Pieter Stockmans volgt het mondiale optreden van de Europese Unie, het Europese vluchtelingenbeleid, de evoluties in Oost-Europa en de regio ten oosten van de EU.
Navalny: the man to topple Putin
‘Alexei is coming to town!’
It’s all hands on deck at the Navalny campaign office in Nizhny Novgorod. Word is just out that the great leader is returning to town. A few weeks ago police arrested Navalny just before he boarded his train to Nizhny Novgorod. He was sentenced to 20 days in prison.
A large magnetic display on the wall shows the number of electronic voter signatures that have been collected in support of his candidacy for the upcoming March presidential elections: 11,500. The number is well above the required minimum of 7,500 per region. Young and old are queuing to add their electronic signatures to the collection.
Anna Petkoglo is working among the stacks of boxes with stickers, badges, posters and brochures. She’s sending out updates to the central campaign office in Moscow – on the number of verified signatures, the number of volunteers recruited, the number of brochures distributed on the street, the number of people engaged during door to door visits.
In her early thirties, Petkoglo is the local head of campaign for Navalny2018 in Nizhny Novgorod. ‘They will not stop Alexei twice. We’ll be ready for the 25th of November. Let’s mobilise the masses. Come and pick up brochures and posters’, she’s typing on the campaign’s social media page.
Her most important task is to find a location. Navalny has not been granted permission to hold public meetings anywhere since November. According to Navalny’s own blog, this “illegal instruction” hails directly from president Putin. He sued the president. At the same time, he launched a call to people to open up their private properties. Ever since, he made speeches to thousands on parking lots of shopping malls and on derelict sites in back neighbourhoods. He can no longer call them “protests”: that would require authorisation. In Izhevsk, the campaign leader was arrested because he used the term, thus “admitting” the event was not private.
These strict rules entered into force after the mass demonstrations of 2011-2012.
The illusion of a presidential campaign
25th of September. The office is full of volunteers. A group of youngsters is viewing a documentary on activism. Suddenly, the prosecutor arrives.
Petkoglo can hardly suppress her laughter as the prosecutor reads out his warning. The office is purported to be connected to “extremist activities”.
Navalny is the only politician running a presidential campaign. He goes out to the people with an election programme and starts up a public debate.
Ever since, he’s made speeches to thousands on parking lots of shopping malls or on derelict sites in back neighbourhoods.
In every city his team produces a video report. They show Navalny visiting the sights or chatting with the locals. As soon as he got to Izhevsk, he visited residents at the apartment building where a lethal gas explosion had just occurred. In Russia, it’s unheard of to lead an actual campaign – to go out and prove yourself to the population as a democratic politician might do. Perhaps that’s why it’s considered “extremist.” Everyone knows Putin will be re-elected, so even the leaders of the traditional opposition parties make no effort.
To Navalny however, no mountain seems too high. In December 2017 he already visited thirty cities all across Russia in the course of three months in an effort to collect the 300,000 signatures required to register as a candidate for the office of president.
From the 15th to the 23rd of September he travelled by rail and air from Murmansk on the Finnish border to Vladivostok at the North Korean border.
From the 1st to the 27th of October: from the White Sea in the north to the Caspian Sea in the south, with 20 days of imprisonment in between.
From the 1st of November to the 12th: from Kursk near Ukraine to Irkutsk near Mongolia.
In Saint Petersburg and Moscow, Navalny was unable to find a single businessman willing to open up his private property to host a Navalny meeting. ‘Yet five years ago, when his rise as opposition leader started, he did have support among business circles’, says prominent activist and member of the liberal opposition Oleg Kozlovsky.
‘He was in excellent standing with leading bankers and was a board member for top companies such as Aeroflot. After a number of court cases though, he was removed from all management boards.’
The government had applied pressure on both his donors and partners. A top manager at Alfa Bank, who had joined Navalny, fled the country after a criminal investigation was launched against him. ‘If you’re influential and you cooperate with Navalny, you will be made to bear the consequences’, says Kozlovsky.
