The future of Navalnyism in Russian politics
10 Feb 2021|

A mouldering billion-dollar neo-Italianate palazzo atop a Black Sea cliff face. The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, recovering from a Novichok attack, duping a would-be assassin into telling him how the chemical weapon was put on his underpants. Navalny returning home with his devoted wife to certain arrest. A 700-euro toilet brush.

These images of regime decadence, corruption and decline, juxtaposed with a physically fragile, crazy-brave Navalny confronting those aiming to eliminate him, have sparked the most widespread protests in Russia since the wild interregnum of the 1990s. Navalny has introduced unpredictability to a regime that has skilfully suffocated the idea of participatory politics.

Navalny has begun serving his multi-year prison sentence and his movement has suspended protests until Duma elections in September, so how worried should Vladimir Putin be?

The president’s public response, his customary knowing smirk and shrug, signalled a sublime indifference, but the regime responded with unusual force, indicating alarm and surprise in the Kremlin. There have been record arrests, around 7,000 or 8,000 so far, using the National Guard and a facial-recognition network introduced in 2016–17.

This has been accompanied by a domestic disinformation campaign accusing Navalny of being a foreign agent.

Putin’s worry will extend past the domestic impact to how the appearance of internal instability plays to the authoritarian belt where Russia is shoring up its  influence, from its near abroad through to Eastern Europe and Turkey and the Middle East. It undercuts the perception of Putin as an avatar of nativist authoritarianism, especially in the context of ongoing defiance in Belarus and Ukraine.

Swiftly and brutally quelling the protests seems to have avoided a messy Belarus-type scenario. Navalny’s forces have signalled a tactical retreat and the regime has some time to plan its next moves. These are likely to involve rounding up Navalny’s network across Russia before the elections, detaining some and deterring others, while refining disinformation against Navalny and other opposition members.

A law passed last year empowers the government to disqualifying opposition candidates on the pretext of protecting elections from foreign interference. Another allows the government to block major social media platforms such as YouTube, which carried Navalny’s Putin’s palace documentary—seen by 1 in 4 Russians, according to this Levada poll.

But there’s a moment in any regime where the zeitgeist is lost, the power mystique thins and political entropy sets in. In an autocracy, this moment can be deferred for a long time, but not completely avoided. So, is this such a moment for Putin?

Navalny has targeted what political scientists Sam Green and Graeme Robertson say is the social contract Putin forged with the Russian public in the heat of the Crimea annexation in 2014 to base his support ‘not on the fortunes of the economy or the successes of … policy, but rather on emotions, on pride, on a rekindled sense of Russian identity’. This is an echo of the Soviet sentiment which, according to former Soviet-era Moscow correspondent David Satter, held that ‘the lines [for food] are long … but at least they’re scared of us’.

Just as important for the regime is the constant reinforcement of the idea that change is dangerous, which has blunted international responses to malign Russian activities abroad and human rights abuses within the country. Putin might be bad, but he keeps the worst chaos in check.

Navalny cleverly punctured both these myths. His documentary revelations of Putin’s corruption and assassination efforts have made the president appear silly rather than sinister. As Masha Gessen says, the palace revelations showcase a delusional autocrat spending a billion dollars of stolen money on a monument of extraordinary bad taste (complete with an aqua disco) that he can never visit for long and never admit that he owns. Navalny’s description of Putin as the ‘poisoner of the underpants’ in his courtroom speech is equally memorable and defining.

His laser focus on revelations of regime corruption highlights a stagnating economy, making declining living standards rather than nationalism an issue again.

Then there’s his freshness, his relative youth, bravery and satiric dark humour, contrasted with the flagging personal mythology of a 68-year-old Putin, and the hubris of cronies who describe themselves as ‘the new nobility’.

A hallmark of Putin’s early rule was stage-managing the appearance of opposition, even funding dissenting groups, then leaking that support so people never knew which groups were real.

