Alexei Navalny – the Sisyphus of Russia?10 min read
Who is Alexei Navalny? What an odd question, you might think. After all, the past eight months of the man’s life have been meticulously covered by a multitude of media outlets around the globe. Yet Navalny has been around for much longer than that. So who is he really? How has he come to be Russia’s most recognisable oppositionist politician, what actually are his political views and what on earth are all these court cases about?
Most importantly, are Navalny’s actions likely to bring about any significant change in Russia, or is he stuck in his Sisyphean task of pushing his ideas up the very steep hill of Russian politics, only to see them mercilessly tumble down before he can reach the top?
From a liberal to a nationalist(?)
Navalny’s political career started in 2000 when he joined the liberal Yabloko party. He quickly rose through its ranks and by 2006 became a member of the party’s Federal Council. He was also active in different initiatives, including a youth organisation Democratic Alternative and the Committee for the defence of Muscovites, a city movement set up in 2004 to fight against corruption and violations accompanying mass construction projects in Moscow.
In 2007, Navalny became one of the founders of the Nationalist Russian Liberation Movement (NAROD), an activist network calling for fundamental changes in Russia’s political system. In their manifesto, NAROD’s founders called for, among other things, a corruption-free, just and democratic state, preservation of the ‘Russian Civilization’, the right to possess handguns, stricter migration policy and recognition of the sovereignty of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A perplexing mix, is it not? Some of these ideas were reflected in a video which could well have been one of the reasons why Amnesty International took the controversial decision to remove Navalny’s status as a prisoner of conscience in February this year.
Of crooks and thieves
His involvement with NAROD and participation in annual nationalist ‘Russian Marches’ made Navalny less popular in liberal circles, and allegedly caused his exclusion from Yabloko in 2007. However, he soon dedicated himself to a more universally supported activity – uncovering large-scale corruption within the Russian political system. In 2010, Navalny established RosPil – a website collecting information on violations within the state procurement system. Already a known blogger at the time, Navalny used his blog to spread information about his actions (you can find a sentimental, pre-graphic-design-era version of the blog here).
Subsequently, in 2011, Navalny established the Anti-Corruption Foundation – a nonprofit organisation, which has conducted a myriad of corruption investigations into the business dealings of various Russian officials. The Foundation popularises its findings in the form of humorous videos, which are heavy on elaborate montages and Navalny’s signature dry humour. Its biggest investigation, dedicated to the so-called ‘palace‘ on the Black Sea coast, allegedly owned by Vladimir Putin, has so far collected over 115 million views.
Also in 2011, Navalny famously coined the term ‘party of crooks and thieves’ to label the ruling United Russia Party. The phrase quickly became a popular meme and protest slogan and soon came in handy when mass protests erupted following the 2011 parliamentary elections, which many believed to have been rigged. During these elections, Navalny, for the first time, advocated for so-called ‘smart voting’, a tactic, which requires opposition voters uniting in advance behind any candidate who has a chance of beating the ruling party and breaking its monopoly on power. The aim is simple: elect anyone but a United Russia candidate.
The 2011-2012 protests marked Navalny’s emergence as one of the main opposition leaders and, by extension, a target for frequent arrests. They continued for months, and culminated in violent clashes between protesters and police on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, on the eve of Putin’s return as president in May 2012. However, the fire of civil disobedience weakened with time, and was eventually snuffed out by a series of investigations and convictions launched by the authorities in the aftermath of ‘Bolotnaya’. The rock of political changes pushed up by Navalny was forced to roll back down the hill…
The Mayor that wasn’t
Navalny’s next chance to strike a blow against Russia’s authorities was in 2013, when he ran for Mayor of Moscow against the incumbent – Sergey Sobyanin from United Russia. The election took place against the backdrop of Navalny’s first major court battle – the so-called Kirovles case. On 18 July 2013, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly embezzling 500,000 US Dollars worth of timber from Kirovles state timber company located in the Kirov Province – one of Russia’s federal subjects. Suddenly, though, he was released the next day, when the court decided that he should not be imprisoned until an appeal had been heard. Rumour had it that the Kremlin wanted Navalny free so that he could run in the mayoral elections later that year and thus increase their legitimacy; Sobyanin’s win was not in danger anyway.
When the election finally happened, Navalny won over 27% of the vote – a staggering result, considering the high prominence of the post in question. A sea of people came to Bolotnaya Square, to celebrate what Navalny declared as a victory and the birth of a real new opposition movement. This was the high point of his individual political career. He promised the crowd that he knew how to turn this oppositionist political machine into a “steamroller” that would “crush” United Russia. Alas, Sobyanin received 51.37% of the votes, thus narrowly avoiding a runoff election. Navalny’s demands for a recount came to naught and he failed to convert his popular support into any meaningful show of public defiance. Just as it seemed the top of the hill was in sight, Navalny had to get back down and restart his climb.
