The Navalny Case and the Final Battle between Good and Neutrality?

Yes, Navalny needs YOU!

Yes, Navalny needs YOU!

It’s been too busy a time for me of late to post, but nonetheless something that has struck me has been the relatively low-key response to Navalny’s imminent trial on what seem thoroughly spurious embezzlement charges. Of course, it’s been reported, especially since his declaration that he wanted to stand for president. However, the contrast with the massive and at times thoroughly hysterical and hyperbolic coverage of the Pussy Riot case, even before their trial, has been evident. I find this slightly surprising and distinctly alarming and a cause for what I might call some “navalny-gazing.”

No wonder, I suppose, that the subtitle on Navalny’s blog is “The final battle between good and neutrality.”

After all, while the Pussy Riot defendants were undoubtedly the victims of a kangaroo court (the very notion that they could be found guilty under the technical terms of hooliganism rather than some lesser charge was ridiculous) and comported themselves with impressive dignity in court, nonetheless they were hardly important in and of themselves. The importance, I would suggest, lay in what the trial said about the wider processes at work: the lawfare of the courts in their use against expressions of opposition thought and sentiment, the heavy-handedness of Putin’s state, the role of a conservative and assertive Russian Orthodox Church. Let’s be honest, had the authorities simply patronized them as publicity-seeking little women, slapped them with a fine, and used this as an opportunity to present the opposition as being full of blasphemers and exhibitionists, it would have been a two-day wonder.

Whether or not Navalny is the potential savior of the nation or a nationalist opportunist who has spotted a potential chance to rise is irrelevant (and for the record, while I don’t believe him to be perfect, I certainly believe him closer to the former than the latter). He is undoubtedly at present the driving force behind the opposition, however inchoate and drifting it currently may be. He has brought the issue of the corruption elite into the center of Russian politics, and has done more than anyone else to connect that with the United Russia bloc, that bastion of the cynical, the careerist and the corrupt. At present, there is no one else who can assume his mantle, no one else who has a chance–no more than a chance–of being able to turn the middle-class metropolitan opposition into a credible political force.

Which is, of course, why the Kremlin wants him out of the way, whether in prison or, much more likely, smeared and given a suspended sentence which will preclude him from standing for political office. It also explains why attack-dog Bastrykin–a man also with a clear personal animosity against Navalny–has been given such a long leash. They fear him in a way that they don’t fear socialite-seditionist Kseniya Sobchak or leftist firebrand Sergei Udaltsov.

Less comprehensible is quite why the Russian opposition is not more active and why Western democrats who want to see Russia move away from authoritarianism are nowhere near as excited as they were during the Pussy Riot case. Sure, maybe things will be different once the court case starts, but at present there seems little real enthusiasm for Navalny’s cry for protests on the streets in Russia, and far less media attention, let alone op. ed. outrage in the West.

Is it that everyone is getting tired of protest that seems to get nowhere, and Kirov is a way away rather than just a couple of streets away in Moscow? (If so, welcome to the real world: regime change is a hard slog, not a New Year’s resolution.)

Is it that people dislike or mistrust Navalny? (Sure, there are some questions to be asked, from his nationalist politics to what he’s doing on the Aeroflot board, but to be honest it’s hard to see any such antagonism towards him from any but elements of the elite.)

When it comes to the Western media and Russia-watchers, can it really be as banal as that one guy who blogs about corruption is a less exciting topic to discuss that balaclava-ed punkettes? That “People got interested in Pussy Riot on a global scale because it included so many themes – feminism, gay rights, religion” but that the bedrock issues of power and freedom aren’t as widely appealing? (Sadly, there is probably more than a little truth here.)

Whatever the reason, I cannot help but feel there is a potential opportunity here that risks being squandered. When Brian Whitmore and I were discussing the case in a Power Vertical podcast (you don’t subscribe to it? You should!) we agreed that the trial could represent a turning point for the opposition, a chance to get its act together after over a year of drift, a chance to cohere around a high-profile case, a chance to use it as a platform to seek to reach out to the disgruntled elements in the wider population (and we know they are there) and seek to build a common cause. Of course, that means they have to do it. And outsiders who want to encourage them–though ultimately this must be a domestic phenomenon, there certainly is no scope for the kind of “revolution plotted from abroad” beloved of pro-Kremlin conspiracy theorists–at the very least need to keep up the pressure and the attention, because that will help make this case significant, signal to the authorities that they cannot just pick off whomever they want with impunity.

This is unlikely to be the final battle, but it is an extremely important one. Given that “neutrality” is often a synonym in such cases for apathy or despair, perhaps this is time for action…

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13 Comments

  1. Nice post and I sympathize over your frustration at the apparent Russian indifference. Some of the lethargy is likely due to protest fatigue and genuine fear (who wants a bashed nose or wrecked career?). Some of it may be due, however, to a belief that life has actually improved under Putin, and the idea of supporting another Yeltsin-like reformer, strikes most Russians as too bitter of a pill to swallow. But then again, who knows? Even now, Navalny and his supporters may be planning a counter-attack to spark a larger protest, which could lead to more responsible governance in Russia.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 13, 2013

      True, but never mind new supporters, what about those who came out in the past? They hardly are likely to feel that the quality of their lives has increased markedly over the past year thanks to VVP…

      Reply
  2. Mark, do you think the West’s response to the Pussy Riot trial represents some great success? You talk about “the pressure and the attention” as though it helped somebody. Samutsevich is the only one who avoided hard time, and that’s because she ditched her cuckoo defense team, not because Danny DeVito, Madonna, The New York Times, or anybody else spoke truth to power.

