As the Dust Settles, It’s Time to Admit: Alexei Navalny overplayed his hand, and has let Russia down.9 min read
“What is the greatest fear of this toad sitting on the pipe? What are these bunker-dwelling thieves most afraid of? You know very well yourself. People taking to the streets.”
Since announcing his return to Russia in January, Alexei Navalny’s message has been clear and consistent: Vladimir Putin is afraid, and his grip on power fragile.
In January, Putin was an “old man”, stomping his feet in his bunker. Now, the Russian president is a “naked emperor”, his crown “slipping from his ears”.
While Navalny hasn’t lost his capacity for evocative imagery, he has lost a lot more than that in the past months. As he ended his prison hunger strike and his health began to show signs of stabilising, the Kremlin moved to decisively crush his organisations.
Placing Navalny’s regional campaign offices and Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) on the list of organisations linked to terrorist activities achieved what couldn’t be done with years of raids, arrests, harassment and frozen bank accounts. By the time the ruling was made final, Navalny’s team had already taken the decision to close their offices, with former staff quickly distancing themselves from the organisation and the lights going off on all regional social media accounts.
This new state of the game is far-removed from the tumultuous events of January, when Navalny’s arrest and the ensuing protests were portrayed with an almost messianic reverence for the man supposedly destined to topple the Putin regime. Now, as the dust settles on Navalny’s return, it’s time to take stock of whether it was all worth it. Sadly, it is hard to argue that it was.
With a fizzle, not a bang
With Navalny now serving what could be an indefinite prison sentence in the hands of the regime that poisoned him, and his organisations all but eradicated, it is no stretch to see the past months as the end of the Navalny era in Russian opposition politics.
The gravity of recent events is not lost on Navalny’s people. When senior Navalny aides Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov announced the last round of nationwide protests for 21 April, against the grim backdrop of Navalny’s nosediving health and the impending “extremist” classification, they dubbed it the “final battle between good and neutrality”.
What could be considered a “victory” in this battle was not specified, but the finality of it was made clear to all. “If you do not want the country to completely plunge into darkness, you have one last chance to prevent this”, the announcement read.
When the day of the protests came round however, neither side got the memo. Attendance was down significantly compared to the heady days of January. In Moscow, barely any arrests were made, with authorities choosing to centre the media narrative on declining numbers rather than on a brutal police crackdown.
There is no questioning the bravery and resilience of Navalny himself, his team, and all those who have been arrested and beaten at his protests. However, for a movement that prides itself on smart strategy, this self-appointed leadership of the opposition has lacked exactly that when it mattered most.
Momentum to the wind
Barred from running in elections and largely censored by state media, Navalny and his team have long been limited to the organising of unsanctioned street protests as their main instrument of political agitation. As with anywhere in the world, protests in Russia are a direct product of collective outrage.
Back in early January, Navalny still held his two strongest cards close to his chest. One was his return to Russia, which would undoubtedly be watched closely by the world and end in his arrest upon arrival. The other was FBK’s exposé on Putin’s Black Sea palace, which racked up over 100 million views in two weeks.
On their own, either of these cards had the power to bring tens of thousands of Russians to the streets, but Navalny chose to play them both at once.
Sure enough, Russia’s cities were filled with more protesters than had been seen in a decade, many of whom were taking to the streets for the first time. They were met with a similarly unprecedented level of violence from riot police. Journalists were beaten, a middle-aged woman was kicked to the pavement, and Moscow’s Sakharovo prison overflowed with young intelligentsia as the regime consciously moved to match the escalation of the opposition.
In Ukraine and Belarus, such raising of the stakes usually benefitted the opposition, as outrage multiplied and the largely apolitical masses began to join the fray.
Not so in Russia. The opposition was up against a state apparatus with unlimited resources, a 340,000 strong internal army of goons dedicated to its protection, and a newly-found taste for violence. Maintaining momentum on the streets was never going to be easy.
But Navalny’s team barely even tried. After a second weekend of protests ended in thousands more arrests, Volkov and the team pulled the plug, reluctant to use Russia’s brightest and bravest as cannon fodder. Many protesters were disappointed; as one Russian Twitter user wrote, “protests are like a blast furnace, they cannot be put on pause, and if they go out, they go out.”