Stuck at the bottom of the hill
What followed was a rather discouraging chain of events for Navalny and his supporters. First, 2014 marked the beginning of the Yves Rocher case, a long judicial saga in which Alexei and his brother Oleg were accused of stealing 30 million Rubles (500,000 US Dollars at the time) from two firms, including one affiliated with the French cosmetics giant. Eventually, Oleg was sentenced to three and half years in prison, while Alexei was given a three and half year suspended sentence, with a five-year probation period.
Then, in March 2015, Boris Nemtsov, another leading opposition figure, was shot dead right next to the Kremlin, while walking home. Although five people were accused of and sentenced for committing the murder, some believe the true killers will never be known. Subsequently, and perhaps, in consequence, the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections were characterized by general political apathy, exceptionally low turnout, and overwhelming win for United Russia.
In 2017, Navalny was again handed a five-year sentence, suspended this time around, in a retrial of the Kirovles case, after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had ruled that the 2013 trial had been characterised by serious procedural violations. This, in turn, made Russia’s Central Election Commission block Navalny’s presidential candidacy ahead of the 2018 elections. Every cloud has a silver lining though – over the course of multiple cases in front of the ECHR, the Russian government was ordered to pay the oppositionist around 200.000 Euros in compensation.
The past few years have also seen an increasing number of physical attacks on Navalny. In 2017, he was twice attacked with ‘zelyonka’ – an antiseptic green dye, which caused serious damage to one of his eyes. In 2019, he suffered from a mysterious ‘allergic reaction’ while serving a short jail sentence for his protest activities. He was on a campaign trail ahead of the September 2020 regional elections when he collapsed on a plane, due to what later turned out to be Novichok poisoning.
Finally, the Yves Rocher case came back to haunt Navalny when the Russian Penitentiary Service put him on a wanted list after he failed to report to the probation service between August 2020 and the end of 2020 (how strange!), when the probation period was expiring. Upon his return to Russia, his suspended sentence was converted into a prison term of around two and a half years. While tens of thousands of Russians protested against Navalny’s detention and subsequent imprisonment, their dissent was quickly and decisively suppressed by the police.
Despite this rather bleak period, Navalny has continued publishing new anti-corruption investigations, participating in protests and promoting smart voting. He came back to Russia less than five months after the Novichok poisoning, knowing that he would most likely end up in prison. He decided not to give up.
50 shades of Navalny
The image of Navalny we get from this brief overview is full of ambiguity. His tireless and fearless anti-corruption activity and continued advocacy for a just and democratic Russia attract attention from millions of Russians and are hard not to admire. However, he continues to hold views that probably raise many an eyebrow among the more liberal voters. During his HARDtalk with the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, when asked whether were he to become President of Russia, he would give Crimea back to Ukraine, Navalny did not give a definite answer, instead suggesting another referendum. He also continues to call for strict visa regimes with former Soviet Republics, notably those in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which he does not consider to be sufficiently developed.
His smart voting tactics, although hailed a big success by his team following the September 2020 regional elections, is also not without caveats. Some of the candidates Navalny encourages people to rally behind are members of the old Russian establishment, who tacitly support United Russia, even if officially they represent a different party. Others have highly questionable views and political records. For Navalny, the primary goal is to deprive United Russia of its monopoly, no matter the cost. A less obvious objective might also be to encourage Russians to come out of their political apathy, so that the next time the state is forced to rig the elections on a mass scale, it is not hundreds of thousands, but millions, who take to the streets to protest.
Will he ever reach the top?
It is difficult to estimate how many people actually support Navalny, as he has not been allowed to participate in any election since 2013, while any opinion polls are likely influenced by a large part of the Russian population relying on state media for access to information; and the latter tend not to give Navalny much coverage, let alone positive one. A recent survey by independent think tank the Levada Center suggests that although support for Navalny has increased significantly over the past few years, it is still nowhere near enough to make him a serious challenger to Putin’s rule. The results also show that even among his supporters he is perceived as a fighter but not necessarily a good leader. He has also been criticised in the past for his excessively negative discourse and the tendency to present Russia in the worst possible light, as opposed to appealing to the public’s love and pride for their country.
Much like Sisyphus, Navalny is not a perfect human being. Then again, not many effective oppositionists are. Moreover, contrary to the mythical King of Corinth, Navalny’s burden was not imposed upon him after he tried to cheat death; rather, he took on the burden willingly and finds himself forced to escape death every now and then in order to be able to continue carrying it. The vision of Russia he rolls tirelessly up the metaphorical hill might not be ideal, but many Russians seem to be willing to lend a hand to prevent it from tumbling down again. The question is, will there ever be enough of them…?