20 years under Putin: a timeline

The latest developments around Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia have triggered a dangerous power play between the oppositionist and the Putin regime. Regardless of the numbers of people who come to rally in Navalny’s support on January 23, his impact on Russian politics will transcend this moment.

 

Alexei Navalny recorded the introduction to his latest YouTube video in Dresden where Vladimir Putin had arrived as a mid-level KGB officer in 1985. 

 

No sooner had Alexei Navalny touched down in Russia on January 17 than he was arrested at passport control. Less than 12 hours later, he was remanded to custody for 30 days in an extraordinary court hearing held without prior notice inside a police station in a suburb of Moscow. And less than 24 hours after that, Navalny and his team released an almost two-hour video on YouTube—now with over 58 million views—that details how Vladimir Putin has used old friends, cronies, and family members to stash away the proceeds of decades of corruption and build the world’s most expensive private residence on the coast of the Black Sea. 

Both Navalny’s freedom and his life are in serious jeopardy in this dangerous showdown with the Kremlin. Yet the current peril overshadows the fact that Navalny’s impact on Russian politics will transcend this moment. As central a figure as he has become, it is his rhetoric, media savvy, and organizational infrastructure that will have the most lasting effect on Russia’s political ecosystem in the long term. 

The Kremlin’s antics surrounding Navalny’s return to Russia show that he’s anything but “just a blogger” as officials like to repeat. First, authorities threatened Navalny with arrest for supposedly violating the conditions of a suspended sentence while he was in a coma. This stems from a trial which has been deemed “manifestly unreasonable” by the European Court of Human Rights, and for which Russia has paid Navalny compensation. Then, authorities called in riot police and shut down a major international airport, redirecting his flight to a different airport after having it circle Moscow for nearly an hour, all so that Navalny could not be met upon landing by a couple hundred supporters. And this is just the latest after years of physical harassment, legal persecution and, as we learned in November from Bellingcat’s investigative report, a long history of surveillance by security and intelligence services. Obviously, Navalny matters to the Kremlin.

Whether Navalny matters to Russians is a favorite point of debate among Russia watchers. Some argue that despite the attention Navalny receives from international media, he enjoys relatively modest popularity among Russians. A poll conducted in September 2020 by the independent polling center Levada found that just 20 percent of respondents approved of Navalny’s activities. Yet this is up from a mere 6 percent in May of 2013. And only 18 percent of survey respondents said that they had never heard of him, down from 59 percent in 2013. His growing name recognition and popularity should be understood in the context of his enforced absence from all state-controlled television channels—still the most popular source of news for most Russians.

Regardless of the genuine level of support he may enjoy among the Russian public, Navalny—the person, the politician—has certainly become part of the political conversation. What happens if he is unable to continue to personally participate in Russian politics? 

Navalny’s attempts to register a political party have been repeatedly thwarted by the government, and he was forced to shut down his Anti-Corruption Foundation in July 2020 after it was fined over a million dollars in a suit brought by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin associate. But Navalny’s legacy is bigger than any political party or civil society organization. 

First is how Navalny’s favorite turns of phrase have become ubiquitous. He coined the phrase “party of crooks and thieves” as a moniker for United Russia back in February 2011 amidst the mass anti-electoral fraud protests of that winter. The phrase caught on: in 2013, more than half of those surveyed by Levada agreed that United Russia was indeed a party of crooks and thieves. In 2020, Navalny did it again. He dubbed Vladimir Putin the “old man in the bunker” referring to the president’s almost complete disappearance from public life during the pandemic. Since then, Navalny and others have repeatedly used the label, more recently adding that the old man in the bunker is “shaking with fear.” The real magic of these labels is not their popularity with opposition-minded Russians, but the fact that officials are forced to address them with the media, thereby letting the phrase—and the criticism of the regime that they stand for—enter popular discourse.      

Second, over the course of the last ten years, Navalny has transformed his rather plain LiveJournal blog into an impressive multimedia presence. His YouTube channel has over five million subscribers, and his anti-corruption investigation videos attract millions (sometimes tens of millions) of views. The investigative journalism that makes the videos possible account for some of that audience, but the appeal of the video’s production value cannot be underestimated. The videos are well-edited, the graphics are entertaining, the commentary (often delivered by Navalny straight to camera) is slick, the overhead drone-assisted shots of secret luxury real estate are beautiful. The latest anti-corruption video, which focuses on a palace Putin has been building for fifteen years on the Black Sea, uses 3D reconstructions based on architectural blueprints and leaked photos to actually take the viewer inside the mega mansion. In homage to Navalny’s success, many political commentators and opposition politicians have also launched YouTube channels. Apart from providing more entertainment, these efforts give Russians access to political commentary and news untouched by state propaganda. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Navalny has built an organizational network that not only provides him with support around the country, but also helps to train up-and-coming opposition politicians. At the close of 2016, Navalny announced his intention to run for president. He spent the next year opening campaign offices in every region in Russia. When the Central Electoral Commission predictably disqualified him from appearing on the ballot, Navalny kept the campaign offices open. The offices are a place where young people gain experience in everything from digital marketing to sociological research, giving them a unique civic education. They provide, as one study found, “opportunities for networking across generational and ideological boundaries and… an infrastructure for political socializing.” Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has also launched the careers of young and notable politicians, including Lyubov Sobol and Ivan Zhdanov.

Despite the Kremlin’s narrative and the critics, Navalny’s decade-long career has made an undeniable impact on Russian politics. In the long run, though, the seeds of what Navalny has planted will probably outlast both him and Vladimir Putin.

 

Yana Gorokhovskaia is a political scientist researching civil society and local politics in Russia. From 2016 to 2019, she was a postdoctoral scholar in Russian Politics at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

 

Russia under Putin

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