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.
- Yevgenia Chirikova
Let’s start with Chirikova. At our urging, The Interpreter recently did yeoman work publishing a translation of a post that appeared on Chirikova’s blog thrashing Navalny for (a) failing to have an environmental plank in his mayoral platform and (b) having followers who savagely attacked her for raising the issue. While I greatly appreciated The Interpreter’s valuable effort, there was too much pro-Navalny spin for my taste in the translation. The Interpreter suggested that it was “all’s well that ends well” because Navalny responded to Chirikova by promising a plank and she accepted his offer. There was a good deal more to it than that, as was pointed out by Andrei Tselikov over at Global Voices. Tselikov accurately reported that the tone and language Navalny used to respond to Chirikova was extremely dismissive (I would say insulting and even sexist), and Navalny’s vague promise of adding a plank has yet to be transformed into tangible results (much less having an environmentalist in a key position in his campaign).
The fact that Chirikova graciously accepted Navalny’s response in the interest of unity against Putin certainly does not mean that all ended well. It was totally outrageous for Navalny to publish a lengthy platform document without an environmental plank, and highly indicative of the fact that Navalny is in no way, shape or form a true liberal; indeed, it was a direct insult to Chirikova’s green movement. Instead of offering a serious mea culpa and real action, Navalny issued dismissive platitudes, in other words the least he could do, not the most. You can be sure this wasn’t lost on Chirikova. It should not have been lost on The Interpreter, either. I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that Chirikova was “mollified and unruffled” as Fitzgerald claimed. To the contrary, we believe she’s shocked and disappointed by the absence of a green plank, the virulent assault she received for asking for one, and by Navalny’s offensive response.
Unlike Navalny, Chirikova has had the courage to directly confront the people of Russia for their craven support of Vladimir Putin. Navalny, by contrast, routinely appeals to their most base emotions. He has allowed the movement to receive support from extremist nationalists and Communists, the former being roughly analogous to the American KKK. Fitzgerald does an excellent job of laying out the unsettling issues that have been raised in the Russian blogosphere in this regard, including Navalny’s deeply disturbing response when questioned by a Russian reporter.
We believe that Navalny’s reaction to Chirikov’s tough criticism proves we’re right: if there were more such criticism, there’d be more change for the better from Navalny. Because so much of it is suppressed, he continues down a path that can only lead to failure.
- The Plagiarism and the Personality Cult
Tselikov is the author of another important Global Voices blog post exposing that some of Navalny’s corruption reporting is plagiarized. Navalny doesn’t always give credit where credit is due, sometimes preferring to pretend his own legwork has unearthed critical facts about official corruption that in fact come from other sources. His reason for his is obviously connected to the fact that Navalny exists primarily because of a personality cult that he has generated through his blogging activities, which have made him the chief spokesman for Russia’s rebellious Internet generation. The dangers posed by this personality cult are clear in their rabid reaction attacking Chirikova. But there is an even greater dangers: If Navalny is killed or jailed, who will lead? Will his movement have the same problem Russia did under Lenin, who likewise had no successor and who therefore gave rise to Stalin?
Fitzpatrick points to an important interview of Navalny by Ksenia Sobchak. We think Sobchak did a really good job and it’s a great interview, but come on: Sobchak is a fellow member of the opposition. Fitzpatrick points out that Navalny has ducked other interviewers who might have been even tougher, but doesn’t really call Navalny on the carpet for giving his first major interview to Sobchak even as he complains that other reporting on him is not fair. Similarly, Navalny organized the very online election that anointed him head of the opposition movement, another instance of troubling appearances that appear to have no reason. Why not let somebody else organize an election? Why not sit for an interview with a tough critic?
- Vladimir Milov
One of the most outrageous missteps that Navalny has taken in his career came when he tried to claim that street demonstrations after his conviction in Kirov had led to his release. There’s only one word for that claim, and the word is “lie.” Opposition figure Vladimir Milov immediately called Navalny on this, in a post on his blog. We were disappointed not to see this featured in Fitzgerald’s overview. The decision to release Navalny was made before the street demonstrations supporting him took place, that’s just a simple matter of record. The notion that the Kremlin could be scared enough by three thousand protesters on the streets of Moscow to reverse an incarceration decision in Kirov, hundreds of miles away, is wholly absurd. Navalny just isn’t worth anything at all unless he can be relied upon to tell the truth. The Interpreter can’t say it didn’t know about Milov’s post, because we told them.
Importantly, Milov has now publicly broken with Navalny to the extent of stating he’ll vote for a different candidate in the mayoral election and authorizing his political followers to choose a different candidate as well.
