On December 5, the day after Russia’s Duma elections, the anti-corruption crusader and popular blogger, Alexei Navalny, told a raucous crowd, “I want to say to you: Thank you. Thank you for playing you part as a citizen. Thank you for telling these assholes, ‘We’re here!’ For telling the bearded [Electoral Commission head Vladimir] Churov and his superiors: ‘We exist!’ We have our voices. We exist! We exist! They hear that voice and they are afraid! They can chuckle on their zombie-boxes. They can call us “microbloggers” or ‘network hamsters!’ I am a network hamster, and I will slit the throats of these cattle!” Shortly after giving this speech, Navalny was arrested, and by the next morning, sentenced to 15 days in a petspriyomnik (special detention center) outside of Moscow. Navalny was released on December 20, and has been considered among many the de facto leader of the Russian opposition.
Why Navalny? One reason is that declarations like “I will slit the throats of these cattle,” though metaphorical, are no mere puffery. Unlike many in the Russian opposition, Navalny puts his words into action, and in a climate where more than a few government critics have met their demise, this action puts his life on the line. Yet, he remains fearless. “It’s better to die standing up that live on your knees,” he told the New Yorker’s Julia Ioffe last spring. With that kind of gumption, it’s safe to say that Navalny has become a nagging pain in the ass of Russia’s corrupt elite. He’s done so not by staging rallies, leading a political organization, or seeking political office. Navalny is an activist of the 21st century: his weapons are a blog, Twitter, and a crowdsourcing website. His army is motley of “network hamsters” ready to root out big moneyed corruption by combing through dry contracts posted on his site Rospil. The results are impressive. Since Rospil’s creation in December 2010, Navalny and his army are responsible for the cancelling of $1.2 billion worth of state contracts. Given all this, it’s amazing that someone has yet to slit his throat.
But Navalny is more than an anti-corruption crusader and renowned blogger. The thirty-five year old Muscovite lawyer is also emblematic of two forces that were once supporters of Putin, but are now increasingly turning against him: the urban, educated middle class, or ROG (russkie obrazovannye gorozhane) as pundit Stanislav Belkovskii has dubbed them, and Russians with nationalist sympathies. On the surface these two groups appear antithetical to each other. The former are often described as “hipster-gadget-lovers” (khipstery-gazhetomany) more interested in Moscow’s cafes, clubs, and sushi bars, and, until two weeks ago, showed no interest in politics besides ranting on their Live Journal blogs and Twitter accounts. The nationalists are portrayed as racist working class street thugs whose sense of Russian victimhood speaks through fists and boots to the heads of migrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. Nevertheless, both groups share common ground: they’re by and large suspicious of the West and the Russian liberals who extol its values, patriotic, despise corruption, view immigrants as destroying the integrity of the Russian nation and increasingly loathe Putin and his cronies. With a foot in each world, Navalny is emerging as the logical person who could unite them around a new mass political movement based on what Alexei Pimenov recently called “an anti-corruption pathos plus the national idea.”
Middle Class Envy
Alexei Navalny’s life story is representative of both groups. Born in 1976 to a fairly middle class Soviet family (his father a Red Army communications officer and his mother an economist), Navalny’s formative years fell smack dab in the middle of Russia’s post-Soviet Time of Troubles. Then, as before, corruption was endemic. As a law student at the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, Navalny was no less immune to the encroachment of bribery on everyday life. He recalled to Julia Ioffe, for example, the necessity of slipping fifty dollar bills in his exam book to ensure a passing grade. After graduation, Navalny did a short stint in a real estate agency where he got an insider’s look at how Russia really worked. “Working there,” he told Ioffe, “taught me how things are done on the inside, how intermediary companies are built, how money is shuffled around.” But his brush with big time corruption came in 2007, when he began looking into why his portfolio of Gazprom, Rosneft, and Transneft stock gave so little return despite their enormous profits. His investigations into the matter revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars were begin skimmed from Transneft’s coffers through expensive contracts with shell companies. He filed a lawsuit demanding the release of documents disclosing to who and where the money went. The case is still in court, and to the surprise of many, Navalny has had enough court rulings in his favor to keep it alive. By 2008, Navalny began blogging about his anti-corruption efforts because, as he told Charles Clover of the Financial Times, he had “had enough.” “In Russia, everyone talks about the so called vertical [system] of power,” Navalny explained. “But it’s really just a vertical of corruption.”