Which raises the question: what was the point of it all? Alexei Navalny walked into the gaping mouth of his poisoners, with no guarantee of ever walking out again. Putin’s Palace was the climax of years of comprehensive investigations into the corruption of Russia’s elite, finally reaching the top of the power vertical.
All this was traded in for maximum outrage, maximum agitation, and maximum momentum. Once that was gained, however, it was promptly allowed to dissipate into the frosty winter air. For the Kremlin, the “final battle between good and neutrality” was just another day in the calendar, one more small wave to ride out.
The responsibility to lead
Navalny never claimed the title of “opposition leader” for himself. It was earned over years of smart political agitation against the Putin regime, starting when in 2011 he campaigned against the ruling United Russia party with the viral slogan “party of crooks and thieves”.
By 2017, when his investigations sparked demonstrations in dozens of Russian cities, Navalny was the preeminent face of the opposition. Since then, every single significant country-wide protest in the country has been announced by him and his team. Regional social media accounts gave directions and provided updates on the ground, while judicial and financial support was given to the arrested.
Through his own hard work, bravery, and political savvy, Navalny monopolised the opposition. In doing so, however, he made it especially vulnerable to the kind of targeted repression that the Kremlin has now carried out. In the words of Pavel Chikov, head of human rights organisation Agora, “nothing happens any more in Russian civil society except Navalny”.
Russia has forgotten how to protest when not told to do so by Navalny. In any case, the individual costs of doing so are now too high for ordinary Russians. “The Kremlin has raised the stakes so much that it’s now really very challenging to organize something”, commented Volkov. “This is not only about fines now, this is about arrests and prison terms”.
With leadership comes responsibility, and the personal burden of responsibility on Alexei Navalny was unimaginably heavy. This, however, does not change the fact that Russia’s opposition will now likely spend years in the wilderness because of events that Navalny directly and purposefully set in motion.
That Navalny’s team should have seen this coming ought to be clear, but Volkov disagrees. In an interview to Meduza, he called Putin’s willingness to raise the degree of repression “an unpleasant surprise”. “That they would invoke the law on extremism, I’ll be honest, we didn’t expect it”, he said.
Navalny’s senior leadership is now well on the back foot, trying their best to see the silver lining in the news. As he announced the closure of all regional offices, Volkov declared that former staff all over Russia, well-trained in political activism, would now be “released to swim freely”.
This decentralisation of the opposition seems workable on the surface, and a commendable shift towards grassroots, regional political action. In reality, the Kremlin is one step ahead of them.
On 4 June, on the cruel stroke of Navalny’s 45th birthday, Putin signed into law a bill retroactively banning anyone linked to “extremist organisations” from running for parliament, from former campaign staff to anyone who has ever donated to FBK.
A legal precedent has been set, and one can expect the “linked to extremism” label to be used prolifically in the future to go after any former staff deemed to be causing too much trouble. They might be swimming freely for now, but in a small, shark-infested pool.
The naked tsar
Reaching this new level of political repression was likely inevitable. Navalny’s return did not force Putin’s hand, but only gave him an incentive to crack down sooner. If at all, Navalny should have played his cards closer to the State Duma elections, in the warmth of late summer. Then, the outrage he would generate could have combined with wider disapproval of United Russia to make election season more than unpleasant for the regime.
Putin may have defeated what Navalny says is his “greatest fear” in street protests, but Volkov remains optimistic about the future. “The fundamental reasons for protest sentiment in Russia haven’t gone anywhere”, he said.
Volkov, Zhdanov, and others have now themselves left Russia. Zhdanov assures that FBK’s anti-corruption investigations will continue, made easier by the lack of a need to maintain a legal front to their organisation. Navalny’s flagship Smart Voting project will also be functioning in the lead-up to elections in September.
Now the long game truly begins. Putin is still far more popular than Navalny, but his approval rating has experienced a steady decline from 82% to 65% in the last three years. Generations are now coming of age without memory of the poverty and chaos of the 1990s, and who don’t rely on state television for news.
Navalny’s image of Putin as a “naked emperor” isn’t wrong, it’s just ahead of its time. The crown still sits firmly on the tsar’s head, but his clothes have certainly begun to slip.