20 Years of Leading Analysis

The Navalny Case: What Does It Say About the Russian Political Regime and Its Alternative

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Navalny’s conviction demonstrates how Putin’s post-2012 political regime works. Yes, indeed: the leader and the ruling team are the same as before, but the mechanism of rule is different. The previous soft authoritarianism based on imitation of and cooperation with the West has been gradually replaced by a regime structured on repression and containment of the West. This regime is not yet fully assembled—it is moving there. Putin’s new rule is established on the principle of total, absolute loyalty, and cannot accommodate, as it did before, criticism or plurality of views. There are all signs that the new regime’s resilience and adaptability to the new challenges are being exhausted and it has been forced (contrary to the wishes of some of its members, apparently) to switch to harsher instruments of rule.

Navalny’s conviction is to serve as a message for the thinking minority and opposition, “Don’t you dare!” As the history of the rise and fall of global civilizations demonstrates, Putin’s regime is entering its decay. True, this decay can take a long time and the jury is out on how it will end.

But Navalny was released, you would say. Is it not a sign of softening of the regime? Is it the Kremlin’s response to the society’s indignation and the Western leaders’ criticism? Indeed, the Kremlin has to take into account the mood within Russia and abroad. But for the time being other factors brought about this weird situation. We can see that some members of the ruling elite, represented by the official contender for the Moscow mayoral job, Sergei Sobyanin, have decided to use Navalny to legitimize the mayoral elections. Does this signify a change in the administration’s repressive logic? Definitely not! Sobyanin just borrowed Navalny to achieve his agenda. After playing the role of Sobyanin’s sparring partner, Navalny will be sent to the labor colony as planned. There is not even the slightest chance that his appeal will be successful. The Kremlin cannot afford to demonstrate weakness.

Will Navalny successfully use his chance to ride the tide? As of now, he is a courageous and charismatic blogger who has used a new medium to expose corruption within ruling circles. However, he is still a “systemic” person, that is, he is trying to make the system of personal rule honest—he wants to replace the authorities, not to change the system. At least he never showed that he has a transformative strategy. He pursues the old model of the Leader Savior, which is the personalized leadership that cannot change the Russian matrix. 

Will his fame and inevitable imprisonment help him turn into a new type of leader with an exit strategy? It is not clear yet. We see at the moment the birth of the Navalny Myth. It may later acquire logic of its own, and even Navalny may become its hostage. With Navalny’s current agenda the Navalny Myth cannot become a systemic alternative to the one man rule. But this is the beginning, and we may yet see that the courageous blogger has broader potential. Let us be patient.


Comments (6)

  • Julie Leighton
    Even by Russian judiciary standards, last week’s events were bizarre. Popular interpretations of the reversal stress the potential of mass uprising, foreign skepticism about the trial’s legitimacy, implications for the Sochi Games, the risk of jeopardizing outside investment, and, in a conceptual round about, the idea that Navalny’s mayoral candidacy will lend credibility to the Moscow elections. While any of these is plausible, I agree with Shevtsova that the annulment is temporary, and is masking a distinctly authoritarian trend.

    In the past, Kremlin apologists could argue away evidence of increasing despotism by asserting that the simultaneous construction of a post-Soviet government and civil society was impossible. They excused previous arrests because the offending parties were seen as hindering development. The difficulty of the Navalny case, from the establishment’s perspective, is that his actions cannot be construed as an impediment to advancement. Unlike some of his famous precedents, he is advocating reform from a position of maximum public appeal. I believe this is what Shevtsova is describing as the “Navalny effect”.

    Although Shevtsova bemoans his adherence to the “systemic” model, I think this approach is pragmatic and realistic. By pushing for reform of the current system, rather than an overhaul of the entire governmental structure, Navalny is more likely to appeal to the hitherto missing element of the Russian protest movement- the pensioners. A cleaner, parallel version of the current model is more likely to appeal to this group than some of the drastic alternatives.

    If the Kremlin had any intention of positively advancing Russian society, it would support Navalny. By not doing so, or by only making a charade of supporting him for short-term gains, Putin is confirming his absolutism; and, if that is established, the “Navalny effect” could be the most significant development in modern Russia.
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  • La Russophobe
    "Let us be patient" is dangerous advice. It's advice the Kremlin might give. The indisputable fact is that the Kremlin wants Navalny to run, and he is running. They want him to run because they know he is going to lose, and in losing (1) destroy the Navalny myth, (2) legitimize Sobyanin and (3) legitimize Navalny's conviction. Levada data shows that only 8% of Muscovites are willing to participate in street demonstrations, and that same 8% is all who are willing to consider voting for Navalny. While we are waiting to see if Navalny will somehow magically transform himself into a different person, aren't we giving the Kremlin time to consolidate its power? Aren't we depriving alternatives to Navalny of the light and oxygen they need to develop, and thus essentially destroying them?

    Nobody can dispute: "He pursues the old model of the Leader Savior, which is the personalized leadership that cannot change the Russian matrix." There is no hint from Navalny that this can or will change. He leads a personality cult, not a movement. What will happen to it when Navalny is gone?
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    • Julie Leighton replies...
      What would the ideal alternative to Navalny look like? And is it possible, at this stage, to have a Russian leader without a personality cult?
    • Ariana replies...
      No it is not possible
    • Lilia Shevtsova replies...
      Yes, I agree the Kremlin wants Navalny to run and to destroy him- after Navalny does the job. In fact, I don’t support the idea of the opposition taking part in these elections. The opposition is in a trap- not taking part will be a mistake, but taking part is also a mistake. But opposition is running… by default… I guess the best option for the opposition today will be to consolidate and support Navalny. But the support has to be based on a condition that he endorses the opposition’s agenda. Regretfully, I don’t see this happening… But no one deprives other candidates of oxygen. Mitrochin is running.
      What will happen to the personality cult when Navalny is gone? He is not gone yet. The Kremlin will continue to construct his cult. However, I am sure that there are means to discuss with Navalny the future political patterns…
  • Tatiana
    It is interesting to see characters like La Russophobe endorsing Shevtsova pathetic declarations. Very symbolic, I'd say. Borrowing from Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky line, if Shevtsova and La Russophobe are against Putin I am for him.
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