Navalny’s personal crusade against corruption is unique, but his experience with it is not. Unlike in Soviet times where a bottle of vodka, a favor, or an introduction to a potentate greased the wheels, money rapidly became the tender in post-Soviet corruption. This made the system of favors impersonal and more hierarchical, polarizing the haves and the have-nots. This is not to suggest that personal relations ceased to matter. On the contrary. To climb up in Russia’s business world required money and connections. And for many in Russia’s emerging middle class this combination created an impenetrable glass ceiling.
Nevertheless, Russia’s middle class acquiesced to this situation throughout the 2000s. Russia was booming, oil money was trickling down, and the Russian middle class was expanding to as much as 20 percent of the population. Despite their increasingly social and economic power, few in the middle class made demands even as Putin’s government neutered the political opposition and consolidated state power around a circle of cronies from St. Petersburg. Instead a tacit agreement was broached between Putin and the Russian people as a whole and the middle class in particular: economic stability, and even prosperity, for political loyalty. By the end of his second term, Putin felt confident enough that this deal was secure that he installed his protégé Dmitry Medvedev as President but still remained in the halls of power as Prime Minister. Kremlin Inc. rolled on.
Cracks in this deal began emerging with the 2008 economic crash. Though Russia recovered quickly overall, the middle class failed to recuperate. According to a report by the Zircon Research Group, Russia’s middle class was shrinking. The percentage of Russians identifying themselves as “middle class” fell from 54 percent to 47 percent. Zircon estimated that the class had shrunk from a pre-crisis 20 percent to 12 percent of the population. Another indicative figure was the number of people selling their wares to pawn shops. The Moscow city run pawnshop chain Mosgorlombard saw a 50 percent boost in its customers, from 200 to more than 300 daily. And these new customers weren’t just the poor, as one would assume. “Business owners have started coming. They need to find ways to keep their businesses going, they need emergency cash,” Irina Palmova, the shop’s director said.
Russians are getting increasingly dissatisfied with the state of things and particularly with corruption. Navalny’s brilliant slogan painting United Russia as “The Party of Crooks and Thieves” has gathered wide currency on the internet and print media. More and more Russians feel that the country is going in the wrong direction and their confidence that Putin, Medvedev and United Russia could sway the course is precipitously diminishing. Thus, Medvedev’s and Putin’s “surprise” announcement last September that the latter is returning to the Presidency adds insult to injury. Moreover the dynamic duo revealed that this was the plan all along. The last four years were a wash, the Tsar is coming back, and no one cared to ask the Russian middle class their opinion about any of it. Putin’s message to the electorate is clear: “I don’t care what you think, so much so that I put this little gnome in the driver’s seat for four years just so I could get around the term limits in the Constitution. I’m back, but the truth is, I never left.” Russians are now facing at least six, and possibly twelve more years of President Putin’s botoxed mug.
Revolt of the Nationalists
The other side, some would say the dark side to Alexei Navalny’s politics is that he’s a Russian nationalist. As Kevin Rothrock has argued in convincing detail, Navalny’s nationalism is no mere dalliance or opportunistic attempt to feed off Russians’ distaste for Central Asians and Caucasians. Rather, he has a long track record of political involvement in nationalist politics. In 2007, he co-founded the nationalist group NAROD (The National Russian Liberation Movement). Their manifesto, an admixture of what Navalny calls “democratic nationalism,” includes calls for democratic control of the state along with volkish precepts like “ending the degradation of Russian (russkii) civilization” restoring the “organic unity of the Russian past, present and future” and “every Russian (russkii) must have the right to receive Russian citizenship and the possibility to return to the Motherland.” Yabloko expelled Navalny in 2007 for his participation in NAROD and other nationalist activities. At the end of his expulsion hearing, he yelled “Glory to Russia!” and stormed out. Among his other nationalist fits, he wrote off the neo-fascist Movement Against Illegal Immigration as harmless as “girl scouts”; declared that immigrants “will NEVER assimilate” and are a “bomb under our future”; called on Russians to arm themselves against “Muslim-looking criminals,” supported the nationalist inspired “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” campaign, and most recently joined the organizing committee of the yearly nationalist powwow, the Russian March. When Russian liberals flew into a tizzy over the last move, Navalny explained it thus: “I clearly supported this long-held idea of mine, if you don’t like those who will go on the Russian March, go there yourself and make it better. There they will talk about real problems and ‘liberal-schmiberal’ labels are nonsense.”
