Is Aleksei Navalny a Liberal or a Nationalist?

While his positions are broadly endorsed by Russia's opposition, some have voiced alarm about past ethnically charged statements.
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Aleksei Navalny (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

Aleksei Navalny has been called the best hope for liberalization in Russia. And he has been called the most dangerous man in the country.

Navalny has risen quickly to become the de facto head of Russia's anti-Kremlin opposition -- a rise based almost entirely on his relentless exposure of high-level hypocrisy and corruption and his consistent demand for fair elections.

While those positions are broadly endorsed by Russia's liberals, some have voiced alarm about Navalny's association with ethnic Russian nationalists and about some of his statements that they say are dangerously inflammatory.

Now that he is the leading opposition candidate in the September 8 mayoral election in Moscow, his past positions are coming under increased scrutiny -- including by some who have coordinated the opposition to President Vladimir Putin's rule for more than a decade.

Controversially, Navalny has participated in the annual Russian March, a parade uniting Russian nationalist groups of all stripes. He has also endorsed a nationalist-led campaign called Stop Feeding the Caucasus that has called for ending federal subsidies to the "corrupt" and "ineffective" governments of Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics.

"Those of us who are here, we know and believe that there are also 'normal' people in the Caucasus -- not only those freaks who are in power. We know that there are girls there whose life's ambition is not about being wrapped up in a burqa and having 25 children, but about living a decent life like humans. There are young people who want to study and work -- and their ideal of life is not a Porsche Cayenne and a golden gun," he told a Stop Feeding the Caucasus rally in October 2011 (watch video of that speech here).

He also supported Russia in its war against Georgia in August 2008, using a derogatory term for Georgians in some of his blog posts and calling for all Georgians to be expelled from Russia. He has since apologized for using the racist epithet, but says he stands by the other positions he took at that time.

He has at various times called for deporting illegal immigrants and introducing a visa regime for the countries of Central Asia.

Engelina Tareyeva, who worked with Navalny when he was a member of the liberal Yabloko party before he was expelled in 2007, has accused him of routinely using racial slurs and basing his relations with people on their ethnicity. "I consider Aleksei Navalny the most dangerous man in Russia," Tareyeva has written. "You don't have to be a genius to understand that the most horrific thing that could happen in our country would be the nationalists coming to power."

Navalny has flatly rejected Tareyeva's charges. Moreover, Navalny has rejected the widespread notion that discussing issues important to ethnic Russians will necessarily lead to neo-Nazism.

In an interview in January, Navalny laid out the main points of the so-called nationalist agenda, including combating illegal immigration and ethnically based organized-crime groups; protecting ethnic Russians abroad; and bringing order to the North Caucasus, which he has called a de facto lawless "off-shore zone."

He called for an open discussion of all these issues -- which he prefers to call a "realistic agenda" -- in order to develop policies that will prevent ethnic conflict. "This is a basic, realistic agenda," he said. "It exists, but for some reason many in the liberal movement think that all these questions have to be suppressed because a discussion of them would mean the mythical dark side of the soul of the Russian people will be inflamed and the Russian people will immediately produce a Hitler and so on. This is all absolute nonsense."

Navalny also said that the idea of a violent stream of Russian nationalism lurking just beneath the surface is partly a creation of the authorities themselves. "[The nationalist movement] is a quite divided movement that has many problems. One of the most important problems is connected with the fact that it is completely infiltrated with an enormous number of provocateurs introduced by the secret services in order to control the movement," he said. "And the majority of the obviously extremist things that they say are said by these provocateurs."

Paul Goble, a U.S.-based expert on ethnic relations in Russia, says the country's liberal opposition has failed to win broad support over the years in part because it has not addressed issues that are important to the ethnic Russian majority. He believes Navalny's open approach to such issues could be politically successful, but cautions he shouldn't dismiss the danger of extremism too cavalierly.

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