Alexei Navalny and the Cycle of Russian Protest

Outside of highly orchestrated elections, politics in the country is effectively reduced to online campaigning and street demonstrations.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks after a hearing in a court in Moscow, late on June 12, 2017.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks after a hearing in a court in Moscow on June 12, 2017. (Vasily Maximov / Getty)

The wave of public protest that swept Russia this week was weak and barely organized, but it deserves careful attention. And not just because of the fact that some 1,500 people were detained Monday while waving national flags on a national day: June 12, Russia’s Independence Day.

People who took to the streets in all of the country’s 11 time zones used slogans like “corruption is stealing our future” and chanted “Russia without Putin.” Those detained included Alexei Navalny, the force behind the protests. While most of the others were let go, Navalny was sentenced to 30 days in prison for leading an unsanctioned rally. (Every mass public event in Russia has to go through a “notification procedure,” which in practice means that any rally can be effectively blocked.)

The events provided another demonstration of the fact that outside of Russia’s carefully orchestrated elections, politics in the country is effectively reduced to online campaigning and peaceful street protest. Navalny, who has built a name for himself as an investigator of high-level corruption, excels at both, but is currently constrained to stay within the political enclosure reserved for barely tolerated outsiders. Navalny’s project is to break out of it and become a nationally recognized leader by proving his relevance— but to do so without resorting to hardline populism or violence.

Within the reservation bounded by Russia’s political constraints, he is the most successful player. While other opposition leaders are struggling to reach out to their prospective electorates, Navalny is expanding his game. Despite the fact that his party is not officially registered, and he is unlikely to be allowed to run for office in the presidential elections set for the spring of 2018, Navalny is leading a self-proclaimed presidential campaign. This difficult and risky move has so far paid off, mostly because no one else is as politically proactive as Navalny.

His group, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, is producing well-documented blog posts, video documentaries, a regular YouTube “television” show, and an incessant social-media campaign against corruption. Building on these, he organizes rallies and encourages people to go out to attract attention to his causes.

The latest case in point was a documentary about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who, according to the video, amassed luxury properties through “donations” to a chain of bogus charity funds. The film, which is approaching 23 million views on YouTube as of this writing, helped inspire tens of thousands of people in at least 80 Russian cities to join protests in late March. The protest of June 12 attracted a somewhat smaller crowd (the numbers are hard to assess because the estimates are all local and vary wildly depending on who is estimating; up to 60,000 nationwide is a figure that has been circulating). But it still proved a substantial showing considering the risks of joining an anti-government protest, which can include beatings and detention.

Navalny is styling himself as a refuge for all those who do not feel themselves politically represented. The difficulty (that many consider a blessing) for any opposition force, Navalny included, is the fact that Russians are conscious of living in a land of too many revolutions and often shy away from illegal or violent protest. This means the political action that does occur has to retain as much legality as possible without losing relevance. Navalny had, with much delay, secured authorization to hold an event in one place. But right before it was set to occur, Navalny said the Moscow municipal government was stonewalling his attempts to procure a sound system for the rally, and transferred the event to a place that was not authorized. A lot of criticism of Navalny is centered on this fact: He is playing with fire while subjecting his followers, many of them young, to risks of arrest and jail terms.

The other line of criticism is the opposite: Many think of Navalny as a secret surrogate of some powerful player within the Kremlin system. This school of thought is built on a speculation that no one else in Russia is able to play the kinds of games Navalny is playing and stay out of jail (most of the time) or even alive and fit.

There is a narrow path of political action for people outside of Russia’s power structures. One has to avoid the kind of violence that would lead to a spiral few in Russia want to contemplate. One also has to avoid falling into the multiple traps planted by political management that, through constant fiddling with the legal framework, aims at rendering all outsider politics toothless. The parallel is China, which is able to sustain tens of thousands of “mass incidents” a year, mainly because the bulk of that action focuses on local grievances without challenging the higher authorities in Beijing.

That said, Russia is decidedly not China. Outside the Kremlin-controlled universe there are potential opportunities for politicians and voters to use when they feel strongly about something. When a unifying theme arises, people can take to the streets and do not limit themselves to narrow causes: They are able to draw connections between a local grievance and a larger order of things. This is a huge asset for a smart politician.

The paradox of today’s Russia is that the elites are complacent because President Vladimir Putin’s system looks unshakable, and the opposition is largely passive because Putin’s standing seems unassailable. The Russian president’s official approval rating, currently at 81 percent according to a May 2017, Levada poll, is indeed sky-high. But the basic explanation for this is circular: It makes sense to support Putin because there is no alternative; and there is no alternative in part because everybody is supporting Putin.

Navalny’s gamble is to try to break this circle and make sure that the upcoming presidential campaign would be irrelevant without him taking part. Navalny is carving out a place for his movement outside of the officially approved red lines, but his aim is to achieve the kind of status that would catapult him into mainstream politics.