In the past two weeks, a rave of protests erupted across Russia, from vital centres such as Moscow and St. Petersburg to more remote cities in the far and cold Siberia. People are arrested en masse wherever there is a gathering, and as many can guess, not in a protocolish hand-cuffs-on-Miranda-rights-read way – but rather more brutal, traditional Russian way. If you so much as walk near the square where the protest is well underway, you are an easy target for the OMON (a special police unit) who will a) give you a concussion with a bat b) shove you into the OMON-mobile; or c) both.
Hundreds of videos filmed on the main streets of Russia circulate around the internet, showcasing the utmost disintegration of society and the raw force used by the police against elderly people, teenagers and passers-by.
So where does Navalny come into the picture? A simple answer: Navalny’s illegal arrest after his return from Germany, where he was in a two-week coma after being poisoned with the notorious Novichok by the mafia government that is the Kremlin, has raised a wave of solidarity and dismay in the nation. Outright simple.
Better yet, there is a more thought-provoking question to ask. Why are there only two objectives to this Bosch’s Judgement Day-like picture, deifying Navalny on one hand and demonising him on the other? Time and time again, not just in Russia, people and the media fail to portray the truth about the multifaceted pivotal events in politics. The apparent two sides to this clear-cut line are the ardent liberal supporters of Navalny and the rest can be put in the pro-Putin or apathetic category. But is there a third opinion and can it gain as much credibility and reinforcement within the Russian nation?
The hero by default
Alexei Navalny is not a hero.
Navalny has a YouTube channel with 7 million subscribers, where he documents the corrupt lives of high-ranking politicians such as the puppet ex-president Dmitriy Medvedev, pro-Putin commentator Vladimir Solovyev and recently, Putin himself. His latest video, the one that added oil to the fire and inspired thousands to take to the streets, portrays the most scrupulous and embarrassing details of Putin’s secret palace located in Southern Russia. He also formed his very own Anti Corruption Foundation (FBK) that provides insight into the depths of corruption through the detailed investigative documentaries on Navalny’s channel. His YouTube persona has gained him fame with new, more insightful videos, allowing him to hold rallies on the streets, calling for an uprising, and even to attempt to register as a presidential candidate but, of course, to no avail. His YouTube blogger fame is how his opposition leadership took off.
Though it may seem like Navalny has done his absolute best as a de facto opposition leader, being the only such Russian figure to gain wide popular support and not be Kremlin’s puppet, Navalny remains a matryoshka with many dolls to unstack and layers to unpack. In fact, his not so heroic racist sympathies were exactly the impetus to his fame and growing support. Navalny is an fervent nationalist, who now assumed the role of a selfless saviour of mother Russia. A scapegoat, really, that the Russian people have chosen to represent their wishful imaginations of a bright future for the country without Putin.
Every year, the so-called Russian March takes place in different Russian cities that gathers various nationalist groups from all over the country. One can imagine what kind of statements and slogans are usually made there. Navalny has attended the Russian March before and endorsed a nationalist campaign called ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’ that propagates a cut on the federal subsidies to the republics in the Northern Caucasus such as Chechnya and Dagestan. The governments of these republics are no less corrupt than Putin’s federal government; unsurprising given that they were installed by Putin himself back in the 2000s. But is it possible to completely cut down the constitutional subsidies owed to federal republics that did not ask to be part of the Russian Federation? Navalny seems to perceive Russia as a unitary state with ‘random’ republics that illegally occupy its lands and feed off the ‘normal’ Russian people. Normal is the word that was used by Navalny to compare the inhabitants of the conservative North Caucasus to more liberated Russians. But the racist affinities are not limited to the North Caucasus.
He also endorsed the war against Georgia in August 2008, using derogatory epithets in reference to Georgians. He was a ferocious opponent of Georgia in the 2008 war, calling for a blockade against Georgia, to deport all Georgians from Russia and to bomb the whole country in one of his blog posts, which he never commented on years later. Shame or forgetfulness? Probably the latter.
Navalny did not overlook Central Asia either. He has repeatedly expressed the need to deport illegal immigrants from countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as to establish a visa regime with all Central Asian republics and Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). On the other hand, he opined that the existing visa regime with the EU should be scrapped to attract more tourists and workers from European countries. In one of his interviews, he compares a Tajik person with a German person, stating that people from less developed countries should be barred from entering Russia meanwhile anyone coming from high-developed countries should be granted a green light. On how exactly immigrants affect Russia Navalny did not elaborate simply declaring that there are already a lot of them there.
And lastly, a true nationalist is nothing without the customary anti-Semitism. Russian, as many other languages, is very inventive in its anti-Semitic morphology, and Navalny did not miss out on the opportunity to show off his impeccable knowledge of russian against the Jewish community in Russia. In one of his early blog posts, Navalny jokingly suggests to ‘burn [ethnic slur for jews]’; the direct expression in Russian is more ‘eloquent’.