- Twitter Blocking
Navalny complains that Vladimir Putin censors him, refusing to give him fair access to coverage on Russian TV, the primary source of news for the vast majority of Russians. He’s right to raise this issue, the Kremlin’s treatment of the opposition via its monopoly on television is totally outrageous and a terrifying throwback to Soviet times. But what many people don’t know is that Navalny does not practice what he preaches. He does precisely the same thing on Twitter that Putin does on TV, namely blocking access to his Twitter feed to those who criticize him. Navalny blocks us, for example, and from what we understand he also blocks Kevin Rothrock (interestingly, Rothrock also blocks us, something that surprises us not at all from a person who so often apologizes for the Putin Kremlin and urges the U.S. to engage in unilateral nuclear disarmament with Putin). This hypocrisy on Navalny’s part is truly breathtaking. Fitzpatrick was well aware of this issue when she went to press, so we were disappointed that she didn’t mention it.
Fitzpatrick reports on the fact that Russian sources have disclosed that Navalny has by far the highest personal wealth of any candidate in the mayor’s race. This revelation is extremely devastating to Navalny, who has tried to claim just the opposite, that he’s an ordinary guy very different from the lackeys of Putin who live in palaces, and it’s little reported in the Western press. But for some reason, Fitzpatrick found it necessary to point out that these Russian reports “failed to mention” that incumbent Mayor Sobyanin has received far more in campaign contributions than Navalny. We fail to see the purpose of this comment, other than to blunt the impact of the revelation about Navalny’s wealth in a partisan manner. It reads like another effort to spin bad news in Navalny’s favor, similar to what occurred with Chirikova. What Fitzpatrick should have done instead was to pull some examples of Navalny trying to use his claimed poverty for propaganda purposes and to ask why the misconception of his poverty has been so persistent. Of course, if there were any evidence that the other candidates have secret wealth that official sources don’t record, that could be mentioned as well (Navalny would be a leading source for such information), but we’re not aware of it.
And by the way, where did Navalny get all his money? Why is he the richest candidate in the race? Why didn’t Sobchak ask him about that?
But let’s talk about campaign contributions, by all means. Fitzpatrick might also have focused on the fact that Navalny has disastrously failed in fundraising, not just in the mayor’s race but in his movement generally. Instead, she tries to rationalize and excuse his failure. Even if Navalny were prevented from accessing TV and gaining traction as a national candidate, nothing stopped him from using the power of the Internet to generate millions of dollars in grass-roots financing, the same way Barack Obama was able to do. He hasn’t done this. He doesn’t have a real office, a real staff or a real marketing campaign. You can try to excuse it any way you want, but failure is failure.
- Kevin Rothrock
We are no fans of Rothrock’s, to say the least, but his recent coverage on Global Voices of Navalny’s impact on serious political dialogue in the Russian blogosphere is accurate and required reading. We were disappointed not to see it featured in Fitzpatrick’s review. Rothrock made a survey of the Russian blogosphere to see how seriously it is taking Navalny’s ideas as mayor, and discovered that these ideas are being virtually ignored. He also pointed out something that’s quite devastatingly true, namely that on many fronts there is quite little difference between Navanly’s platform and Sobyanin’s.
- The Nation
Perhaps the single most bizarre reporting in all of the Western media is that of the Nation magazine on Vladimir Putin. Being the darling of right-wing kooks like Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan, one would not expect to see Putin so ardently embraced by one of America’s most extreme left-wing publications. But that’s just what Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and her husband, Russia scholar Steven Cohen, have been consistently doing for years now. Most strangely of all, however, is that the Nation’s love of Putin has caused it to be a rare Western media source of vaguely accurate reporting on Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.
There’s no Russia analyst we respect less than Cohen. We’ve targeted him often for his lies and his propaganda here at LR. His bizarre pro-Putin diatribes are so dishonest and detached from reality that they give the impression of being bought and paid for by the Kremlin itself. And one of Cohen’s leading publishers is, unsurprisingly, his own wife. It appears that for the sake of her marriage, Katrina is willing to abandon her left-wing ideology and permit her pages to be used to rationalize a Putin, who is for example at present engaged in a furious crackdown on homosexuals and free speech. Of course, the Obama administration has made this stance so much easier by violating its own purported liberalism and adopted a relentless policy of appeasement towards Putin.
So, in that context, it’s hardly surprising that the Nation would take a dim view of Putin’s arch rival, Navalny, particularly since Navalny himself has many unsavory extremist right-wing views. What is surprising, however, is that its coverage gives a more accurate picture of Navalny than does the wider mainstream media, whose one-sided fawning adoration of Navalny is a disgraceful repudiation of basic journalistic ethics.
Western Russia correspondents are in a tough ethical spot on Navalny. They have a vested interest in coming up with dramatic news stories out of Russia, in order to advance their own careers. And the darkness of Putin’s anti-U.S. crackdown over the past few years is enough to make anyone who cares about Russia’s future desperate for any kind of good news. So when attorney/blogger Navalny comes along and shows himself able to generate unprecedentedly large street demonstrations against Putin, and then faces a set of palpably political criminal charges, it’s almost irresistible to compare him to the likes of Nelson Mandela and to breathlessly urge that Russia is on the brink of revolution.
