Alexei Navalny (File Photo: AP)
Several hundred Russians gathered in Pushkin Square in central Moscow on Sunday demanding that 41-year-old lawyer Alexei Navalny be allowed to contest in next year’s presidential elections.
Navalny, who made no secret his ambitions to run for president, had urged his supporters to hold demonstrations in central Moscow on Sunday -- Putin’s 65th birthday -- demanding that embezzlement charges slapped on him earlier this year be dropped so that he can contest the election, reports The New Indian Express.
Protests of the kind we saw on Sunday are not new in Putin’s Russia. It was only six months earlier, in March, that thousands gathered in Moscow protesting corruption. Back then, as on Sunday, the protesters were chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin”.
Also, the crowd was mostly young -- comprised of men and women in their twenties and thirties, all of them fed up with corruption, economic stagnation and Russia’s isolation from Europe. If there is one man who is uniting them, it was Alexei Navalny.
A fan of Gorbachev
Some in the West calls Navalny the “best hope” for Russia’s liberalisation. Alexei Navalny became a celebrity among youngsters in Russians after he began blogging in 2008. His blog posts exposed corruption in Russia’s state-owned enterprises. Over the years, he earned a devout band of followers, numbering millions and mostly young, who share his vision for a new Russia bereft of Putin’s United Russia party and its “crooks” and “thieves”.
Born on June 4, 1976, Navalny was among those who came of age at the dawn of post-Soviet Russia. He, like many of his contemporaries, admired Michael Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. “Back then I was a massive fan of Yeltsin’s but Gorbachev appears a far more appealing figure to me now,” Navalny told Adam Michnik, a Polish historian. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin shared a penchant for Western-style liberal democracy and Navalny couldn’t agree more with them on the future course Russia must take.
Neither his father Anatoly Ivanovich nor his mother Lyudmila Ivanovna was into politics. They were basket weavers, which was a popular occupation of Soviet Russia’s lower middle class. However, the young Navalny had little interest in spending the rest of his life running his father’s basket factory. He was a visionary. And times were different. The totalitarian government had fallen and a western liberal democracy, that promised economic freedom, and rule of law appeared to have taken its place. Navalny, who followed politics closely, wanted to get involved sooner or later.
Revolutionaries throng Kiev, Nalavny wastes no time
Soon after graduating as a law student from People’s Friendship University, Navalny joined Yabloco, a political party of mostly youngsters who shared a penchant for liberal democracy and advocated closer ties with the United States and the European Union. However, Yabloco was far from a successful political party. Fraught with funding deficiencies, the party, hailed by many western observers as the only “real democratic opposition” in Russia, failed to cultivate a sizeable support base. Moreover, in later years, it was boxed in and caged by the establishment loyal to Kremlin, which tamed its wings and often barred its members from contesting elections.
However, for Navalny, his break as a young politician came in 2004 while serving as a member of Yabloco. In November of that year, Ukrainians voted in a runoff election for president. When the incumbent Viktor Yanukovich, who was a close ally of Kremlin, was declared the winner, thousands of youngsters were agitated. It was only hours ago that televisions channels across the country showed the pro-West Viktor Yushchenko holding a decisive lead against Yanukovich. Also, by then, pundits had anointed Yushchenko as the victor and celebrations had begun. When the official results came in, the young supporters of Yushchenko, who, like their leaders desired closer ties with the West, greeted it with disbelief. On the next day, over 100,000 gathered in Kiev demanding that the votes be counted again.
To many observers in the West, Ukraine seemed like it was on the brink of a revolution. Kremlin was nervously studying the developments across the border. As the protestors took a march to the Ukrainian parliament, Alexie Navalny was in Moscow, watching the demonstrations on TV. For Navalny the thousands who gathered in Kiev, were his comrades. With them, he shared a common cause -- breaking the yoke of authoritarian regimes in the erstwhile Soviet lands.
“I was involved in politics at the time -- I was a member of Yabloco. I remember us going down to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow and giving the Ukrainians our support,” Navalny wrote later.
In December, Ukraine’s Supreme Court declared that the results of November election was null and void and called for another election. The so-called Orange Revolution ended when Viktor Yushchenko won the election held in January of 2005.
Probably the biggest impact of Orange Revolution was in Russia, where president Vladimir Putin concluded that forces backed by the West were at work to dismantle the post-Cold War order in Russia’s near abroad. Moreover, Putin began sensing that his own position as president of Russia could be weakened if similar protests like the one in Kiev were to happen in Moscow. In fact, like most authoritarian leaders, Putin had his own insecurities to deal with.
The most popular blogger in Russia?
His 2004 backing of Ukraine’s pro-western forces did not make him a celebrity. Also, his political activism was yet to attract Kremlin’s attention. But, four years after the Maidan protests, Navalny started writing a blog, which became a runaway hit. A year earlier, he had spent 300,000 rubles acquiring stakes in Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, Rosneft, Lukoil, and Surgutneftegaz -- Russia’s five major state-owned oil companies. He was convinced that the oligarchs who run these oil giants were neck-deep in corruption. Soon after he brought the stakes, Navalny began demanding transparency and called on the management to publish financial and asset reports.
In 2007, Navalny attended a meeting of shareholders in Moscow. According to the Associated Press reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva who was present at the meeting, in the middle of the meeting, “Navalny stood up and asked a simple and straightforward question: Who owns Surgutneftegaz? The room fell silent. After a few moments, a small group of shareholders in the back began clapping,” reported Vasilyeva. “They clearly weren't accustomed to being asked questions like that,” she later told TIME Magazine.
