Vlog: Navalny and Strelkov, the disappointing debate that was what politics is all about

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Just a quick note that another in my sporadic series of vlogs is up on my YouTuble channel – you can find this one here. It’s a little longer than most, in part because I’m trying to tease out why Alexei Navalny chose to debate with nationalist militant and likely war criminal Igor Girkin (‘Strelkov’) and why what was a pretty dull debate stuck with me. Spoiler alert: the answer? Because in a way this is precisely what real politics are about, and that’s faintly encouraging.

First thoughts on the Navalny/ies sentencing

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Alexei and Oleg, target and hostage

A three-and-a-half year suspended sentence for Alexei Navalny on questionable fraud charges and a similar sentence in a labour colony for his brother Oleg represents rather less than the prosecution demanded, more than justice would demand. But given that such political trials are wholly choreographed by the Kremlin, what does it say about what’s going on behind those closed doors at this tense and volatile time? My sense is that this reflects a perennial uncertainly in the government about quite what to do with Navalny and as a result is an inadequate and incoherent compromise between different camps or schools of thought, a reflection of division and lack of confidence rather than particular subtlety or a belief that Navalny no longer matters. Here are a few general observations.

1. The handling of the sentencing was clumsy and galvanised opposition. The sentencing was brought forward, presumably in the hope of taking the wind out of the sails of the protest scheduled for 15 January. However, not only does this make the government look jumpy and manipulative–and remember that protests feed off a sense that their side is “winning”, or at least that the other side is worried–it actually allows the anti-Kremlin forces to double-dip, with a flash protest now planned for tonight as well as the later one. At present more than 17,000 people have signed up to attend tonight’s, and although it is anyone’s guess how many will actually turn up, that is an impressively rapid mobilisation, and the Kremlin has no one to blame but itself.
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Is Navalny a Revolutionary? If So, Which One?

Navalny-cartoonReplaced with an updated version here.

When nastiness seems to make a kind of sense…

I’ve filed a column for Russia! magazine that I hope will be up there soon, but the gist is that, however spiteful and devoid of legal rationale, there is a certain vicious logic to the Navalny sentencing. Let me just throw one paragraph up here. In the long run, Putinism is dying; in the short term, there will be a flurry of public and international dismay, but…

So it’s the medium term that is up for grabs and here, however much it distresses my liberal soul to admit it, the Kremlin was probably right to take the maximalist approach. Lenin, that arch pragmatist and, if they but realized it, perhaps the godfather of modern political technologists, understood that a basic pre-requisite for any revolution is a critical absence of will on the part of the elite. In other words, revolutionaries do not wrestle power away from the elites; they take it from the elite’s numbed fingers when it is unable or unwilling to resist. Unpleasant regimes tend not to fall so long as they stay unpleasant but also, and this is crucial, able to maintain control of the elite and the apparatus of coercion. Whatever one may say about the effect of foreign vacillation, the survival of Assad’s Syria is precisely because he has will, enough of the elite and violence on his side. It is unlikely to sustain him for ever—although as Ramzan Kadyrov proved, if you can truly grind down the public’s will to resist, then you win—but it means he has lasted longer than many dictators who tried to reform and conciliate.

Of course, what makes sense in the short- or medium-term, does not in the longer-term. The more the Kremlin piles on the pressure now, the more unpleasant and potentially explosive the endgame. In short, Putin may be buying a little more time now, for a lot more grief further down the line.

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