The Nation points out that this just isn’t so. It cites a June 2013 survey by the Levada organization, Russia’s most respected pollster, which found that 59% of national respondents had no idea who Navalny was and that 85% of those who did know him didn’t approve. He had a woeful 6% approval rate, ten times lower than Putin’s. An even more recent poll showed that at most 8% of Moscow voters were prepared to support Navalny’s bid for mayor of that city, his home base, just a third of those who knew him as a candidate. The 8% figure was the same for Muscovites willing to participate in protest demonstrations. Apparently, only such residents are willing to support Navalny.
The reason for Navalny’s weak support is simple: He’s the exact opposite of Mandela. Navalny is a rather strident Russian nationalist whose views on race would put him in the area code of the KKK if he were in the U.S. His team is lily white and overwhelmingly male. As Fitzpatrick points out, he recently signed off on a policy position that defends “legitimate criticism” of migrants and complains about being called “extremist” for siding with white Slavic Russians against interlopers. A large portion of Navalny’s support may come from this stance; according to Levada 55% of Muscovites identified migrants as a major problem, far more than chose utility prices or street repair. Russians also see migrants as the biggest threat to national security. Navalny has not said a word of criticism about Putin’s virulent crackdown on homosexuals, and as the Nation points out he has been chastised by Yabloko, the country’s oldest pro-democracy political party, for his ethnic views. He has said nothing about Russia’s invasion of Georgia or about its support for genocide in Syria.
More importantly, unlike Mandela, Navalny has proven himself either unwilling or unable to do face-to-face grassroots political organizing. Navalny is entirely a creature of the Internet, pointing-and-clicking his way to the top of what is essentially a small online personality cult comprised of neo-Nazis, Communists and a stalwart cadre of about 25,000 brash, rebellious Internet yuppies like himself. If one picture is worth a thousand words, the photograph of the gaggle of them that climbed on top of the Russian parliament building to protest Navalny’s recent conviction on embezzlement charges says it all.
The conviction was clearly political. Navalny may well be guilty of technical violations of the law in regard to the timber transaction that was the focus of the prosecution, but if he is they are violations that are standard practice in Russian society. No thinking person can claim that the prosecution was not at the very least selective, and it arose only when Navalny started having startling success in bringing noisy crowds onto the street as Putin sought a third term as president. Navalny was not allowed to call witnesses in his own defense or even to cross-examine the sole significant witness against him. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp, though allowed to remain at liberty while he filed an appeal.
But when Navalny sent out Facebook invitations to over 50,000 followers (he has close to 400,000 followers on Twitter) to take to the streets to protest his conviction, only about 3,000 took him up on it. It’s one thing to rail against Putin while eating cereal on your couch; it’s quite something else to risk being bloodied by Russian police and sent to jail. Navalny has less than a quarter the number of Twitter followers maintained by Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev.
Navalny is so weak that the Kremlin worked actively to help him get on the ballot for Moscow Mayor, and bent over backwards to make sure the criminal conviction wouldn’t prevent him from seeking the office. Doing so is devastatingly smart politics on the Kremlin’s part. Assuming Navalny does as badly in the election as the polls suggest he will, the Kremlin will have “proven” that his trial wasn’t political (why make up charges when he’s incapable of winning politically?), that the Moscow election was fully democratic (and if it was, isn’t Putin a democrat too?) and that Navalny is no Mandela. In fact, it could be argued that Navalny is playing right into the Kremlin’s hands by making this bid.
He did the same during his criminal trial, playing into the Kremlin’s hands by spending his time denouncing the judge and prosecutor rather than focusing on the evidence which proved his innocence. His often juvenile antics, captured in a photograph showing him making faces in court while standing before the judge (he appeared in an open-collared, short-sleeved shirt rather than a jacket and tie), won him no points with mainstream Russian society. His Twitter feed is overflowing with such childish, discrediting antics. He dressed better for his campaign billboard than he did when appearing in court on charges that could put him away for years.
The Nation points out that there is dirt out there on Navalny that isn’t so easily dismissed, including “e-mail correspondence allegedly showing that a political analyst paid Navalny $50,000 for a smear campaign against the aluminum company Rusal.” Navalny has three more sets of criminal charges against him in the Kremlin’s pipeline, including one that involves charges apparently supported by the Yves Rocher cosmetics firm. Where’s the Western reporting on Yves Rocher role? Either the company is lying, and in the Kremlin’s pocket, or Navalny has a pretty big problem. Either way, big story. The Nation correctly points out that Western media reporting has ignored information like this, as well as ignoring Navalny’s poor standing in the polls, in favor of its dramatic narrative that has Navalny on the verge of unseating Putin.
We have no doubt that Russia would be better off being governed by Navalny than by Putin. But then, it would be better off being governed by a ham sandwich than by Putin. And you could argue that this heavily skewed Western reporting is a useful antidote to the policies of the Obama administration, which have been at least as skewed in Putin’s favor. But the problem is that it tends to stifle alternatives to Navalny, and leave the Russia opposition stuck with a man who can’t possibly be considered the best Russia can do, a man the Kremlin is delighted to have as its most prominent foe.