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Alexei Navalny: Could a politically self-made man make it to the Kremlin?

By Blog Admin, on 7 October 2013

Alexey Navalny

Photo: MItya Aleshkovskiy [CC BY-SA-3.0]

The leading anti-Putin blogger and activist Alexei Navalny was recently handed a five-year jail sentence following a widely criticised trial. But his mix of hard-headed anti-corruption politics and internet-based mobilisation may yet pose a challenge to the Kremlin, writes Ekaterina Besedina

On 8 September 2013 Alexei Navalny officially received 27.2% in the Moscow mayoral election, while the incumbent Sergei Sobyanian – one of President Putin’s closest allies – gained 51.2%. This narrow absolute majority meant that the second round run off expected by Navalny supporters was avoided. The Moscow Electoral Commission subsequently declared Sobyanin mayor. Navalny is still trying to challenge the vote in the courts with evidence of voter fraud and ballot stuffing.

The Kremlin had to demonstrate its power and majority support in Russia. This was one of the reasons why the run off did not happen. But Navalny managed to get on the ballot, win a large percentage of votes, and challenge Sobyanin. Despite the a fraud trial still threatening Navalny with five years jail, he has built up a substantial base of support, proving it possible to build a large scale political campaign without access to federal TV channels.

Navalny, a lawyer and high-profile blogger, is the first Russian politician to be created by the internet. His mayoral campaign was based on the internet, social networks and the enthusiasm of supporters. He started gaining popularity two years ago during major opposition protests, becoming a key figure in a growing movement for change that has a potential to challenge the Kremlin and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

 Who is Alexei Navalny?

Navalny’s political career started in 1999 when he joined the Yabloko party, which represented liberals after the fall of the Soviet Union, but quickly became frustrated with the party’s direction. In 2005 Navalny teamed up with Maria Gaidar, the daughter of the economic reformer Yegor Gaidar, to create a movement called Da! (Yes!)  coming into in sharp conflict with Yabloko’s leadership. In 2007, Navalny publicly pushed for the removal of Grigory Yavlinsky as party leader, but was instead expelled himself. The official reasons for Navalny’s expulsion were his nationalist views and support for a hardline nationalist march in Moscow.

Navalny became popular by publishing investigations of corruption in top Russian companies in his blog. His campaign against corporate corruption started in 2007. His most significant early investigations focused on alleged embezzlement of $150 million by officials at a subsidiary of the state-owned bank VTB, and allegations of  a $4 billion fraud at the Transneft oil company. Bloggers and the media quickly picked up the news, which pressured Putin into a comprehensive investigation.

Navalny gained even more visibility after the congress of the ruling United Russia party in 2011, where then Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev backed one another to  switch roles. The swap left many Russian citizens dissatisfied with the regime. Even before the Congress Navalny started agitating for people to vote for any party other than United Russia in upcoming parliamentary elections. He also famously called United Russia ‘the party of crooks and thieves’ (partiya vorov I zhylikov). United Russia’s officially polled just under 50% of the vote, down from 64% in the previous parliamentary elections.

Navalny was among opposition leaders calling for action against apparent electoral fraud. He was among 300 activists detained in an early clash between protesters and riot police and was handed a 15-day prison sentence. The first large-scale protest of 25, 000 took place while Navalny was in still jail and he did not take any part in it. But by the time of the protests of 24 December 2011., when 120,000 people took to Sakharov Avenue to call for democracy and political reform, Navalny had become a key figure.

 Navalny versus the sistema

 The elections that saw Vladimir Putin return for a third term as President in March 2012, triggering another wave of street protests – and Navalny’s subsequent trial of on fraud charges relating to the Kirovles forestry company – show the workings of what Alena Ledeneva termes Russia’s sistema

Sistema is a special term for Russian system of governance which relies on informal networks, in which every government employee, including the president himself, is interconnected and experiences certain gains and losses.  Since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has seen a dramatic increase in strength of the state’s ruling capacity. In inner circles of power, networks and administrative practices came to predominate over the rule of law. The media became a part of the wider sistema and regional governors were transformed into agents of the presidential administration.

