Poisoning, medical treatment in Germany, a return to Moscow, imprisonment – This news made Alexei Navalny especially popular both in the Russian Federation and abroad. Today, he is a much more famous person in the West than he has ever been. He is also actively discussed in Georgian society. This article, like its author, has no ambition of establishing absolute truth. Nor that all the necessary issues will be posed in it and all of them will be answered properly. This article is an attempt to understand who Alexei Navalny is, what role he plays in the political life of modern Russia, what impact his success can have on us, or in general, what chance he has to achieve this success. Undoubtedly, today Navalny is no longer a mere Russian oppositionist. Huge protests in major cities across the Russian Federation, even in -50-degree weather; thousands of protesters detained by law enforcement agencies, imprisonment: the process that we have all witnessed lately can be boldly called the “Navalny Factor.”
One might think that there is nothing special about this. In Putin’s Russia, there have been such large protests and mass arrests before. However, the “Navalny Factor” is a much more powerful and likely prolonged process. This is a cautious assumption, given that we have seen large rallies before, although so far we have not seen a political leader who could not be assassinated and then returned to Russia after treatment. Navalny’s role doubled following the assassination of Boris Nemtsov at the Kremlin walls in 2015. After Nemtsov’s elimination, Navalny is virtually the only politician now creating problems for the Kremlin. The ongoing processes from August 20, 2020 to the present day show that today he is a source of inspiration for the Russians who oppose the regime, and a symbol of the struggle.
The events surrounding Navalny remind us of the legend of the “other Russia;” a Russia whose existence many believe is very different from the “First Russia” that seems to exist somewhere but no one has ever seen. Anti-regime activists, cultural or sports workers, who often make statements worse the most chauvinistic and xenophobic Russian politicians do, are named as the embodiment of the “other Russia”. The “other Russia” does not exist yet. It will only be possible to see it if its political system is healed. Is Alexei Navalny the person who will be able to achieve this? To answer this question, we need to look at his past statements.
Georgians still painfully remember his statement made in 2008, in which he named the whole nation as a rodent, and demanded the bombardment of the territory of Georgia with cruise missiles. Even Georgians who do not know Russian are well aware that the words “Georgians” (Грузины) and “rodents” (грызуны) are alliterative in Russian. The merit of Alexei Navalny in this is huge. Although other Russians used the same words, we remember most painfully this chauvinistic statement made by him at a most difficult time. Navalny had a similar stance on the occupation of Crimea. He said that “Crimea will not be able to return to Ukraine because it is not a boomerang that is being thrown here and there”. Navalny’s approach was discussed by Andrei Ilarionov in a 2015 letter – “Against Putin, but in support of the Empire. The dark side of the opposition”. We think that a detailed review of the letter is not necessary. The author’s position is also clear from its title. Navalny, like other Russian opposition figures, does not like Putin, but he has nothing against the Russian Empire. In this sense, they first accuse Putin of impoverishing and weakening the empire. How much has Navalny’s position changed since 2008? This is really hard to say. Navalny’s answer to this question can be found in the archives of ‘Radio Echo of Moscow,’ dated April 10, 2013, where Navalny answers the questions of Ukrainian activist and journalist Aider Mujdabaev. Quote from the letter:
Question: Did you really call Georgians “rodents,” or is it just attributed to you?
Navalny’s answer: I was asked about this many times, but I’ll answer again. Yes, I named Georgians as “rodents” in a Facebook post about the war, which I regret. It’s not nice and generally, it leveled the whole post. As for the rest, I still think the same.
Only one conclusion can be drawn from this answer. Five years after the war, Navalny regrets the epithet he used, but has not changed his stance on the Russia-Georgia war. Seven years have passed since that answer. Has Navalny’s position on the war changed? We have not heard Navalny’s response to this. However, we have a comment from a member of his closest entourage, Vladimir Milov. He repeated these words in a number of interviews, including in a conversation with the Georgian Institute for Security Policy on October 9, 2020. According to Milov, he, like Alexei Navalny, supports the territorial integrity of Georgia, but does not support a forceful way of restoring it. According to him, many years have passed since the developments, he and Navalny have argued a lot about this issue, and finally the position of the latter has changed. For him, revising the borders of the post-Soviet space is unacceptable. As mentioned above, Milov is a close associate of Navalny, and he could not have made a similar statement (repeatedly) without Navalny’s consent. Hopefully, Navalny himself will tell us soon, at least in the form in which he told us that he regrets using an unethical epithet towards Georgians.