Companies renting out office space feel the pressure too. ‘I spoke to 130 owners before I found one company willing to rent to us’, says Nikolai Laskin, Navalny’s campaign chief in Moscow. ‘The government calls owners, “recommending” they should not cooperate with our office. Two weeks afterwards, police invaded the building and closed it down.’
15th of September. Unknown assailants hit Laskin on the head with an iron bar. No official investigation is instigated.
24th of November. A letter arrives from the Ministry of Justice. The ministry will carry out an “unannounced audit” of Navalny2018 accounts.
‘Putin’s election campaign is ploughing ahead at full speed’, campaign leader Leonid Volkov writes on his blog. ‘He has neither volunteers nor a programme. He just sends his men to intimidate the real candidates.
He chose his moment well. This month our accountants and lawyers have to collect all the signatures registered in our eighty local offices throughout Russia. It’s a complex and time-consuming procedure. And now we’ll have to produce endless irrelevant documents under the threat of severe fines.’
End of December, the elections were officially announced. Navalny handed over all collected electoral signatures to the Central Election Committee. Shortly after, the committee rejected Navalny’s candidacy.
According to electoral law, signatures are rejected if a candidate is not eligible. And as Navalny was convicted for fraud, he is not eligible.
‘The more electoral signatures Navalny gathers, the louder he can protest that his rejection as a candidate reveals the authoritarian face of Putin’s regime.’
Why campaign if he was sure to be refused as a candidate?
The European Court of Human Rights found Navalny was not given a fair trial. There are indications too that the indictment was politically motivated, as the case had previously been dropped for lack of evidence, but was reopened after Navalny published documents revealing the chief Public Prosecutor was corrupt.
Moreover, the criminal investigation didn’t form an obstacle when Navalny took part in the Moscow mayoral elections. He won a surprising 27% of the votes, more than the cumulative score of all other opposition parties. The Kremlin is not keen to run that risk again and therefore calls his conviction an obstacle this time.
What is the strategy then? Vlad Popov, volunteer for Navalny2018 in Nizhny Novgorod, puts it clearly: ‘We aim to gather a million signatures. We’ve already collected 667,887 more than double the legally required amount.’
‘The more electoral signatures Navalny gathers, the louder he can protest that his rejection as a candidate reveals Putin’s authoritarian face.’
The Russian revolution closes at 20:18
At the entrance to the campaign office in Moscow a plaque on the wall displays the opening hours: Open at 11:00. Closed at 20:18. Is it to be over and out for Navalny in 2018? Will the offices close down? What about the 182,893 volunteers and the 81 local branches across the country?
‘It would make more sense if he would provide a platform that would allow all those new active Russians to become activists for justice instead of for Navalny’, says Anna Stulikhina, a Saint Petersburg activist who distrusts Navalny.
‘If they fight one campaign and it runs to an end, what then? The community will crumble and be left disappointed. That’s another lost generation of apathetic citizens.’
They will be vulnerable too. ‘Putin will win the elections and use the next six years to drastically increase repression of the Navalny movement. We have reached a crossroads. Russia will either become a modern democracy or a new North Korea’, says Vlad Popov dramatically.
‘No, the local branches will not close in 2018. This campaign is as much about building up a real opposition party, which will form an alternative to Putin.’
Navalny has no regrets about what he calls the “election circus”, not even after the Electoral Committee rejected all the signatures. The circus has given him the opportunity to launch his new party.
‘No, the local offices won’t close in 2018’, says Nikolai Laskin. ‘This campaign is different from all others. It’s as much about creating a movement, a party structure, and volunteers across the land. A real Russian opposition party that will be an alternative to Putin’s United Russia in the future.’
Navalny can’t lose. If he was allowed to participate in the elections, then all the better. Now that he’s not, the electoral procedures were a useful opportunity to behave presidentially, to mobilise people to demonstrate public support and to register them in the campaign’s information systems.
These are valuable assets towards future mobilisation and the foundations of a new party. ‘The Kremlin understands this strategy and therefore makes repeated attempts to connect Navalny to criminality, so he doesn’t come across as presidential but rather as criminal’, says activist Oleg Kozlovsky.
‘They hold many more cards in their hand. The anti-extremism laws are so broad they can arrest Navalny at any moment.’