That’s when Russia’s oligarchs took note of Navalny for the first time. In the subsequent meetings, he continued to press his demands. Among the minority shareholders, he became something of a leader-like figure. However, for the management of Russia’s big five oil companies, Navalny became an irritant. When the management refused to budge on his demands, he went overboard. It was then, to make his campaign for openness in Russia’s state-owned enterprises public, that Navaly started writing the blog.
Soon he earned a dedicated band of followers, whose support he could count on in his struggle against Moscow. No later, he began posting details of his investigations into corruption at the state-owned companies.
“The authorities tried hard to ignore him, so as not to increase his popularity,” wrote Russian journalist Mikhail Zygyar in his 2016 book, All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin. However, once his blog became a hit among youth, ignoring him became difficult, Zygyar noted.
It was around the same time that Navalny launched a political movement called The People. He pitched democratic nationalism and called for safeguarding the rights of ethnic Russians. Like Donald Trump, he also advocated curbs on illegal immigration. In later years, when he began projecting himself as an alternative to Putin, some in the West raised concerns about his association with ethnic nationalists. However, Navalny quickly corrected them saying he only called for the institution of a proper visa regime. “If we filtered reg stream of incomers through a visa regime, migrants would be forced to get work permits and take out medical insurance,” Navalny remarked.
The birth of a leader
It was only in 2011 that Navalny became a national figure. Elections were held to Duma that year. Putin’s United Russia won 77 per cent of the seats. Like in Ukraine seven years back, the results were at variance with what the exit polls had predicted. Also, there were reports that as counting neared its end, Russian authorities barged into polling stations and dismissed independent observers. For many, this was a sign that something fishy was going on. Soon, journalists began alleging fraud and thousands of people thronged the streets of Moscow in what came to be called “the dirty boots rebellion”.
Navalny called on his blog followers to huddle in central Moscow for a rally. Once the crowd gathered, Navalny went on a rant. According to Zygyar, he shouted out pointing to Kremlin: “They call us Internet Hamsters. Yes, that’s right. I’m an internet hamster and I’m going to gnaw the throat of everyone of those beasts.”
As in the Soviet Union, political murders are not uncommon in modern Russia. Those who have dared to raise a finger at Vladimir Putin either found themselves jailed or even killed. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Anna Politkovskaya are examples. To many observers in the West, the mere fact that Navalny is alive is bizarre. “The strangest thing about Navalny is that he is walking around in Moscow still,” observed Masha Gessen, a staff writer at New Yorker.
Navalny’s loud proclamation in central Moscow made him a hero overnight. Those who were until then afraid to speak out against Kremlin’s excesses found a leader in Navalny -- a man who is not afraid to “gnaw the throat” of Vladimir Putin and his allies.
At the end of the day, Navalny was arrested and put in prison along with dozens of other protesters. According to Zygyar, the authorities were disinclined to slay Navalny “so as not a make a martyr of him.” Unlike Khodorkovsky or Politkovskaya, Navalny commanded considerable public support. That is probably why he was still walking around Moscow unharmed.
A month later, Navalny was released from jail. One of the first things that he did upon being released was to publicly challenge Vladimir Putin, who was preparing to run for president, the following year. “The party of swindlers and thieves is putting forward its chief swindler and its chief thief for the presidency,” Navalny famously told journalists who had gathered outside the jail to greet him. He then urged the Russians to defeat Putin.
However, back in 2002, Putin proved unstoppable. He won the election by a sizeable margin and reclaimed presidency. Allegations of electoral fraud surfaced again and the dirty boots rebellion continued.
All along Navalny had refused to contest elections, preferring to remain on the sidelines. When the Progress Party offered Navalny a ticket to contest the 2012 parliamentary elections, he reportedly denied it, citing criminal charges against him.
But that changed in 2013, the year when Moscow held mayoral elections. Navalny was a leading candidate. Considering the ongoing protests, and the support he has amassed, authorities may have deemed it unwise to bare him from contesting.
He was up against the Kremlin-backed Sergey Sobyanin. Navalny lost by a narrow margin. “The results are fake,” Navalny quick declared. By now, Kremlin began sensing that Navalny is an existential threat. Over the next few years, several embezzlement charges were brought against him. On one occasion he was placed under house arrest for over a month.
However, hardly anything could crush the spirit of Navalny. In December last year, he announced his intention to run for president thereby bringing him directly on a collision course with Vladimir Putin. However, in less than two months, he was arrested in connection with one of the embezzlement cases. A Moscow court handed him five years' suspended sentence for allegedly stealing $500,000 from Kirov's, a state-owned timber company while serving as its advisor.
A different kind of nationalist
Navalny is no saint. What drives him, it appears, is his desire for power.
Like most ambitious politicians, Navalny projects himself as the only man who could save Russia. In the words of New York Times correspondent Oleg Kashin, "In his work with his supporters, Navalny adopts an authoritarian leadership style. His closest staff have come from the hired staff of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, people to whom he pays a salary and for whom, he will always be a boss, not a partner."
However, he is also a man of strong convictions. He calls himself a patriot. His only grievances are the government control over Russia’s economy and media and what he sees as an inevitable consequence of that -- corruption. Navalny has clear-cut aims, of which he talked and written about. He wants to liberalise Russia’s economy and do away with the dirigiste system.
What sets him apart from Putin though is his desire to set the house right. Though he calls himself a nationalist, Navalny hates Putin’s variety of imperial nationalism. He claims he has no interest in expanding Russia’s sphere of influence.
Neither does he believe that the Russian military should be used to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in neighbouring countries. He is not proud Russia’s invasion of Crimea. It was only in June that he promised to withdraw the Russian forces from the eastern Ukraine town of Donbas (Kremlin has so far denied their presence).
For Navalny, getting Russia back on track is the priority. Eliminating corruption and introducing laissez-faire economic system are the keys to that. These are music to the ears of western leaders.