Populist Ascension of Alexei Nalvany in Russia

Photo source: Foreign Policy

By Naveed Qazi, Editor, Globe Upfront

Alexei Nalvany, the leader of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, started his political career, by launching a dozen regional headquarters, staffed by young, social media savvy volunteers, with little political experience, but having enough zeal to defeat Putin run institutions.

It was in March 2017, as part of his presidential bid, Navalny released, via his YouTube Channel, an investigation detailing the vast illegal fortune of Putin’s prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev. The next day, Navalny summoned Russians to the streets. The protests were crushed by pre-emptive police harassment of organisers and the general public. The regime shrugged off the protests by saying that there was an interference of NATO in it. Still, the marches exceeded their geographic footprint, than other any other show of discontent in post-Soviet Russia. More than thousand people were detained including Nalvany himself.

Young protesters carried slogans like “Sell the dachas and build the roads,” and “If high-profile servants like Medvedev steal so openly from their people, imagine what goes on in the provinces.”

The arrest didn’t allow Navalny to win the opportunity for a presidential debate with Putin. He was denied being put on the ballot due to a “criminal record.” In an Oped by Anastasia Edel, the author wrote: ‘Instead, he got a brilliant green, a Soviet antiseptic embrocation, hurled into his face by unknown attackers, more arrests, and a promise by the head of Rosgvardia to make “mincemeat” out of him.’

However, in May 2018, Navalny, a deft, confident and skilful politician, roused a nationwide protest against Putin’s fourth inauguration, but it had its repercussions. His slogan “He’s Not Our Tsar” brought more violence against protesters, more criminal cases, and more repressive laws. Although, it also positioned Navalny as the undisputed leader of the opposition, with passionate convictions who refused to fit into the confinement of a faux democracy, and whose anti-corruption message resonated beyond the world of Russian intelligentsia.

As long as Kremlin goes, it for years, has banned his name from the airwaves, and has accused him of being a far right ethno nationalist. There are others who haven’t shied away from his criticism. In the English-language press, the socialist magazine Jacobin published an article branding Navalny an “anti-immigrant” nationalist who cannot be trusted. The British journalist Anatol Lieven, who covered Eastern Europe in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, had warned against idealising Navalny, and the N.Y.U. professor Eliot Borenstein, one of American academia’s most prolific commentators on contemporary Russia, once wrote on Facebook, “He’s not Nelson Mandela. He’s Aung San Suu Kyi.” According to his supporters, however, Navalny’s reputation as an ultranationalist stems from statements and actions that are more than a decade old.

Although, there is one thing that can’t be overlooked which is his populism that has struck a chord with many common Russians, several academic, politicians and policy makers.  Alexander Etkind, a Russian exile, professor at the European University in Florence, even wants him to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, an initiative that now includes Lech Walesa, the former Polish President and leader of the Solidarity trade-union movement, who received the prize in 1983. 

In his strategy, Nalvany always focused on ‘smart voting,’ and rallied support for any political organisation, other than of Putin and United Russia. That’s why, in the 2019 Moscow city council election, which was preceded by a wave of mass protests against authorities blocking independent candidates, almost half of those elected were politicians backed by Navalny’s “smart voting.” In 2020, the strategy scored more victories in local elections of the 850 candidates it backed, at least 138 were elected to various regional and municipal bodies across Russia.

In August 2020, he collapsed on a flight home in what later would be proven an assassination attempt with the nerve agent Novichok. An investigation by the British firm Bellingcat revealed Navalny’s poisoning was the culmination of a years-long “special operation” by Russian security services, whose head reports to Putin. The Kremlin denies involvement though. Navalny spent 18 days in a coma, having to later relearn basic tasks like walking and speaking. Throughout the ordeal, he maintained he would return to Russia. In January 2021, he delivered on that promise. But he was again arrested for failing to check in at a Russian police station, and thus was alleged for breaking the rules of the probation. ‘Violating the parole,’ it was called. What followed next was a court martial-style hearing under the portrait of one of Stalin’s executioners and Navalny’s jailing in Matrosskaya Tishina, a prison colony. Soon after, some two hundred thousand people across one hundred twenty five cities and towns, many with no previous history of protesting, took to the streets to demand Navalny’s release. Police used electric shock devices, subways in central Moscow went into a lockdown, along with the Red Square. His staff started the ‘Free Nalvany Campaign’ on social media.