25th of November. The big day in Nizhny Novgorod. Navalny addresses an audience of thousands. ‘They locked me up for twenty days in order to prevent this meeting and now, I am here anyway. This is the most important city in the whole campaign’, he says triumphantly to the cheering masses.
Anna Petkoglo appears satisfied as she looks on. After all, this is the result of her efforts. Barely six months ago she was still a teacher of Russian in London, with zero experience as a political activist. Electoral laws, procedures, administrative rules regulating street protest, mobilising volunteers, communicating with the central campaign office: it was all new to her. But she had returned from London with a dream: make young people politically active in society.
‘There are not many platforms in Russia which allow young people to participate, yet many wish to be involved in a useful way and to make their voices heard. Navalny has created such a platform. I feel at home here, with like-minded people working for social change’, says Petkoglo.
She learned the tricks from Anna Stipanova, an experienced politician with an extensive network. Stipanova is ex-chairperson of the local office of Parnas, the liberal opposition party. Navalny recruited her to set up the campaign office in Nizhny Novgorod and to pass the torch on quickly.
‘If you want to start a revolution, you make sure the next generation can lead, in order to make it viable for longer’, comments journalist Ilya Azar.
From 500 to 2000 in five years’ time
Stipanova was faced with a difficult challenge. ‘Just two weeks after the campaign office was set up, we had to get huge crowds out on the street for the 26th of March demonstration, as one of 81 cities.’
With little more than their unbridled enthusiasm, ordinary young folk were thrown to the lions, and forty of them ended up in prison for their first time in their lives.
Police authorities had first issued permission and then withdrawn it. ‘As soon as it became known that police would start arresting people, some became angry and 2000 people started a spontaneous march through the city centre and the local Kremlin’, say the young people who are accompanying us along the route they took that day.
By comparison: during the protests of 2011 no more than 500 people took to the streets of Nizhny Novgorod.
Stipanova, who had delivered speeches from a platform, was the first to be arrested. When Vlad Popov went searching for her in the police stations, he was arrested too. ‘They accused me of “resisting police orders”, but I merely made enquiries about Anna’, says the young man.
‘If you want to start a revolution, you make sure the next generation can lead, in order to make it viable for longer.’
‘After a night in the cell, police officers randomly noted “resisting police orders”. This allowed them, post factum, to detain suspects for more than 48 hours’, says the Nizhny Novgorod campaign lawyer. ‘The police reports contain errors with regard to names of places and arresting police officers, who seem to have been present in two places at once. That amounts to falsification of documents, yet all the judges, including the appeal courts, accepted the police reports as valid. We are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. These are infringements on the right to freedom of speech.’
‘They don’t view us as participating citizens with whom they should communicate but as subjects of a ruler’, says Stipanova. ‘Their only concern during demonstrations is how to return the genie to the bottle, so they can continue to “govern”.’ She means: steal.
Stipanova managed a company in a previous life. She had big plans but decided to join opposition politics. Today she lives in a small apartment on the eleventh floor of a tower block. Family photos adorn her living room alongside the Navalny2018 banners and badges.
‘I was ambitious and wanted to reach the top’, she says while enjoying a cup of coffee with pastry. ‘But if you refuse to join the corruption and cronyism in this city, there’s little opportunity to build up anything in the business world. I didn’t want to join it, but change it.’
She became the most prominent opposition leader of Nizhny Novgorod, gave fiery speeches on platforms at every street demonstration. The former business woman got to see the inside of a prison for the first time. ‘I’m happier now. I’m trying to change something.’
Navalny2018 is perhaps unique in the world: how can you use social media to become a nationally renowned politician without access to traditional media?
‘We are our own media’, says Nikolai Laskin.
Laskin sits in front of a pastel coloured screen. There’s a small cactus and a coffee cup on the table. He is presenting the political talk show “Cactus” in the NavalnyLIVE studio, Alexei Navalny’s personal online channel.
The channel evolved in scarcely six months, from an amateurish YouTube channel with bad sound, poor lighting and an ugly décor, to a well-oiled professional social media machine.
