Grassroots Politics

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.

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