Nalvany, this time around, was sentenced to two years and eight months because his ostensible crime was violating the conditions of a suspended sentence that he received in 2014, during an earlier, politically motivated trial. But the real reason of his arrest lied elsewhere. According to an Oped in The New Yorker by Joshua Yaffa, the Kremlin arrested him because ‘he had managed to survive the state’s attempt to poison him, and, what’s more, had managed to unmask his would-be killers from the F.S.B., the K.G.B’s successor agency, and then had the temerity to return home, to Russia.

In the prison, it was rumoured that he was tortured by sleep deprivation, but prison service denied mistreating Nalvany. He had also started a hunger strike there. When Navalny first arrived at the prison, he wrote that he was awakened every hour of every night, with police officers standing next to his bed, filming him using a camera. He lost fifteen pounds kilograms there, and also had been losing the sensation of his hands. In his fearless daring, Navalny continued to refuse food and other nutrients until his demand to be seen by a medical specialist of his choice, a right guaranteed by Russian law, was granted. In response, the prison administration was threatening to start force-feeding him.

Nalvany was even disgusted with the corruption inside the prison, he was jailed in, when it came to administration of prison rations. In a letter posted on Instagram, he wrote: ‘The meat was stolen from our rations before they ever left Moscow. Butter and vegetables were stolen in Vladimir [the regional center]. Finally, on location, in Pokrov, the staff took home the last of the crumbs. All that remained for the inmates was glue-like porridge and frostbitten potatoes.

After Nalvany’s arrest, Moscow appeals court rejected his demands to be released. A judge found Nalvany guilty for the second time, this time for slandering a World War II veteran, whom he had called a “scoundrel” for appearing in an advertisement promoting Putin’s constitutional amendments. Anastasia Edel further wrote in Foreign Policy Oped: ‘The ruling was further preceded by two weeks of truly Kafkaesque hearings, selectively televised to demonise Navalny in a country where victory in the war had been turned into a cult.’

By April 2021, the map of “beautiful Russia of the future,” where his supporters believe that the long-suffering of their country embodies, featured more than 450,000 blue dots. Although, more than eleven thousand people were taken to custody, since the protests began in January 2021.

The European Court of Human Rights had ordered Navalny’s release, but Kremlin simply tainted the European court order as “interference” into Russian domestic affairs, just as it did to the protests. Three foreign diplomats were expelled in connection with Navalny’s case. European Union’s high representative Josep Borrell had arrived in Moscow to “build bridges,” and had reprimanded the expulsion of diplomats. Due to its dismay, the Russian foreign minister had said that it was ready to sever ties with European Union.

At the same time, no one can also deny the fact that Nalvany can remain in prison, as long as Putin remains in power. Putin has preferred to blame the discontent on “pandemic fatigue”, and continues to refuse to use Navalny’s name, referring to him as “Berlin’s clinic patient.” His authoritarianism, is not only putting brakes on civil dissent, but also making many disillusioned and demoralised Russians immigrate to other countries.

This is something alarming, in a nation, which has seen protests against deficient institutions in its history. The erstwhile Soviet Union, was birthed in the revolutionary protests of 1905 and 1917. Peasants had rebelled against forced requisitions of war communism. Workers had protested for better living conditions. Dissidents had demonstrated against Soviet expansionism and human rights violations. Those eruptions, formed a long, unbroken chain. However, in contemporary times, when Putin, who has been steadily expanding Russia’s security services, created the Rosgvardia, a paramilitary force “to protect motherland and constitution”, answering directly to him, many civil rights and activist organisations found themselves being designated as ‘foreign agents.’ But, for people like Nalvany, they stand firm to an assertion that Putinism will not last forever.

 


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