In the programme “Navalny20:18”, Navalny is on screen, revealing examples of corruption. In “Cloud”, campaign leaders Laskin and Volkov present campaign updates and answer viewers’ questions.
The top livestreams – with between two and four million viewers – were broadcast on the 26th of March and the 12th of June 2017, showing images of the demonstrations across the country, and on the 27th of April 2017, when unknown assailants threw a green poison in Navalny’s face. Immediately afterwards he presented a programme from the studio, with his scarred face.
Many of the young people who became active in his campaign, got to know him initially through these videos.
Two million viewers
‘In Navalny’s world, television is yesterday’s medium’, says journalist Diana Kachalova.
‘He’s the product of an era of innovation in media and technology. Many of the corruption cases he reveals on his YouTube channel are matters we wrote about years ago. But he presents it in a playful way, using the latest online youth trends. Somewhat populist.’
Journalists from the radio station Echo of Moscow have been investigating how a professional team of social media analysts at the Navalny-campaign is using social media for mobilisation for protests. ‘We know that approximately 20% of the people who participated in street protests first heard the appeal through social networks and chat functions on their smart phones’, says journalist Valery Nechay.
‘While traditional liberal opposition parties complain about being boycotted by state media, Navalny gets on with the job of getting around the boycott.’
‘While traditional liberal opposition parties complain about being boycotted by state media, Navalny gets on with the job of getting around the boycott’, says Denis Volkov of Levada Center, an independent polling station.
If you only win 5% of the vote at each election and yet continue to blame others, then it’s time you took a different approach. Navalny doesn’t play according to Kremlin rules. He writes his own rule book.’
Populist politicians in the West use social media to circumvent traditional media and deliver their propaganda, unfiltered, to their audience. In Russia, Navalny uses social media because traditional media, which mainly delivers propaganda, circumvents him.
But according to journalist Ilya Azar, Navalny also shows a distrust of independent media such as Novaya Gazeta. ‘Navalny’s channel reaches a larger audience than my newspaper. He doesn’t need us.’
Few independent journalists or activists support Navalny as a politician, but they are enthusiastic about his campaign because in their eyes, it shows that change is possible in Russian politics.
Navalny’s campaign started in March 2017. It may seem incredible that in the space of six months he has been able to set up an impressive movement, across the largest country in the world. But in 2017, Navalny didn’t appear from nowhere.
In the nineties, Boris Nemtsov is a member of Yabloko, the main liberal party. He’s a confidante of President Yeltsin, who appoints him as Governor of Nizhny Novgorod. Nemtsov treats the city as a pilot region for the neoliberal reform and privatisation operations of prime minister Gaidar’s so called shock therapy reform. In 1993, Nemtsov receives British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Nizhny Novgorod. She expresses praise for his reforms. At that time, Navalny is a 17-year-old law student. Nemtsov is set to succeed Yeltsin. But in 1999 Yeltsin appoints Putin, not an heir of the liberal economic reforms, but a man from state security. Yeltsin was keen to leave the state in “safe hands”. He had, after all, survived a coup attempt six years earlier. He dissolved parliament. That same small powerful clique still holds power today. Since that time Russia has not been able to transfer power to a new group by means of democratic elections.
With the new neoliberal party, UNION OF RIGHT FORCES Nemtsov succeeded in becoming the most prominent opposition leader during President Putin’s two successive terms of office, in the first decade of the new millennium. But in 2009 the party merges and forms a new coalition with the support of President Medvedev. Dissident party members, Nemtsov among them, form the new liberal SOLIDARITY coalition along with Yabloko. They oppose the suppression of human rights, demand free and fair elections, independent courts, and a free press. Navalny had worked his way up the ranks of Yabloko, but in 2007 he is kicked out of the party due to his “nationalist positions”. He focuses on his anti-corruption organisation. He launches a campaign during the parliamentary election in December 2011 when he refers to United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves”. This is the start of his rise to national prominence. In 2011 and 2012, together with Nemtsov, he leads the protests against fraudulent manipulation of the parliamentary election.
