Last week the curtain came down on the farcical show trial of Alexei Navalny in Kirov. The accused was not permitted to call a single witness in his own defense, and pundits far and wide believe from the disturbing conduct of the judge that he has no chance of being acquitted of corruption charges that are eerily similar to those faced by Mikhail Khodorkovsky soon after he announced he would like to have Putin’s job.
Ironically enough, if he does intend to send Navalny to prison on July 18th (some say Navalny will get off with a slap on the wrist, which will be enough to disqualify him from political office), Putin is doing the Russian opposition a huge favor. Here are the top ten reasons why:
10. Navalny is a worrying racist-sexist-nationalist. Navalny has been revoltingly silent on issues like anti-gay legislation because Navalny is not a real democrat. At his core Navalny is a racist nationalist with a mirky past and many very scary attitudes. He’s not the only freak of this kind who has been embraced by the mainstream opposition; they’ve also marched with the even more dangerous and scary Edward Limonov, to name just one. Navalny is Limonov lite. Navalny’s silence on issues like Russian support for Syria and Russia’s invasion of Georgia are equally disturbing indications of the dark ideas that lie beneath the surface, many of which are actually in sympathy with Putin. Navalny has the same barbaric attitudes towards women that most Russian men have. He has totally failed to make women’s rights a central part of his platform and he has not elevated women to positions of power. Navalny has done nothing to drive the right-wing element out of his organization; to the contrary, huge numbers of Communists and neo-Nazis still march in opposition rallies.
9. Navalny has lost focus on doing what he does best. Navalny’s main claim to fame is that he built a highly successful blog that fearlessly shone light on horrific acts of official corruption. Now, Navalny is actually stealing the work of other corruption fighters and passing it off as his own. Had Navalny continued focusing on this work, and given an endorsement and publicity (and financial support) to a political leader more skilled than he in building consensus and national opposition, he could have been a great Russian. Instead, he has become preoccupied with doing everything himself.
8. Navalny participated an highly questionable “election” and prejudged his own trial. Navalny is an incredible hypocrite. The online “election” he personally organized and won by a landslide and his public statements that he’d be found guilty in Kirov before the verdict was rendered show this unfortunate quality in its worst light. Instead of leading by example towards a pluralistic state, it appears Navalny is building his own cult of personality and in many ways is acting in an anti-democratic manner. Part of this could be the result of being under siege from the Kremlin, and another part could be because it’s what Russians actually expect from their leaders. But that doesn’t change the fact that Navalny is far from a role model on democratic politics.
7. Navalny is obsessed with the Internet. Navalny’s belief that the Internet could unseat Putin has proven childish. It has totally failed. Navalny has not been willing to do the kind of hard work on the street at the grass roots that leads to a successful revolution. That may be because he’s just lazy, or it may be that he is incapable of the type of one-on-one canvassing required. Most Russians get their news from TV, not the Internet, and therefore most Russians have no idea who Navalny is. Most won’t even know, much less care, if he’s sent to prison.
6. Navalny can’t communicate with the provinces. Navalny doesn’t seem to understand that Moscow isn’t Russia. He’s totally failed to cause a successful revolt against Putin in Moscow, but even if he had done so that would leave 90% of Russia’s population out of the loop. The vast majority of Russians have no idea who he is, and he’s done nothing significant to change that. There is simply no evidence that Navalny can connect with ordinary Russians; rather, he clearly seems limited to the yuppie class in Moscow, a tiny minority of Russians who have no power to change anything.
5. Navalny sucks all the oxygen out of the room. The only factor that ameliorates Navalny’s sexism is that he’s actually hostile to anyone who would like to share power with him. Navalny has not shared power with other opposition leaders, he has not sought to elevate any of them into a prominent public role, and he has not unified the opposition via consensus building. Rather, he has sought to dominate it. The worst, most venal act of Lenin was his failure to identify a successor, creating a power vacuum upon his demise that the murderous Stalin was able to fill. Navalny has behaved exactly the same way. His hoarding of power has been carried to such an extent that he’s not even able to identify the person who would pick up his flag and carry on were he to be assassinated or jailed, both of which have been obvious possibilities since he began his agitation.
4. Navalny isn’t a great leader, but he can be useful martyr. Navalny doesn’t write or deliver great speeches. He’s not truly inspirational. He’s no Mandela, King or Gandhi. He just looks good because he has no real competition, and he has none in part because he has choked it off. See no. 5 above. Navalny was very good at outing acts of official corruption on his blog. He should have used that power to identify and support capable political leaders who could push forward his agenda. Instead he tried to do it himself, which indicates a woeful lack of belief in his countrymen (and/or a woefully gigantic ego). However, in jail Navalny can succeed in the role of martyr, giving impetus to further opposition activity that might not otherwise take place.
3. Navalny has broken every promise he’s ever made. Navalny said we’d see a new round of Duma elections. We didn’t. He said we’d see Putin in a runoff election. We didn’t. He said we’d see his protest movement grow rapidly. It shrank rapidly. He said he’d win a series of victories in local elections across Russia. He lost. Not one thing Navalny has ever promised has been delivered. If Navalny were a CEO, he would have been fired by the Board of Directors long ago. But Navalny doesn’t answer to a Board or to anyone. He demands accountability from Putin, but he himself is not accountable. If Navalny were a true visionary, he’d step down so someone else could have a chance to do better.
2. Navalny has not made a name for himself in the West. The easiest of Navalny’s failures to understand is his failure to make a name for himself in the West, to generate support there as for example Boris Nemtsov has done. Doing so is risky, because it is something the Kremlin could as a weapon to brand him a “foreign agent.” But figuring out a way to achieve this should have been a top priority for Navalny. It’s just not possible to challenge Putin for power without having at least some support from the Western democracies.
1. Navalny has failed at fundraising. Even if he was not able to generate ever-larger street demonstrations or achieve any actual political goal, the very least Navalny could have done would have been to use the Internet to raise a large war chest. He’s totally failed to do this, and this failure goes hand-in-hand with his inability to reach out to the provinces and create a national organization. This failure alone should disqualify him from continuing to hold power over the opposition movement. The only way any rational person can support Navalny continuing to lead the opposition movement is by adopting an absolutely hostile and patronizing attitude towards Russia, an attitude which posits that, pathetic though he may be, he’s the best a pathetic country can do. If you believe that, you may as well write Russia off. We don’t believe it. We believe that there are many other possible leaders who need to be given a chance to fail just as Navalny has failed. They can’t possibly do any worse. Instead of hoarding power, Navalny should distribute it to such people and see what they can do.
Gandhi used to say that his country couldn’t have its revolution until it was ready for it, and that maybe in the meantime the best thing he could do for his country was to go to prison. The same may be true for Navalny in Russia, but not because Navalny is even remotely as well-loved as Gandhi was. Gandhi had no Internet. He didn’t have the luxury of kicking back with a brewski in front of the telly and tapping out messages to millions the way Navalny can. Gandhi built a much more powerful movement with only hard leg work and the force of his own ideas and personality. When he went to jail, the whole nation knew, and wept. It was galvanized. Nothing like this can happen when Navalny is jailed. But at least jailing Navalny will take him out of the picture, forcing the opposition to look for his replacement and perhaps invigorating the movement. Indeed, it could well be that the best thing Putin could do if he wants to undermine the movement is to set Navalny free and let him go back to running it into the ground.