Navalny’s xenophobia is no secret and can be easily looked up by anyone willing to unstack his fascinating matryoshka-like persona, with racist tirades aimed at different ethnic groups one after another. The liberal party ‘Yabloko’, from which he was expelled in 2007, has subsequently accused him of regularly using racial slurs and focusing exclusively on issues relating to ethnic Russians.
That is not to say Navalny is not noble in his actions.
Indeed, his bravery can be commended. After spending two months straight out of a coma in a vegetative state, slowly regaining his life forces, Navalny and his wife Yuliya made a bull-headed decision to return to the dreadful reality that awaited them in Russia. Having failed to get rid of the persistent and the ever outspoken Navalny, Putin took it into his own hands to turn Alexei’s life from really bad to miserable, crushing yet again the feeble remains of the rule of law in the Russian justice system and sentencing him to 2.8 years in prison for a fictitious corruption case.
Everyone’s in on the game?
The EU is not exactly the logical protagonist here either. One might think that the whole of the EU is a nemesis of the Kremlin or more gently put, an occasional cold-shoulder giver when basic human rights are ruthlessly trampled over and over again in Russia. Yet to put the EU in a save-the-day category does not sit right with many people.
As was accurately summarised by the Irish MEP Clare Daly in a plenary session of the European Parliament, the EU’s criticism of Navalny’s arrest and call for sanctions is not about human rights at all. The EU uses Navalny to express its anti-Russia agenda and zoom in on the evil stronghold of the Kremlin all the while allowing no less atrocious crimes within the EU to carry on as comfortably as possible. This is a reference to the ongoing saga of Julian Assange’s persecution and the appalling recent arrest of the Catalan rapper Pablo Hasel.
‘We wouldn’t be discussing him at all if he were arrested anywhere else other than in Russia,’ stated Daly and it is hard to disagree with her on this. She further underlined that the military-industrial complex is the prime reason for this traditional geopolitical antagonism against Russia. An exaggerated enemy is always needed to justify the millions spent annually on security. To oust Putin out of the Kremlin is the main goal, which, as desirable as it is, does not do much to alleviate Navalny’s lamentable position right now. Sanctions are underway, as the only instrument of power in EU’s hands, and are expected in March.
An image that comes to mind is a tug’o’war with EU and Russia on either sides of the rope, mud in between and people with trampled rights in the mud.
Liberal or nationalist?
The question does not really help to make any conclusions considering that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Navalny may be a nationalist yet he is widely supported by liberals and people who just want to be over with the Putin regime. He effectively combines shameless nationalism and popular liberalism, appealing to everyone except the completely indoctrinated part of the society that turns a blind eye to Putin’s feudal regime.
Branding Navalny as either a liberal, a nationalist or both is simply a categorisation for the sake of it. His fascist affiliation does not change the amount of blind support he receives, even prior to his poisoning and arrest earlier this February, because people are quick to fall into the trap of choosing one side. At the end of the day, popular opinion lies in asking whether you like Putin or not. If you support Navalny without relying on the comparison to Putin, you are a nationalist fond of annual parades held in honour of affinity for ethnic cleansing. If you simply consider Navalny to be a better candidate, you are most likely a liberal choosing the lesser evil. People who disagree with Navalny are immediately seared as pro-regime fascist pigs or beneficiaries of the regime (like many actors and celebrities in Russia). The fact that Navalny himself is a fascist does not square up in people’s minds.
To sum up, Navalny is a true hero for his loyal liberals and nationalists alike, and a hero by default for anti-Putinists. Meanwhile, Putin supporters do not fail to amuse with a plethora of elaborate hate aimed at liberals (a more discourteous term exists in Russian) and almost religious worship of the president of 4 terms.
And perhaps it is unseemly to criticise a person who is backed by real people going out on the streets in unforgiving weather, taking a hit from the faceless macabre special police forces for the sake of ‘democracy’. After all, there is no alternative to Navalny or more accurately, no alternative that could stand up to the Kremlin as persistently as him while pushing the beloved nationalist agenda to eager masses. End corruption and establish the rule of law? Well said. Crackdown on immigrants from low-income, uncivilised Central Asian and Caucasian countries? Hang on, let me get my mask and a protest sign, and we’ll make democracy work right this minute.
Is it possible to feed the Russian population a racist-free, slogan-less and actual problem-solving agenda, expecting a landslide support? Frankly, no. For this reason, Alexei Navalny remains the only viable opposition leader, and maybe a future politician that doubtlessly wants only the best for the fascinating country that is Russia.