signers then accused extremist organizations and the authorities of manipulating nationalist themes towards their own interests and causing that drastic switch in the public’s perception of nationalism vs. patriotism:
“The regime is trying to use people’s patriotic sentiments to its own advantage. On the other hand, national provocateurs undermine the country with their xenophobia by calling for violence against 'aliens,' thereby creating an extremely negative image of the nationalists.”
In Voronkov's book, Navalny clarifies his views:
“A modern nationalist differs greatly from what is usually meant by this term. […] A nationalist is a real patriot who puts the interests of the country and of the nation above his own interests. He doesn't think nationalist themes are horrible, frightening or should be a taboo. The Russian modern nationalist is very Europe-oriented, and Russian nationalism is much closer to the European mainstream than it is generally believed to be.”
Based on Navalny's position on nationalism, one can conclude that due to the multiple meanings and emotional perception of the term in Russia, his views could be — to a certain extent — misinterpreted.
What Navalny’s views essentially boil down to, is an expression of his patriotism and his aspirations for a European way of development for Russia.
Another possible explanation could be that Navalny never really got to the bottom of his own views and understandings of nationalism, possibly because of his active involvement with other projects starting in 2007. These later projects turned him into a symbolic fighter against the corrupt regime.
Myth #3: Navalny is a populist
Some claim that the anti-corruption investigations published in Navalny’s blog are conducted for his own political gain. But unlike many Russian Internet populists, who shock their audience with scandalous exposures and leaks to the media, Navalny’s articles are backed by the diligent labor of his small law firm’s employees. Information published on Navalny’s blog is the result of long investigations, thorough data collection, the documentation of uncovered violations, and of serious analysis.
Even a superficial look at Navalny's blog posts makes it obvious that this man’s goals are not to gain some abstract political points but to restore Russian citizens’ violated rights and freedoms.
Navalny fights against endemic corruption at all levels of state and corporate power. He applies methodic and consistent pressure on the government, requiring it to fulfill its obligations to the people.
Alexei Navalny started his blog in the spring of 2006. Initially, his principal goal was to publish transcripts of the weekly Ekho Moskvy radio program “Urban Planning Chronicles” where he participated as a guest commentator, speaking about the work of the Committee for Protection of the Muscovites.
“Censorship was the reason I gradually got involved in writing this blog,” Navalny explains in Voronkov's book. “There was no other way. Blogs of a similar format are not popular abroad because this kind of information gets published in the press there. But here, all we can do is write blogs. Abroad they have normal, functioning media. These type of scoops are shown on TV. First, my acquaintances started following me on Livejournal — political journalists, activists, et al. […] Over time my blog has become a real media outlet.”
It is worth mentioning here that after Navalny graduated from [a Moscow] Law School, he also received a degree at the department of Securities and Exchange from the Finance Academy. Navalny admits that he always enjoyed following the stock markets, and then, in 2007, he ended up investing his own money into valuable securities, buying blue chips from major Russian oil companies, such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Transneft, and others. Becoming a minority shareholder allowed Navalny to request various confidential information on these companies’ activities.
“After becoming a shareholder, thus discovering all the mayhem that went on inside these companies, I thought I should file a lawsuit to defend all of the minority shareholders in Russia, on the account that my rights were violated. I was being robbed by these companies,” Navalny says in Voronkov’s book. “From a rational perspective, should a person like me, who has $20,000 invested in stocks, sue Gazprom, VTB, Transneft and others? The answer is no. Because all these suits will cost more than the potential dividends and even more than the initial investments. I have always been revolted by these corporate robberies. But I wouldn’t go to court just to get my money back. I don’t conceal the fact that a large part of my motivation is to litigate on behalf of the people, which is something that most are afraid to do. The issue of oil exports from Russia is not just an issue for the shareholders of Rosneft or Surgutneftegaz. It’s a matter of justice. It’s about redistributing national wealth. This has always been the main thrust of my approach, even from the beginning. This is why in 2007 I began to write and send out requests to all these companies. Since I never considered my activities private, I started covering them on my blog.”
Gazprom, a Russian company with a gas monopoly, became the first subject of Navalny’s investigations. Navalny got interested in the purchase of gas by Mezhregiongaz, a division of Gazprom, from Novatek, a minor Russian gas company. As a result of this transaction, Navalny explains, the sellers “earned over $50 million, just by reshuffling a few pieces of paper on their desks.” Vedomosti (a major Russian newspaper) published a story about this questionable transaction, and at the same time Navalny’s blog post from December 2008 became hugely popular on the Russian net. The Moscow Chief Administration of Internal Affairs (CAIA) initiated a criminal case and even brought formal charges against some of the high-profile executives of both Mezhregiongaz and Novatek, but in the end, most of the charges were dropped due to a “lack of evidence.”
Navalny’s second landmark blog post in November 2009 exposed a case of embezzlement in one of Russia’s top banks, VTB. The post, entitled “How VTB Robs the Coffers”, revealed that in 2007, VTB Leasing (one of VTB’s divisions) purchased drill rigs from a Chinese partner through a dummy intermediary company. The price VTB paid for the rigs was 1.5 times the market price. Examining this questionable deal, Navalny came to the conclusion that the embezzlement was worth up to $156 million. He forwarded all the documents regarding the transaction to the Economic Crimes Directorate at the Moscow CAIA.
