Russia Doesn't Have a Navalny 2.0

Alexey Navalny long avoided the fate of Russian opposition voices who have been removed with regularity and impunity. But with his anti-corruption campaign, popular YouTube videos and a “smart voting” strategy that encourages voters to back candidates with the best chance of defeating Kremlin picks, he became an intolerable threat to President Vladimir Putin. 

Attacked with a military-grade nerve agent last year, he survived and on returning from convalescence in Berlin was immediately arrested, tried and jailed. Prosecutors have now begun a process that’s expected to ban his Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist organization.” His allies have announced they are disbanding his regional political network under mounting pressure from the authorities.

Navalny is a complex figure — anti-corruption campaigner, democrat, nationalist, pragmatist. He isn’t universally popular, and yet he’s the strongest anti-Kremlin voice to emerge in years.

What happens next? To try and parse that and more, I spoke with the authors of a forthcoming book, “Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?,” Morvan Lallouet at the University of Kent, Jan Matti Dollbaum of Bremen University and Ben Noble of University College London. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Clara Ferreira Marques: Let’s talk about the “Navalny factor.” How central is he?

Ben Noble: Navalny is able to be Navalny because of broad structural issues, like elite corruption. But there are things about him that are, if not unique, then certainly unique in his combination — his way with words, his media savvy and his way of engaging with people in a new and distinctive manner.

It’s also the reason why, with Navalny behind bars, there is not a Navalny 2.0 to call upon. There are people who might emerge into the role, but as we speak now, it’s clear that people in his movement can’t replicate this. There is nothing magical about him — it’s just he has been able to hone these skills over time.

Morvan Lallouet: He represents a changing generation. The older generation relied more on traditional party structures. Navalny, through his use of social media, blogging, YouTube, through his investigation work — he has tried to renew the liberal opposition using the tools of the 21st century. 

CFM:  Does that make his jailing more worrisome than the effort to ban his campaign and regional offices?

ML: It’s the threat to the organization (that is more concerning), but it should be noted that Navalny is above his peers in terms of charisma and name recognition, so the fact that he cannot communicate directly and has to go through his lawyers, is a big blow. 

CFM: Navalny does poorly in opinion polls, and yet he galvanizes people to the point of unsettling the Kremlin. How much of that is down to his focus on corruption?

Jan Matti Dollbaum: The anti-corruption campaign is very effective. It’s very difficult to gain support in Russia. Dating back to the 1990s, there is a lot of suspicion and mistrust in politics and politicians in general. The anti-corruption cause is a great bridge to use as a core topic — something that is, first of all, not easily placed within any political ideology, but also that is in the everyday experience of many people. 

BN: In a sense, he stumbled upon this topic, realizing over time he could use it politically. We shouldn’t forget these steps that have shaped Navalny — and that have forced the Kremlin to adapt — as we consider the recent crescendo in repression. A number of red lines have been crossed. People used to ask why hasn’t the Kremlin taken out Navalny? One interpretation is that they thought it was a step too far. He was a known quantity and could be monitored and controlled. But for whatever reason — if the state was behind his poisoning  — a red line was crossed. In response, Navalny crossed a red line by investigating Putin’s palace

CFM: It’s intriguing, nonetheless, that he is perceived as such a challenger.

JMD: It’s the idea of having an alternative. Putin’s power has been based on the notion that there isn’t an alternative to him. Of course, Putin has real support and that shouldn’t be disregarded in any way, but some of that support is based on the idea that there is no one to replace him. That’s very powerful.

ML: If there were to be a free and fair election today — a contest between Putin and Navalny — you could not say that Navalny would win easily. But he has achieved a remarkable level of support while being actively repressed for many years. There has been an acceleration in repression over the past year, but it’s not as if before that Navalny’s political career was a cakewalk. Most of his supporters can’t stand for election, he can’t register a party, he can’t appear on state television. The hurdles placed before him are enormous. In that context, the support levels he has really suggest he is a threat — and the Kremlin is aware of this.