But Navalny’s clear independence from elites, and the novelty of his truth-telling, blast through the regime’s nothing-is-true/nothing-matters nihilism. Navalny’s politics is invigorating and bracing, and the Kremlin has come up with nothing to counter it on the narrative front, at least so far. Tired and increasingly odd propaganda like this won’t help.

And while Navalny’s story-telling talent is formidable, he’s also a highly strategic player with oppositional skills refined over a decade of activism. His election strategy of ‘smart voting’ confronts the regime’s fraudulent nature and reaches out to the forgotten people of the vast eastern provinces. His investigative journalism partnerships with Bellingcat and others have drawn attention to Putin’s weak spots domestically and internationally.

Last week’s directive from Navalny and his supporters to suspend demonstrations indicates they’re playing the long game. And that, says Russia watcher Kyle Wilson, is the revolutionary dismantling Putin’s regime from below, making no accommodation with current elites.

The Nalvany forces will keep the momentum going to September’s elections through further revelations and by publicising repression of protestors and opposition organisers.

With each revelation, they’ll call on Western powers and publics to maintain outrage and to target Putin’s cronies where it hurts—their ability to launder and enjoy their wealth abroad.

And Navalny himself is no less an opposition figure in jail. Recent events have heightened his profile and brought him a big audience in Russia and around the world. Keeping that audience will be key.

But making the transition from irritant to real threat will also require a change of focus. Edward Lucas, a former Russian foreign correspondent, argues that to overthrow the regime, the opposition will need to split the security forces. To do that, Navalny will need inside allies, which he has refrained from cultivating.

Satter argues that the focus on corruption limits the movement. ‘Russia’, he says, ‘does not so much have a corruption problem … what it really has is a murder problem.’

Navalny’s poisoning and arrest have given ordinary Russians a chance to register their frustration with the stagnant economy and the regime’s blatant corruption. But until the Russian people become outraged by the government’s use of murder to maintain power, it’s uncertain whether they will repudiate the regime as a whole or accept some measure of economic reform and a return to stability instead.

Putin can potentially deal with corruption and economic issues. Mark Galeotti suggests that he could reinvigorate his great national infrastructure modernisation projects, purge some second-tier and regional oligarchs for corruption, and undertake limited reform of the courts and property rights to safeguard entrepreneurs from oligarchic predators. He could even increase welfare for Russia’s poor, and address the economy’s overdependence on oil and gas revenue.

That could provide him with the narrative momentum he desperately needs to give Russians a vision of a future that’s better than more of the same.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to see how these steps would be funded from a declining public purse. Demand for fossil fuels has reduced dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic and is likely to be depressed further by the transition to renewable energy. But the appearance of a reform agenda could arrest Putin’s gradual decline in public approval.

The only other options are to follow China’s model—more repression on the streets, more investment in sophisticated surveillance technology and tighter controls over the information sphere—or to find a second Crimea to power up another nationalist high. There are some indications that the Kremlin is exploring the latter option, but Russian political analyst Leonid Radzikovsky asserts there’s no public appetite or extra funds for more foreign policy adventurism.

And more repression is unlikely to stop public resentment and boredom from festering, away from official view, waiting for the revolutionary moment.

Incremental political reform is probably out of the question because Putin has pretty thoroughly dismantled all democratic institutions which could connect street protests to political change. That potentially raises the stakes for the regime.

This is not to say that Putin is in any immediate trouble. The regime’s system controls mean it has every chance of remaining in place for at least the next decade. But whatever course Putin chooses, the politics of Navalny will survive through either co-option or opposition, as part of the arc of entropy that afflicts change-resistant autocracies.

And despite the storyline of a resurgent Russia as a global player to be feared, the good times for Putin and his cronies have probably passed their peak. They’ll have to work harder and spend more to retain their grip on power. With no clear post-Putin succession plan, maintaining unity among an ageing elite and their progeny may also become more difficult to manage. For those at the top in Russia, the prospects of enjoying luxurious and safe retirements in a palace by the sea could begin to seem increasingly remote.