For the past few weeks, Russia-related news has been dominated by the story of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, the latest twist in the saga being a decision this week by Amnesty International to deprive Navalny of his status as a prisoner of conscience. Given that Navalny is considered by many to be Russia’s most prominent political prisoner, Amnesty’s decision indicates the extraordinary complexities of a case that defies a simple framing of “Kremlin bad, opposition good.”
For years, Navalny has been harassing the Russian government and low-level officials with online exposés of corruption, along with occasional street protests. In 2013 he received a suspended sentence for embezzlement in connection with a business scheme run by him and his brother selling products of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. On the one hand, the Yves Rocher case was considered by many observers to be politically motivated; on the other hand, the fact that Navalny’s original prison sentence was suspended on appeal, and the fact that he was not subsequently sent to jail despite repeatedly breaking the conditions of his probation, suggested that he had what Russians call a “roof” – i.e. somebody in authority protecting him.
Late last year, Navalny fell ill on a flight in Siberia and was subsequently medevacked to Germany, where he was diagnosed as having been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Subsequent investigations have pointed the finger of blame at members of the Russian Federal Security Service. Navalny’s “roof” had vanished.
In January, Navalny returned to Russia from Germany and was immediately arrested for breaking his suspended sentence. At a subsequent trial, the sentence was then un-suspended, and Navalny was sent to prison for two and a half years.
At this point, numerous Western commentators predicted a mass outburst of public protest and argued that Russia had reached a significant turning point. The Navalny case, it was said, had fatally undermined the legitimacy of the Russian state and was, in effect, a point of no return. The collapse of the “Putin regime” might not be imminent, but if one may allow some mixing of clichés, the tide had turned, and the sand was running out for Putin and his followers.
Indeed, for two weeks following Navalny’s arrest, street protests took place across Russia. The first week, some 100,000 people turned out, but the following week substantially fewer. The promised revolution failed to materialize. Recognizing defeat, Navalny’s lieutenants called the protests off. In one final effort, they attempted to mobilize a nationwide flashmob in support of Navalny, with Russians urged to meet up and turn on their cell phone flashlights. It seems that only a few hundred people did so.
In short, despite all the hype, the political impact of Navalny’s poisoning and arrest appears to have been approximately zero. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s poll ratings remain high, as do those of the Prime Minister and the government. The system seems as stable as ever.
Meanwhile, surveys suggest that many more Russians dislike Navalny than like him. This includes many within the opposition camp. For instance, soon after Navalny’s arrest, the leader of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky, wrote an article denouncing Navalny’s authoritarian tendencies and citing the late Valeriia Novodvorskaia (a well-known liberal writer), saying that, “If the masses follow Navalny, fascism awaits the country.”
Liberal dislike of Navalny stems in part from his dalliance a decade or so ago with elements of the Russian nationalist far-right. Navalny has made highly toxic public statements of a nature that in Canada would have driven him from polite society long ago. Some are far too objectionable to be repeated here, but the most famous example is a video he produced that compared immigrants to cockroaches and recommended shooting them (if you are so interested, you can watch it, with English subtitles, below) . This week, things like this led Amnesty International to strip Navalny of his prisoner of conscience status.
Meanwhile, Navalny’s reputation in Russia took a severe blow this past month due to a libel trial in which he was convicted of defaming a 94-year old Second World War veteran. This was because Navalny had accused the veteran and several other people who appeared in a pro-government video of being “corrupt stooges,” “people without conscience,” and “traitors.”
It would have made sense for Navalny to have apologized. Instead, when the case came to trial, he denounced the veteran as a “puppet” and repeatedly insulted the judge, at one point calling her an “Obersturmbannführer” (a reference to a rank within the Nazi-era German paramilitary organizations the SA and SS). Unsurprisingly, the judge was not amused, found Navalny guilty, and fined him around $12,000.
In Russia, the memory of the Second World War, and the status of veterans, is sacrosanct. Navalny couldn’t have done anything more likely to make himself look bad. The case also reinforced a sense that Russian oppositionists are unpatriotic. Further adding to this claim, the Federal Security Service leaked a surveillance video showing one of Navalny’s closest aides meeting with a British diplomat (alleged to be an officer of British intelligence) and asking him for money and for compromising material to use against prominent Russians.
Russian officials and much of the media have played the line that Navalny and his team are in the pay of foreign powers. Navalny’s deputies have poured oil on the fire by asking foreign governments to impose more sanctions on Russia and holding meetings with European Union officials. Russians are, on the whole, very patriotic. The attempts by the opposition to mobilize foreign countries against Russia have not gone down well.
In short, the hopes expressed by many Western commentators that Navalny’s return to Russia and his subsequent arrest would spark a new round of anti-government protest and fatally undermine Vladimir Putin and the Russian state have proven to be entirely false. In large part, the problem is that Navalny himself is tainted goods. If a successful opposition is to rise in Russia, it will have to come from somewhere else.