CFM: The September parliamentary vote will elect deputies who will serve in the run up to 2024’s presidential race. What should we expect?

JMD: The Kremlin is approaching this with heightened concern. The ratings of (pro-Kremlin party) United Russia are currently around 30%, which is markedly lower than they were before the last parliamentary elections, and not where the Kremlin wants them if they are to retain a majority in the Duma easily. This is a situation when something like smart voting is supposed to work best, because there is already a readiness in the population not to support United Russia and their candidates. 

ML: What I think we don’t know, given the escalation of repression now, is how this will work in technical terms. The (smart voting) campaign is reliant on a website, an app, that was relatively available. Are they going to be able to use these tools in this repressive context?

BN: The word that keeps being repeated by the presidential administration regarding the elections is: legitimacy, legitimacy, legitimacy. The Kremlin wants to have a solid, stable parliament to remove any kind of uncertainty. They don’t want the elites wondering if United Russia will crumble or whether people still support Putin.

How do you combine a focus on legitimacy with labelling the foremost opposition figure and his movement as extremist? The answer is the rhetoric of foreign interference. We will continue to see the Kremlin talk about foreign interference and the opposition, and to encourage people to rally round the flag against this alleged meddling. That’s how they think they can get the majority or the super-majority they need in parliament, to make them seem legitimate enough by the population — and do so in a way that justifies the repression against Navalny.

CFM: Beyond Navalny, is there another force that could challenge Putin? 

JMD: There is always the question of what the Communist Party will do. From the top they are very much controlled by their leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is not going to challenge Putin. But there are people in the party who think differently and we’ve seen a few instances where party figures in the regions were supporting Navalny, calling for protests over how he was being treated and trying to move the party into more direct opposition to Putin.

These voices have been silenced for now, but they exist. The party is a very strong force. It has a lot of voters and infrastructure. This is where you would look for opposition that actually has some outreach and power. But for these elections, this is still way too early to count as a source of serious uncertainty for the Kremlin.

ML: The only liberal party of note today is Yabloko, the party from which Navalny was expelled.  No one is betting much on this party making a breakthrough. It’s a party with interesting personalities and active branches, but most people would agree the party is past its prime.

CFM: So where does all of this leave Putin?

BN: One of the interpretations of this acceleration in coercion is that the Kremlin has decided it’s going to take the path of repression, and it’s going to do that in a much clearer way than before. It’s moving away from simply frustrating opposition in lots of different ways, and it’s taken the nuclear option. 

The worry for the Kremlin is that there was a reason that it took the softer approach previously, and that’s because it can lead to a more durable regime in the long run. You have less of a buildup of discontent, and the state can keep tabs on grievances expressed through things like protest. 

JMD: The Kremlin seems to have effectively repressed Navalny’s movement. It is a short-term win for them, but the win comes at a price. We don’t know how high that will be, but for now they are willing to pay it.

CFM: What’s your advice to Western policy makers trying to influence what happens next?

ML: We are not foreign policy experts, but we can say the West does not have a lot of leeway to influence processes that are pretty much driven by domestic considerations. Bending to the West right now would be perceived by the Kremlin as a sign of weakness.

BN: Even if they get rid of Navalny and his organizations, the Kremlin isn’t getting rid of the structural reasons why Navalny and his movement were there in the first place. And that’s a clear threat to the Kremlin. They haven’t dealt with rising prices, they haven’t dealt with inequality, they haven’t dealt with elite-level corruption. As long as those issues are not dealt with satisfactorily, there will be discontent.

The Kremlin has denied reponsibility for Navalny's poisoning.

Vladimir Putin has denied owning the property. Billionaire Arkady Rotenberg has since come out as the owner of the seaside complex.

Navalny was expelled from Yabloko in 2007, officially over his nationalist views. Other accounts suggested a clash with leading figure Grigory Yavlinsky.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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