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.

"If someone who is as high-profile as Aleksei Navalny has become uses ugly words to describe ethnic minorities and appears to appeal directly to some of the most fundamentalist values of ethnic Russians, then there is a real danger that extremist elements -- which I'm quite sure Navalny himself would condemn -- will see that as a sanction for their behavior," Goble says.

Navalny has also at times seemed insensitive to the historical echoes that words like "deportation" have to some national groups within Russia.

Longtime rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva attributes some of the 37-year-old Navalny's apparent aggression and prickliness to a lack of experience. "This harsh, even annoyed tone of his characterizes Navalny as an inexperienced politician, because an experienced politician answers any -- even the most outrageous -- question calmly with a polite smile," she says. "And he only benefits from doing so."

Others, however, appreciate what they see as Navalny's candor and consistency. Journalist Aider Muzhdabayev recently had a public exchange of letters with Navalny about his nationalist positions. While many felt that Navalny answered Muzhdabayev's questions almost rudely, Muzhdabayev himself was satisfied.

"Maybe we vote with our hearts, and we value sincerity. Some people might like what he said; some people might not like it. But I appreciate that he answered sincerely. We got a political portrait of a man who we knew mostly from his battle against corruption -- his noble and selfless struggle, which I support 100 percent," Muzhdabayev says. "Now we have learned how he emotionally, as a person, [reacts]."

In part, the fears of Navalny's nationalist views have been fanned by media connected with the Kremlin and the United Russia party. Kremlin-friendly journalist Vladimir Solovyov has hammered at this theme vigorously in recent months.

The Kremlin has routinely asserted that Russia faces two existential threats -- destructive nationalism at home and hostile foreign governments abroad -- with the Bonapartist implication that only an authoritarian central government can maintain order.

In September 2012, Navalny participated in a heated interview with United Russia Duma Deputy Andrei Isayev in which Isayev tried both tactics, first trying to stick Navalny with the nationalist label and then accusing him of being a tool of the United States.

Isayev: "Who do you consider yourself -- a liberal, a nationalist, a socialist like [leftist opposition activist Sergei] Udaltsov?"
Navalny: "Andrei, I consider myself a responsible citizen of the Russian Federation."
Isayev: "I can't accept that. There are political positions..."
Navalny: "We have found a key difference between us. Let me answer the question. This is a key difference. You like [former Moscow Mayor Yury] Luzhkov, [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, Putin. You like anyone who maintains your seat in the State Duma."
Isayev: "That's not true."
Navalny: "But I have said the same things..."
Isayev: "In that case, you like the United States of America, which keeps you afloat in any movement."

Isayev then went on to ask Navalny what he studied when he had a six-month scholarship at Yale University in 2010 and "who paid for it."

But Navalny has steadfastly refused to be typecast. His insistence that he is "a responsible citizen of the Russian Federation" and his unrelenting calls for observing the rule of law have become his trademarks.

These positions have won over many doubters within the opposition to Putin. Even analysts in non-Russian regions find little public concern about Navalny's purported nationalism.

"Tatars and Bashkirs wish only for democracy. We shouldn't be afraid of Navalny. He'll make the Russian authorities move toward democratization. They have no choice other than to improve. Otherwise, there'll be revolution in Russia," says Ildar Gabdrafikov, an expert on ethnic policy in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan.

Activists in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and the North Caucasus have called for more coherent ethnic policies and more open discussion of ethnic issues in Russia for many years.

Opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov has urged Russians to support Navalny, despite his concerns about some of Navalny's positions and their past tactical disputes.

Liberal journalist Matvei Ganapolsky agrees with Nemtsov. "I am completely pragmatic in my attitude toward Navalny. For me, he is a tool -- Navalny. His opinions about the authorities in Moscow, about the anti-Kremlin mood, completely correspond to my own," Ganapolsky says. "I want to see honest elections in Moscow. I don't have any other candidate."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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