The Directorate then conducted its own investigation, reporting that no violations were found. (Later, however, VTB Leasing president, Andrei Konoplyov, was fired from his position.) Still, the fact that Navalny’s post received massive feedback from the Russian LiveJournal community represented another serious step forward in his struggle against endemic corruption in Russian state corporations.
Navalny’s “How Transneft Robs the Coffers” blog entry represents the third milestone in his struggle against corruption. The article still tops the list of the Russian LiveJournal’s most popular blog posts.
Then Navalny went on exposing an even larger embezzlement scheme — the one involving Transneft, a Russian oil-transporting monopoly. The scale of this embezzlement was shocking: Navalny claimed that as many as 4 billion dollars were stolen at every stage of Transneft’s construction of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean national pipeline. Navalny obtained this information from leaked reports on the internal audit conducted by Transneft and the Russian Accounts Chamber.
Navalny’s post received major attention, and federal media outlets even published their own articles on the problem. Even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was forced to make a public comment, saying that the case should be brought to the attention of federal prosecutors. But such case was never initiated. However, despite strong objections from Transneft CEOs (including President Nikolay Tokarev and Vice President Mikhail Barkov), in early 2011, the Moscow arbitration court compelled the company to give the minutes of relevant Board meetings to shareholders. Navalny called this a big victory.
Creating his own method of battling Russian corruption (now called the Navalny method) can be also considered an important victory.
Navalny’s blog posts contain documents with enough evidence to file hundreds of lawsuits and initiate dozens of court proceedings. In addition, Navalny has also asked his readers to target government agencies and to file multiple complaints and requests. This should push officials do their job, he explains.
A Promising Leader
In December 2011, thousands and thousands of Russian citizens protested against the fraudulent parliamentary elections. This unprecedented social upheaval demonstrated that the political situation in the country is rapidly changing. Opposition forces that had long been marginalized by Putin’s regime had finally gained support from the active sectors of the Russian population. In December 2011 it became evident that Alexei Navalny could be considered one of the opposition leaders. Perhaps, even, the one most feared by the regime.
In a recent public lecture at the Moscow "Red October" club, Alexei Navalny somewhat ironically noted: "If there were a thousand people like me, tomorrow we'd be living in a different country." Pavel Ivlev, Executive Director of the Institute of Modern Russia, couldn't agree more: "It is quite possible to defeat Putin's regime this way, and a thousand Navalnys is what we need, in order to win this battle."
"If any of the democratic opposition leaders ends up as President, it means the revolution actually took place. And Navalny is one of those leaders — there is no doubt about that," Ivlev continues. "He will become a hero if this revolution, if/when it occurs. No one knows whether blood will be spilled, and whether the big changes will happen tomorrow or in five years from now. But the revolution, whether we like it or not, is inevitable. And Navalny shouldn't be alone in this fight."
The Levada Center conducted an interesting poll of the protesters who gathered on Sakharov Avenue on December 24, 2011. When protesters were asked which of the opposition leaders they trusted the most, they responded with journalist Leonid Parfyonov (41%), activist Alexei Navalny (36%), and writer Boris Akunin (35%). At the same time, when asked whom they would vote for in a presidential election, 22% of the respondents chose Navalny, followed closely by his former party boss Grigory Yavlinsky (21%).
Navalny is not ashamed of his political ambitions. Recently, he has been heard toying with the idea of running for President. These political ambitions make many people skeptical. Navalny has been accused of being immature, not experienced enough, too straightforward, and uncompromising. And all of this criticism is justified, to a certain degree. But, as mentioned before, the very nature of the current Russian regime (including its corruption, clientelism, and total disregard for public interests) creates a demand for tough opponents. In a sense, it was the Russian authorities themselves who pushed Navalny into the political arena.
One could argue that until one of the two collapses (either Navalny or the Russian authorities), the struggle between them will continue. It is obvious that the regime is not planning to withdraw. Navalny, too, claims he is not going to surrender:
“I have a clear strategy and principles that I rely upon. There are no ‘opportunity windows’, and no deadlines. You have to do what you think is right without looking back. [The public] support[s] me today, and I am grateful. And if they stop supporting me, I will continue doing what I do anyway. I will take steps that are painful for authorities, steps to pressure [the regime]. RosPil’s goal [the name of Navalny’s anti-corruption project] is to apply pressure to specific officials and administrative departments. Our slogan — “United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves” — applies some very real pressure upon a specific party. And I am sure that pressuring authorities is effective. […] I consider a lawsuit against Gazprom effective and beneficial. […] Promoting this campaign about “the party of crooks and thieves” is effective. If they decide to target me and publish biased articles about me, it will only mean that my work is effective. And if/when they initiate a criminal case against me, it will be the highest proof of my efficiency.”
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The latest developments, such as Navalny’s imprisonment after the unsanctioned rally on December 5, 2011, and the opening of a criminal case against him, clearly demonstrate that the regime has entered the stage of fighting Navalny. As for who will win this battle in the end, only time will tell.