In the first months of Putin’s new term as president in 2012, repression against the opposition increases. It’s a way of reinforcing his leadership within the party. Following the Maidan rebellion of 2014 in Ukraine, Putin is keen to avert a revolution in Russia. Contrary to Medvedev’s subtle approach of infiltration into the opposition, he increases the repression.
He’s a product of a long history of liberal parties that participated in federal and regional governments in the nineties but fell into opposition under President Putin in the 2000’s. They became divided and subsequently made various unsuccessful attempts to reunite.
Thanks to the protests of 2011 and 2012, the liberals and even the communists, were able to unite for a short period. But following Putin’s re-election as president in May 2012 repression mounted and things went downhill.
Six years on, Navalny managed to attain a new peak. This time he uses a different strategy: he unites not the parties as such, but rather their members and activists under his personal leadership.
His campaign builds on experience and on networks that hail back to the fall of the Soviet Union. Anna Stipanova does for Navalny what she had already done for Boris Nemtsov, the liberal opposition leader who was shot dead in Moscow in 2015.
‘I remember vividly what happened on the fateful 27th of February 2015’, says Anna Stipanova. ‘Nemtsov was travelling all over the country to open new local branches, just like Navalny is doing now. I was selected to lead the Nizhny Novgorod branch. A year later, I was organising the first demonstrations. That’s when the intimidation started. They posted letters in my daughter’s mailbox, stating I was a traitor. They phoned my mother to tell her I ought to be sent to jail. Agents from the official government Centre for Combating Extremism were behind it.’
This department of the Ministry of Home Affairs had been set up to fight organised crime but transmuted into a sort of secret service intimidating activists and opposition leaders under the guise of the war against terror.
‘I was about to head off to the train station on the morning of the 27th. I had a meeting with Nemtsov but my door was sealed. Then I saw on television that he had been shot dead in Moscow.’
A few days ago, volunteers wrote the number “1000” on the stones of the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, where a thousand days ago, Nemtsov was shot four times in the back. For a thousand days already, volunteers had been protecting floral tributes and Nemtsov portraits against vandals or authorities who might wish to remove them from the improvised memorial. The volunteer group submitted numerous unsuccessful petitions to relevant authorities to have the bridge renamed “Nemtsov Bridge”.
A thousand days after Nemtsov’s murder, and years after Yabloko had Navalny removed from the party, Navalny’s one-man project leaves the once supreme liberal party of Russia far behind, as Yabloko now mobilises for Navalny’s street demonstrations.
Yabloko only won 2% of the vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections and lost state funding. Oleg Rodin, a young man of 23 is currently the only paid member of Yabloko’s staff in Nizhny Novgorod.
His office is located in an old fashioned building. It’s not the dynamic meeting point for young people eager for citizen participation. A portrait of Grigory Yavlinski, leading candidate of every election since 1996, still adorns the wall. A source of frustration for new ambitious Yabloko politicians.
Mikhail Amosov, communal representative for Saint Petersburg for example, is one of them. He is keen to make his way through to the federal parliament. ‘Given that our party has had the same leading candidate for 24 years, that’s plainly impossible. How can a failing strategy be corrected if new people never get a chance to grow? There’s no internal democracy within the opposition parties aiming to turn Russia into a democracy. ‘
There are no Yabloko leaders touring the country to mobilise voters for a real opposition. In the office you’ll find no technology registering official signatures, no boxes filled with campaign material, no Chromakey-screen for activists to present programmes or to manage their own YouTube channel.
‘Many people inside Yabloko feel Navalny stole their work, yet they never put in the same effort to modernise lethargic Russian opposition politics’, says Oleg Kozlovsky who used to work with the Union of Right Forces and helped to found Solidarity.
Yabloko’s Oleg Rodin suggests Yabloko should benefit in turn from Navalny’s current efforts: ‘Now that Navalny’s candidacy is officially refused, what should happen? Navalny doesn’t have a party structure in place to keep all its members active. After all, the government refused to register his party.’
‘Yabloko on the other hand, is registered and has a party structure. Navalny and the many activists he recruited over the past year could re-join Yabloko. Otherwise, a new disillusioned generation is bound to emerge between 2018 en 2024.’