Another issue that we must address is the conspiracy theories about Navalny. Some people are convinced that Navalny is a Western agent; others believe he is Putin’s successor and they are preparing the ground for his coming to power. Navalny’s recent film turned out to be particularly thrilling. In the two-hour film, which can be boldly described as a masterpiece of journalistic investigation, the authors show us Putin’s real lifestyle, which is far from the myth that Russia’s “last emperor” lives in an ascetic way and does not care about his personal well-being. In Navalny’s film, Putin’s entourage was completely revealed. We saw the palace with a closed flying zone, which includes theater, casino, exclusive furniture and even an underground hockey field. We saw vineyards and wineries, golden toilets and many other elements of luxury.
It can be boldly said that this journalistic investigation intensified the protest and raised the temperature. However, the film also raised questions. How did Navalny’s drone manage to penetrate a closed flying zone and shoot the palace? Where did he get the finances for expensive 3D modeling? What human resources were spent on an investigation of this scale, and so on. The “Western agent” Navalny, with the help of his “bosses”, would probably find money for all this, but he could hardly get into the palace, where “even a bird can not fly in without permission”. The fact that Navalny has moral support of the West does not mean that he is a project of the West.
According to the other version, Putin is preparing to leave, creating the illusion of changes for the people, and preparing Navalny as his substitute. This is also evidenced by the fact that he is preparing for changes to the Russian legislation, according to which a former president cannot be prosecuted. If this is correct, then it is not difficult to answer the above questions. Financial, human resources, or even penetrating a closed flying zone becomes entirely possible. Yet another question is posed here: why should Putin want to go absolutely discredited? We can assume that he is really preparing to leave, even though the constitutional changes he has made exclude the logic of this version, but leaving absolutely discredited? It lacks all logic.
According to yet another account, not Putin himself, but the system is preparing Navalny as a successor. This question is often posed in relation to Putin’s Russia. Did the system create Putin, or did Putin create the system? Everything indicates that Putin himself is the firstborn of the system and not the other way around. One might really think that the system intended to replace him, but it is still hard to believe that his replacement is being looked for “outside”.
All these versions remain a simple conspiracy theory due to the lack of sufficient evidence. Conspiracy theorists also find it hard to believe that the “almighty” Russian special services failed to kill Navalny with poison. But it is very easy to look back and see that this is not the first time such a thing has happened. In 2004, Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned, like Navalny, but survived. In 2006, it became necessary to fire a shot in order to kill Politkovskaya. Navalny was first poisoned in 2017, in which he lost 80% of his eyesight. In 2018, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned, but survived. There is a reality behind the conspiracy theories. In this reality, the protest against the regime in Russia is growing; the economic situation is deteriorating; those who dare to take to the streets are detained- even the only leader of the opposition is detained. In such a reality, the sympathy for Navalny is growing both in Russia and the West, but he needs support to succeed. Clearly, his support is growing, but it is almost impossible to say exactly how much.
In the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, Navalny received 27% of the votes. The election showed that his voters were mainly concentrated in the central and southwestern parts of Moscow, in the most high-income and highly educated districts. After that, Navalny was not allowed to participate in the elections. Seven years later, it is impossible to generalize this data, although we can assume that given the recent trend, the number of supporters is growing, and they mainly represent the middle class, not only in Moscow but throughout Russia, at least in big cities, because we see a wave of protests everywhere, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.
Navalny in the Kremlin remains a wish as yet. It is not worth insisting that he will be able to come to power. Let us suppose, however, that this happened. Then what should we expect from him? The main line of Navalny’s activism is related to fighting against corruption. His video blogs and journalistic investigations deal mainly with this topic. Navalny accuses Putin of impoverishing the country and misappropriating most of the country’s resources. Navalny criticizes the so-called subsidy policy, due to which, solid financial resources flow from the federal budget to the North Caucasus, the occupied territories of Georgia, Crimea, and then disappear without a trace. Once in power, Navalny’s main task should be fighting corruption, improving the system (as much as possible), improving the economic situation of the country, and getting rid of the Western sanctions. Obviously, all of this will take a lot of time and resources. Accordingly, Navalny is less likely to pursue a policy of expansionism. Clearly, it is hard to imagine that his coming into power would automatically lead to the cessation of funding for Georgia’s occupied territories, the withdrawal of the occupation troops from Georgia in order to save costs, and the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Even with the greatest desire (we do not yet know to what extent this desire exists), Navalny will receive a heavy legacy from Putin. In parallel to this, Navalny will have to improve relations with the West, and this is not just about sanctions. It must be a vital task for him in order to achieve real results inside the country. The world needs to see that in the Kremlin not only a person changed but also the way of thinking. “You will not grasp Russia with your mind”, but there is no other logic from this perspective. Should we root for Navalny or not? Clearly, yes! First, because Navalny means change and change is always a chance, especially in Russia and especially for us. In this situation, we cannot do a lot, except to hope for the possibility of real change in Russia, to hope that Navalny will create these real changes, both for Russia and for the nations oppressed by the Kremlin, because there is simply no other possible alternative on the horizon.
Analysis by Davit Bragvadze, Georgian Institute for Security Policy