Whatever one thinks of Navalny’s nationalism, the truth of the matter is that his beliefs coincide with the majority of Russians’ views on immigration and the North Caucasus. Nationalism and immigrant bashing has populist resonance in Russia, and until recently the Kremlin was willing to tap it to consolidate its own power. For many Russians, nationalist or not, Putin symbolizes the ideal Russian man: conservative, athletic, sober, religious, and patriotic. He returned Russia to international prominence after ten years of humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the extreme right love him for his recognition that the core Russian values are “none other than patriotism, love of one’s motherland, love of one’s own home, one’s people.” But Putin’s stature of a defender of the Slavic nation, like his approval in general, is shrinking among nationalists as an estimated four to eight million illegal immigrants enter Russia every year to do much of the labor to fill the power elites’ pockets with money. “There is more than just massive dissatisfaction with the state,” Valeriy Solovey, the nationalist academic and ideologue told Reuters. “It’s hatred. That hatred is directed at all organs of the state and it’s directed at the very top — I mean the prime minister and the president.”
Russian nationalists might be able to garner at least the moral support of the public to their cause. True, most Russians scoff at the rhetoric of extreme nationalists, but their obsession with immigration does constitute a “real problem.” According to polls conducted by the Levada Center, the majority of Russians identify with the nationalist slogans “Russia for Russians” and “Stop Feeding the Caucasus.” When asked whether they supported the slogan, “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” 62 percent answered that “definitely support” or “partially support.” To the question “How do you relate to the idea ‘Russia for Russians’?” a total of 54 percent answered with some support, while 32 percent called it “fascist.”
Navalny recognizes the potential of uniting Russia’s middle classes and nationalists. In fact, it’s an alliance he’s been advocating since at least 2007. There is no doubt he’s made some inroads into both camps. A virtual cult has sprouted around him in liberal circles. One of his biggest boosters is the prominent liberal pundit Yulia Latynina, who recently labeled him the “only electable Russian.” And just this week his formal party, Yabloko, was getting pressure to nominate Navalny as their presidential candidate. To which, the party’s leader Sergei Mitrokhin angrily tweeted: “Navalny will not be nominated. 1) He didn’t express any desire to be; 2) He was expelled from Yabloko for nationalism. He has not given up this view;” And “Nationalism would be ruinous for the Russia. Yabloko cannot support nationalists even if they’re popular. We will not change out principles for popularity.” He then told “Navanly’s fans” to shut up about it.
Navalny’s efforts to cajole the nationalists have been less successful. His membership to the Russian March organizing committee notwithstanding, his slogan “Party of Crooks and Thieves” made few inroads among the Russian Imperial flag bearing and Seig Heil-ing crowd. Nationalist like Konstantin Krylov, Vladimir Tor, Dmitrii Demushkin, Alexander Belov see Navalny as an ally, but not their leader.
Plus, liberals and nationalists remain deeply divided within the protest camp. A few hundred nationalists joined the mass protest at Bolontaya, but many in the crowd shouted that they were provocateurs and organizers only allowed Krylov to address the crowd. Both groups are trying to take possession of the movement sparked by the December 4 elections. Protest organizer and human rights activist, Lev Ponomarev is arguing for the necessity to put the nationalists “in their place once and for all.” The nationalists are firing back that they will prevent the liberals from “privatizing” the movement.
Can Navalny unite these forces? He could, and what is more, he might not need the liberal or the nationalist leadership to do it. Both the middle class and Russians with nationalist sympathies share more common ground that their leaders are willing to admit. In fact, the average ROG and the average nationalist might be one in the same. In a response to whether the “anti-corruption pathos plus national idea” had any currency, the sociologist Ovsei Shkaratan said the following:
Yes, [the protesters at Bolotnaya] are nationalists. Of course, those who went to Manezh (the nationalist riot in December 2010) are not their crowd. But they would interact with them. Be as that may, it would not be cause for hysteria if this were to happen. It could come to this. They want to live in a serious stable country where serious and educated people are in power. I repeat: I’m not terribly convinced that they are democrats. But they don’t consider the far right existing in our country as either educated or competent, and to cooperate with them isn’t necessary.
But Alexei Navany is educated and competent. And he’s ready to slit throats.
Sean Guillory is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He blogs about Russia at Sean’s Russia Blog and can be followed on Twitter @seansrussiablog.
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