Navalny however, will never incorporate his project in a traditional party structure again. On the 6th of September 2017 he returned from Strasbourg, where he presented the case of the refusal to register his own party, to the European Court of Human Rights.
Navalny mobilises the masses in opposition to President Putin. That doesn’t mean he is the perfect liberal democrat. Navalny in fact, cultivates an authoritarian leadership structure, a personality cult and defends nationalist populist positions.
Sergei Davidis, closely involved in the founding of Solidarity, is well aware of the conflicts with Navalny.
‘Navalny modernises mobilisation strategies but not party structures’, he says. ‘He remains typically Russian. He does nothing to counter the appeal of the strong leader for the Russian people. On the contrary.’
‘Navalny is a nationalist populist’
Five years ago, Oleg Rodin of Yabloko started as a volunteer for Navalny but left the movement because he wasn’t comfortable with his position on migration and terrorism.
Navalny, like European populist leaders, links migration to terrorism. He used the Manhattan attack on cyclists to criticise Putin: ‘Where is Russia’s immigration policy?’
One point in his programme is the introduction of a visa regime between Russia and the ex-Soviet Central Asian Republics. He wants to limit the massive flow of illegal immigrants from those countries and deal with the presence of a million undocumented migrants.
‘Sorry, but President Navalny would send them all back. Are their miserable circumstances humane then?’, asked campaign leader Leonid Volkov in an interview.
‘There’s so little jobs for Russians to start off with and then immigrants come in and steal their jobs’, says Anna Petkoglo, notwithstanding her own worldview changed through freedom of movement and travel. ‘To me, patriotism means doing something for Russia, for poor Russians. I want to improve the life of the ordinary citizen, my mother, my brother. They are very poor right now.’
‘Navalny could be the next Putin. I’ve seen from the inside how he leads a party.’
Svetlana Gannuskina, well known Russian human rights defender and director of an NGO that defends refugees and migrants is furious about Navalny. And Alexander Verkhovsky, director of a think tank which monitors extremism, says ultranationalists are involved in Navalny’s protest movement. ‘That’s risky’, says Verkhovsky.
The crowds he mobilises are too varied and diverse to be united by just one leader, so they’re not a reliable indicator of Navalny’s claim to power. However, the demonstrations remain the sole platform where most Russians can publicly express a dissident opinion.
Many social groups hope to fight their own pragmatic battles via that platform, even if some have an aversion to Navalny.
And there is one important demographic group Navalny doesn’t mobilise, though they might well be fans: the poor. Navalny tries to appeal to the poor with his talk of the scandalous enrichment of the elite surrounding President Putin, comparing it with lower living standards and rising prices for the common man.
In this way he combines his nationalist populism with a leftist message that can also be heard from the Communists.
The economic gap is striking when you leave the city centres and head out to the distant suburbs of Moscow or Nizhny Novgorod. Hundreds of thousands live in tiny apartments in high-rise buildings.
Hatred of Putin, praise for Stalin, indifference towards Navalny
Dmitry Kamzolov is watching television in his flat. He knows of Navalny, from the time when state television showed footage of the Maidan protests in Ukraine and of Navalny’s street demonstrations in Russia. That Navalny is an American agent. All lies according to Dmitry. He’s filled with hatred towards Putin.
He lives with his wife on subsistence wages. After a row with neighbours he suffered a bloody beating from police officers who were relatives of the other party. Eight times the public prosecutor refused to instigate an investigation.
Four years after that police brutality, Dmitry has yet to see justice. ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is a populist talker, not a doer’, he sneers. ‘The tsar knows is aware of everything. Should I remain a worm in my hole for the rest of my life? If you stay quiet, nothing changes.’
The man seems to be ready for the next revolution. Yet he didn’t take part in Navalny’s demonstrations in March and June. ‘We need a new Stalin, a strong leader who will clear the house with an iron fist and rid us of all the corrupt and criminal institutions’, says Dmitry.
How will Navalny come to power if not by election? ‘What if his objective is not to win the elections but to grab power?’, asks journalist Ilya Azar of Novaya Gazeta.
A revolution, like in Ukraine?
