Understanding Navalny

I was enjoying a quiet day at home until news of the royal baby’s imminent arrival started taking off on twitter, which is my usual vehicle for serial procrastination during profoundly unproductive days.

I’ve found an interesting refuge from the baby chat, though: the trial, conviction, and (temporary) release of opposition activist Alexey Navalny in Russia.

Navalny, succinctly profiled here by the BBC, made a name for himself exposing state and corporate corruption. He has provocatively called United Russia, the ruling regime, “the party of crooks and thieves” and has political aspirations; he hopes to run in the Moscow mayoral election in September.

The Putin-era judicial system metes out justice selectively to the Russian president’s political opponents, “using the courts against political opponents“, as Mikhail Gorbachev describes it. Navalny has farcically been convicted of embezzlement by a judge who has not delivered a single acquittal in his past 130 cases, displaying a “remarkable faith” in Russian state prosecutors, as the Sunday Times’ Mark Franchetti put it.

Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny

However Western politicians and journalists should be careful to avoid a lazy understanding of the Russian opposition. The temptation is to assume that our own concerns with the Putin regime – its thuggishness and intolerance towards opponents, at home and abroad – are the same as those of the domestic opposition.

But they are not. Navalny excites the West because he is a genuinely popular figure, with rising name recognition and sympathy, powered by capturing the social media generation. But this isn’t Obama ’08: Navalny’s politics are complicated and don’t fit easily into the liberal dissident stereotype assigned to him by the British press, notably the Guardian.

Of the three high-profile Putin-era victims – Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky and Navalny – only one  (Magnitsky) can in any sense be described as liberal. And he’s dead.

Khodorkovsky, as a friend from a Russian family points out, belonged to a tiny oligarchical elite that privatised the profits and the power of the nascent Russian state whilst society crumbled around them. His politics were, and remain, obscure: to read his recent Guardian op-ed you’d think he was a dissident liberal, a position that sits uncomfortably with the role of the oligarchs in marshalling the mass media to promote Yeltsin’s fledgling re-election bid in 1996.

Navalny is not wealthy, nor does he pursue wealth. But he represents the third wave of post-Soviet Russian nationalism (the first and second embodied by Yeltsin and Putin respectively). He has spoken at far-right rallies and has adopted a hostile attitude to immigrants who aren’t “native inhabitants” of Russia. As Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, put it, “Navalny is far from perfect politically, very far” – that is, from a Western point of view.

But the truth is that other opposition figures such as Kasparov, who through my Dad’s chess connections I was fortunate enough to meet last year, stand little chance in Russian politics, hobbled by their cosmopolitan, Western lifestyle and outlook.

Navalny will not avoid prison. As the retrial of Khodorkovsky demonstrates, he may not even emerge from it when the 5 year sentence ends in 2013. But when Navalny becomes a free man again he will have a choice to make: draw on the support of wealthy, but unpopular, backers such as Khodorkovsky and Prokhorov, or unite an opposition that is distinctly Russian and excludes the big money.

In any case I suspect he won’t be in a position to make that choice for some time.

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