Meet Alexei Navalny, Russia's political underdog with bite

Navalny may not be able to beat Putin in next year's presidential election, but he is inspiring a new kind of thinking in Russia.

By: /
March 31, 2017
Alexei Navalny
Anti-corruption campaigner and opposition figure Alexei Navalny waves as he sits inside a police van after after being detained during a rally in Moscow, Russia, March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

This past Sunday, blessed by a warm and sunny early spring day, an annual trigger for Russian euphoria, thousands of Russians turned out to protest the state of stagnant top-down corruption that hangs over their lives. 

They were there, in over 90 cities across Russia, not just in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhny, which are the equivalents of "bicoastal" America, similarly derided in the Kremlin as the homes of privileged metropolitan elitist malcontents. The opposition in Russia doesn't get on television, but this public showing made them visible to "ordinary" people. Moreover, they were targeting a Russian disease — corruption and unfairness — that makes everyone feel sick.

Their leader is Alexei Navalny, who, though only 40, has been on the scene as an anti-corruption crusader against what he depicts as "the party of crooks and thieves" for several years. The Kremlin and its show courts have invoked every cooked-up charge imaginable to keep Navalny off the ballot in Russia, especially since his one campaign in 2013 — for mayor of Moscow — displayed his political gifts.

Technically, Navalny is prohibited from participating in the 2018 election for president by a phony conviction for fraud (sentence suspended; it was just to shut him down, not lock him up, though he is now in jail for 15 days for having organized Sunday's protests without a permit).

But, despite the Kremlin’s efforts in recent years, he is hard to attack, and certainly not as a Western puppet. He's not criticizing President Vladimir Putin for his brazen and presumptuous meddling in the United States (the coverage of which Russians have been enjoying). Everyone in Russia is a nationalist. But though he is a nativist Russo-centrist (if you are not, you are politically dead), Navalny is far from an "ultra-nationalist." There are a lot of Russian-empire nostalgics in the official decor; he's not among them.

He is savvy, tough, and very brave. For this craftily set up focus on corruption, he targeted Prime Minister (and ex-stand-in President) Dmitry Medvedev. Navalny's operation produced a 50 minute YouTube film that showcased Medvedev's recently acquired mansions (one garishly ostentatious McMansion was a gift from an oligarch with state business), yachts, and even a vineyard in Tuscany. Navalny's exposé was downloaded by over 12 million. 

"If Navalny is focused on the corruption of a secondary character, it's because it's the most plausible play he has right now."

He didn't target Putin because the president is still running at over 80 percent popularity. Medvedev made for an easier target because his mansions are visibly real and "belong" to him as opposed to the state. Russians don't buy the unsubstantiated Western accusations that Putin has billions and billions salted away in Zurich — they know he has everything he could conceivably want right at home.

As opposed to U.S. President Donald Trump, Putin does publish his tax returns and a list of his personal assets — which features a vintage Lada and a little trailer for camping that he keeps in a small garage. For the average Ivan who isn't doing as well as a couple of years ago, it humanizes their leader and puts into perspective the massive but state-owned palaces he inhabits that come with the job.

Exposure of Medvedev's apparently greedy excess will probably strike Putin as indication that it's time to dump his prime minister, who has not demonstrated the same notes of false frugality. Putin wouldn't dump him for being a political threat; the diminutive Dmitry has zero credibility since he rolled over for Putin in 2012. But this episode makes him a liability. 

Putin is a political germophobe. The contagious germ he fears is disorder. We call it "democracy." Navalny is its only prominent Russian face today. If he's focused on the corruption of a secondary character, it's because it's the most plausible play he has right now. But his eye is on the future.

What was interesting about Sunday's demonstrations was not the overall numbers, but the event's ability to bring people onto the streets all the way to Vladivostok, in almost 100 cities; and also the overwhelming presence of young people, quite young, many still in high school. This makes the longer-term picture a little brighter.

Putin may not be losing sleep now because Navalny's growing popularity makes him a threat for the presidency in 2018. But the president may have tremors of worry at 3 a.m. about all those kids who aren't buying the contrived and staged official narrative. 

The odds are not huge that there will be political changes in Russia in the next few years. But the odds are pretty good that as younger Russians move up, they won't buy any longer the condition of political infantilism to which they have been assigned by Citizen Putin.

Furthermore, the Kremlin won't be able to pretend it's all part of an American plot. This is definitely yesterday's problem. U.S. democracy is today thoroughly discredited in Russia. If that was Putin's purpose in organizing Russian hacking and colluding in the fateful U.S. election, he brought home the gold medal. But Navalny may still succeed in spoiling more and more of Putin's days.