‘Set your imagination free’, says Azar. ‘Navalny is assembling as many people and opposition forces behind himself, alone, in order to challenge that other powerful person, Putin, over the next six years. That’s a revolutionary cocktail.’
“I doubt Russia will make it to the 2024 elections. Something dramatic is bound to happen in the course of the next six years” is an oft-heard viewpoint among Navalny2018 volunteers.
‘Navalny is assembling as many people behind himself, alone, in order, over the next six years, to be in a position to challenge that other powerful person: Putin.’
Navalny himself draws a parallel with the 1905 revolution. ‘The 2011 wave of protests resembles the 1905 revolution. It provoked a reaction that resulted in the fall of the tsar in 1917’, he says in All the Kremlin’s Men, a book by journalist Mikhail Zygar.
A startling number of activists from the liberal Russian opposition were present during the 2004 and the 2014 revolutions in Ukraine. Campaign leader Nikolai Laskin was there in 2004 but remains vague on the question if it’s the only way to get rid of Putin.
‘But, if they would see the final efforts to bring down Putin were close, they would all do the same as in Ukraine’, says one of the young volunteers in Nizhny Novgorod.
The more realistic change itself seems, the stronger the belief in revolution and the willingness among opposition parties to engage in real cooperation. In 2011, the united opposition came much closer to that than Navalny does today.
In the absence of revolution: apathy or radicalisation?
Is some form of resolution feasible, a government of national unity? For that Putin would have to be sacrificed. Through his work as director of Golos, the largest independent election monitoring body, Roman Udot is well informed about Putin’s popularity.
‘People will forget Putin faster than you might imagine’, says Udot.
‘Medvedev became president in 2008 with 70% of the vote. Putin in 2012 with 63%. After Nemtsov’s murder, Putin disappeared for a month. Who came out in the streets to demand clarity about their beloved leader? No one. Most people are cynical and don’t care about who’s in the Kremlin.’
According to Laskin, civil servants would work under another president without many problems. ‘I’m not referring to the top of the judiciary or the ministries. They would naturally have to be ousted. But Navalny does address the police and soldiers, in an effort to convince them that he could be their president too.’
‘Moreover, he has many followers among the police, who are susceptible to his message complaining about the enrichment of that small powerful elite, while the salaries of the police remain low. On the road to Kursk, our bus was held up by a police control. Afterwards the police officer asked Navalny’s autograph.’
‘I find it encouraging that so many people turn up at his demonstrations. It shows there are still civilians in this country who believe in politics.’
‘Putin is not a real politician’, says Roman Udot. ‘He’s a product. He was fabricated as a strong leader. Then the system worked to hold him in the saddle via a series of coups. Not once has he matched himself against other candidates in a free and fair election.’
‘Navalny is a politician in the true sense of the word. I find it encouraging that so many people turn up at his demonstrations. It shows there are still civilians in this country who believe in politics and an honest society. A sufficiently large segment of our society therefore, appears to be healthy. The healthier the body though, the more viciously the disease is likely to fight back.’
The disease won’t cure itself. Reform from the inside is unlikely. Putin saw how Gorbachev’s Perestroika led to the collapse of an entire state. More than likely, the political violence imposed by government on the opposition, will grow. This in turn may radicalise a segment of the opposition.
Thanks to Navalny, the group of Russians who believe in change is growing. If change does not follow, a revolutionary conflict may ensue. It might on the other hand, merely lead to another peak in apathy. In that case Navalny is playing with fire, for apathy is the greatest gift imaginable for the current regime.
If Navalny would get a chance to make good on his promises of justice, people like Dmitry Kamzolov may be less inclined to rally behind dictators like Stalin.
‘However, justice also means ensuring institutions such as elections, media, parliament and justice are made independent so future presidents cannot occupy the levers of power or the state’, says Oleg Rodin of Yabloko. ‘Russia doesn’t need another strong man.’
‘Otherwise, fundamentally, nothing will have changed in Russia. I’m not sure who Navalny is: a true liberal, or someone who is out to occupy the state again. He could become the next Putin.’
In 2018 Russia truly stands at a crossroads: more apathy or more radicalisation? No one knows which path the country will follow.
This special report was made possible with the support of the Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistiek.
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