We find ourselves in an odd position these days, as Alexei Navalny vies for the mayoralty of Moscow. Like Yevgenia Chirikova and other opposition figures, we endorsed Navalny for mayor, but not because he’s a good candidate or qualified for the job and not because we actually want him to be mayor. He’s not a good candidate, and he’s not qualified and we don’t want him to govern. Our endorsements come because he’s the lesser of many evils in the race, including but not limited to a Putin toady and an avowed Communist, and because it will drive Putin right out of his mind to see Navalny win (or even be competitive).
Don’t get us wrong, Navalny has many good points. He’s recently come out against the some elements of Russia’s homosexual crackdown, a dangerous thing for him to do politically, and his reporting on Russian corruption has been second to none. He’s risking his freedom and maybe life to openly challenge Putin; from Starovoitova to Estemirova, we’ve seen what happens to such critics, they get shot and killed. And he’s created the most effective political brand we’ve yet seen in the Putin opposition, and put the most bodies on the street to show contempt.
But there are many signs that Navalny is just Putin Lite, that the bad outweighs the good, and we think because Putin’s opponents are so desperate for some kind of good news that they’re reluctant to tell the full story on Navalny we’re seeing important parts of the full story on Navalny being told by sources of information for which I usually have contempt, such as the Nation magazine and Kevin Rothrock. Most importantly, Navalny is quite simply a failure. There is no evidence at all that he can actually achieve anything meaningful as the self-appointed leader of the opposition, and we believe he should step aside.
The critical question on Navalny, which far too few Russia analysts are asking, is a simple one: Is he the best Russia can do? If so, we agree that criticism of him should be muted if not withheld. If not, it should be louder and stronger. We’re about as cynical as a person can get on Russia , but we don’t think Navalny is the best Russia can do, and we think it insults the people of Russia more than they deserve to suggest otherwise. As we’ve said before, we think that Navalny himself is a big part of the reason many think he’s the best Russia can do, because he has done a lot to choke off the oxygen supply from his potential rivals.
An important and rare survey of criticism of Navalny in the Russian blogosphere by expert Russian translator Catherine Fitzpatrick was recently published on The Interpreter, and because of the dearth of such reporting elsewhere really amounts to a path-breaking effort to let the Western world in on the full Navalny picture, not just the propaganda. In my view, Fitzpatrick’s article is the single most important piece of reporting on Navalny in English that has ever been published, and The Interpreter’s work to open a window for English speakers into the Russian blogosphere is simply indispensable.
In our view, though, Fitzpatrick could have gone even a little further. So we’d like to undertake our own little survey to fill in the blanks. We don’t think we do Navalny or the Russian opposition any favors by soft-pedaling Navalny’s vices or his failure to achieve his goals. By doing so, we think we only encourage more of the same. By telling the full truth about Navalny, we emphatically refute any claim that Fitzpatrick went too far, something that some of Navalny’s cult-like followers may claim.