    I’d also take issue with your characterization of the Pussy Riot case as one about “feminism, gay rights, and religion,” but not “the bedrock issues of power and freedom.” Surely “power” and “freedom” were at the heart of their trial, or that anyway is how countless observers presented the case. A purely anecdotal, quasi-quantitative reference: Tolokonnikova used the word “freedom” twelve different times in her infamous closing statement. (Perhaps this is partly why you say the girls “comported themselves with impressive dignity in court.”)

    While I agree with you that the Kremlin fears/resents/dislikes Navalny “in a way that they don’t” Sobchak or Udaltsov, you leave out the fact that Sergei Stanislavovich is currently under house arrest pending a trial of his own (Navalny has been saddled with no such penalty) and Sobchak is still being hounded by various Nashists, online and in the lobby of her home. (Indeed someone with *power* is obviously wiretapping her phone calls and leaking it to these twerps, as her most recent scandal reveals.)

    That said, I agree that Navalny represents something inherently more “political” than Pussy Riot, radicals, or socialite airheads. In tandem with his recent presidential-ambitions announcement (which he claims was merely a repetition of his longterm intention to run for office, once elections are free), the People’s Alliance Party (which recognizes Navalny, rather eerily, as its “spiritual leader”) just submitted its registration paperwork to the Ministry of Justice. It seems like a fair assumption that he’s circling the wagons to defend himself as a political prisoner (once the inevitable guilty verdict falls in Kirov).

    But why on Earth do you argue that the Russian opposition is inactive in the face of Navalny’s looming trial? You write: “at present there seems little real enthusiasm for Navalny’s cry for protests on the streets in Russia.” Which cry is that? Has Navalny given a mass rally to which nobody showed? Does the absence of crowds in the streets today prove a lack of intellectual mobilization?

    In fact, Russia’s oppositionist liberal media has been exploding with Kirovles coverage for weeks, and “creative class” chatter on Twitter and Facebook has similarly boiled with fears, anger, and anticipation. Consider a few examples:

    Maxim Kononenko mocks the already-ubiquitious Navalny-support self-photo meme
    https://t.co/0oUALqpbNC

    Aleksandr Samarina in NezGaz talks to think tank brains Nikolai Petrov and Igor Bunin about Navalny’s trial, his stature, and the People’s Alliance maneuvers
    http://t.co/oZy4HpdmfH

    Yuri Saprykin shares a nightmare about society’s powerlessness with Navalny before the momentum of Russian law and order
    http://t.co/uSVUa8LffZ

    The SK’s own Vladimir Markin gives an interview to regime-friendly Izvestia and makes it clear as day that Navalny’s ties to the West (“Yale as a cadres factory”) and his “prodding of the authorities” brought the Kirovles case to the attention of investigators earlier than would otherwise have been the case
    http://t.co/qv6CN0hRVM

    Stanislav Belkovsky discusses Navalny for the umpteenth time, reviewing his mistakes and how he supposedly benefited from a Putin-shield against Kadyrov on one occasion
    http://www.mk.ru/specprojects/free-theme/article/2013/04/10/839549-kak-spasti-navalnogo-i-pomilovat-hodorkovskogo.html

    Oleg Kashin complains (a bit ridiculously) that *nobody* thinks Navalny will go to jail
    http://slon.ru/russia/izderzhki_obshchestvennogo_dogovora-928681.xhtml

    Stanislav Minin discusses Navalny’s feedback bubble, which limits his outreach to his own base
    http://t.co/MHK8pS3z0d

    An interview/op-ed piece with/by Navalny in The New Times, all about his trial and impending conviction
    http://t.co/2mTcolP8DG

    Irek Murtazin plagiarizes Navalny’s own New Times piece, passing it off as his own original interview
    http://irek-murtazin.livejournal.com/919456.html

    All this is just in the last week or so! Is this the work of people who need encouragement to maintain their focus? Does anything about the already ongoing media storm indicate a poverty of attention among Russia’s “middle-class metropolitan opposition”?

    There will be protests. There will be righteous indignation from sea to shining sea. The latter is already well under way in Russia, and the former will no doubt begin as soon as Navalny’s sentence comes.

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 13, 2013

      Hi Kevin

      Thanks for the comments, although there seems to be some miscommunication at work.
      Sure, one can gather up individual press accounts, statements and soundbites—I did acknowledge that there had been coverage—but I’d be surprised if you felt that it matched the scale, tempo and pitch of the domestic and international response before the Pussy Riot trial. Then, there were protests…

      As regards how one should characterize the differences between the two cases, the quotation marks around “feminism, gay rights, religion” and the weblink should indicate that these are not my words but another’s, in this case Alexandra Astakhova’s, quoted by Miriam Elder. Nonetheless, regardless of the case rhetoric used by PR, while I obviously wouldn’t deny that “power and freedom” were in play, I would still suggest that “feminism, gay rights, religion” also became central tropes in the PR case in a way I think it’s fair to suggest they won’t for Navalny’s.

      Finally, I don’t see why you think that I may believe “the West’s response to the Pussy Riot trial represents some great success”. The point is not to “save” Navalny—that decision is wholly in the Kremlin’s hands. It is, rather, to ensure that if it does go ahead and convict him on a trumped-up charge, that it has to pay as great a cost as possible in terms of international as well as domestic political capital. A lackluster Western response will be taken as a signal that it is not that bothered what happens in Russia (unless there is a figure like Bill Browder to make it care).

      The bottom line is that Navalny is a serious political figure, one of (if not the) highest-profile figures within the opposition movement. The PR three were not. Furthermore, the PR case did involve an actual act (that certainly did not qualify as hooliganism within the terms of the Russian Criminal Code, but probably was a lesser misdemeanor), while to me it looks as if Navalny was wholly innocent of any crime. I think all this would would suggest that his case deserves substantially more, not less attention and outrage.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the response, Mark.

        I definitely agree that the international tempo of Navalny coverage doesn’t match the attention paid to PR. Russians themselves, however, seem to be aware of just the higher stakes that you lay out. I don’t think it’s cherry picking to gather together all the media attention and argue that it represents exactly the kind of heightened awareness that you seem to argue is lacking (in Russia, anyway). And if you don’t think it’s absent in Russia now, what would be the point of penning another Kremlin condemnation in some American or British newspaper? The Guardian, after all, is already publishing translations of Navalny’s own expositions on his trial.

        I don’t have a ready list, but you can look at just about any of the tusovka-big-shots’ Facebook pages and find several anxious posts about Navalny’s impending doom. The media’s political commentators are hardly oblivious to the coming trial, and there’s every indication that it will continue to make headlines among all the liberal news outlets.

        The people in Russia who ought to care about Navalny’s trial already do. And they understand perfectly well what Navalny represents.

        They also understand the problems with Navalny—and it’s not just that he might hold borderline-racist views about Russia’s darker-skinned “little peoples.” Navalny’s ties to various sislibs, his past efforts to court American law enforcement, rumors of his mercenary greenmailing, his “cadres training” at Yale—these are all traits (or perhaps rumors) that make him a hero for some and a villain for others. As a politician and not a rockstar, the available sins to land him on various shitlists are practically infinite. He’s forgiven far less because he’s asking Russians to take him seriously. (Tolokonnikova participated in a public orgy while pregnant for Christ’s sake. Popular artists get out of jail free, in the court of public opinion, anyway.)

        As for avoiding a lackluster Western response and raising the Kremlin’s international political costs, I’m again wondering what lessons you draw from the PR trial. The West’s journalists and celebrities dumped buckets of rebuke and reproach on Putin’s head because of that case, and what good did it do? Could there be a better demonstration that the Kremlin prizes whipping up its domestic conservative base above any bad publicity sustained on the world stage? Why would Western Outrage Redux lead to anything better?

  3. The coverage of Navalny’s trial is starting in the English language press, and I assume it will ramp up when the trial starts on Wednesday. That said, I seriously doubt it will gain as much of a passionate response as PR though his trial is far more politically important. What made PR so attractive is not just the feminism, gay rights, and religion trio but because they were so easily packable for our (US) rather vapid media. Three young attractive “girls” fighting the big bad Russian government. PR’s gender is easily narrated to a impatient audience. Also, we can’t discount how sexism (even in a “positive” form) aided PR. I think many in the West saw themselves or their desires in PR. Using the hammer against PR also confirmed our cultural progressiveness and superiority vis-a-vis Russia. Also, the details of the PR trial were easy to understand, Navalny’s is not. Three young women jumping up and down will always beat an embezzlement case in passionate outpouring.

    As Kevin says, the western coverage won’t matter much. The Kremlin seems satisfied with the bad image as it feeds into its own self-perceived persecution. Though I think throwing Navalny in the slammer will have major repercussions for Russian politics. I don’t know if it will bring people into the streets–at first it might–but not over the long term. It’s ramifications will be in further alienating Putin’s circle from segments within elite and the rest of society. As Mark pointed out in the PV podcast, Navalny isn’t Khodorkovsky, and though his politics remain murky and to a large extent naive, he comes across as a simple, principled man who is getting shafted because he took on the corrupt. If Navalny or his supporters play it right, he could become the first Russian folk hero of the 21st century.

    Reply
  4. AK

     /  April 15, 2013

    Another reason is that Navalny has some real and genuine questions to answer over his activities in relation to Kirovles. This is not a case that has been fabricated out of thin air as the oppositionistas like to claim.

    Although then again the same could be said of Khodorkovsky. Maybe it’s the fact that Khodorkovsky had tons of money to splurge around on PR companies and Navalny doesn’t?

    Reply
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