 Sistema runs through most spheres of the governing system, political, economic and social. To become a leader or get a top government position, success is needed within a sistema which is both corrupt and based on hierarchies. Bottom-up mobilization relying popular support is not normally possible within sistema, which able to put a pressure on it.

But Navalny has raised his profile entirely through grassroots backing without using of ‘administrative resources’? and has managed both to build a strong support base and take dissatisfaction with the government onto the streets.

Navalny’s resistance to Putinist authoritarianism is specific and practical. He does not much mention human rights or what democracy means for Russia. Instead, he focuses on money: people who own it and the ways they get it. This makes sense as contemporary Russia is a materialist, non-ideological society. Navalny focuses on what people care about by exposing the hypocrisy of an authoritarian regime, which claims to be making everyone richer but is in fact stealing most of the nation’s money for itself.

 Crowd-sourcing anti-corruption

 In December 2010, Navalny presented his “RosPil”.project. ‘Rospil’ means ‘sawing’ in Russian in the sense of sawing up the budget and taking a cut of it for yourself. The aim of the project is to uncover corruption within the government procurement system. Importantly for the first time such an initiative is financed by public through voluntary donations. Later Rospil became an umbrella body for projects including pothole-busting RosYama campaign, the election monitoring project RosVybory and and volunteer coordination network Good Vehicle of Truth

Rospil turned into a successful crowd-funded project completely different from government approaches to fighting corruption. The fund did not require the support of the sistema in order to function. Thanks to his successful crowd-sourcing campaign, Navalny also got the green light to publish the names of sixteen businessmen and public figures, who had donated to his project, helping break the  taboo against openly donating money to political organisations.  Some businesspeople in Russia argue that business should stay out of politics because of the possible legal consequences.

 Internet mobilisation

 Rospil’s popularity demonstrated that the internet has become a major facilitator of the opposition for protest movements in Russia. Television still remains the main state-controlled channel for information, but use of the internet and the social media are rapidly expanding.

 Given the growing influence of the internet, the sistema is trying to limit the boundaries of political expression, The government sees online activism as a genuine threat to its position. But takes a softer approach to censoring the net than other media, allowing the opposition to seek wider support and keep on expanding.

Due to government pressures on Russian cyberspace, there are frequent cyber-attacks, which can limit online activities. But the internet in Russia remains accessible relatively free of filtering. And since systems of informal governance such as the Putin sistema are a part of society, it is important to change the way society operates and take an outside approach to tackling sistema. Here the internet acts a major force for modernisation, allowing leaders like Navalny to emerge.

 From defendant to candidate

 The current trial against Navalny is only the one of many prosecutions of oppositionists. After return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2012, the Kremlin started taking a harsh line against opposition. Many protesters are still awaiting trial for participating in a demonstration on 6 May 2012 that turned violent. And many of Navalny’s large donors have distanced themselves in recent months.

 The cases brought against oppositionists have had an intimidating effect on protest, which may result in the disappearance of demonstrations. But putting Navalny and others behind bars only boosted the opposition’s popularity, prompting a change of regime tactics. In June 2013 in the middle of the Navalny trial, the mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin, called snap elections. While still on trial Navalny immediately announced plans to run.

 Just before the trial verdict, he got on the ballot. His chances of doing so were initially were not high but he did so with the support Sobyanin who had helped him to overcome the “municipal filter” required for nomination by asking a few dozen officials to lend their votes to Navalny. Navalny and his co-defendant were then found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to five years.

 The day after the conviction, however, both were released, although their conviction on embezzlement charges remained in force. There is no a clear explanation for Navalny’s release. The Kremlin normally uses law enforcement and the judicial machine to further its political goals and eliminate potential rivals. However Navalny was released upon the request of the self-same prosecutors who had put him in jail.

 Some suggest there was a division within Russia’s governing elites, with some seeking to have Navalny in jail due to his anti-corruption investigations and other concerned to give the mayoral election a competitive and legitimate appearance. Others believe Navalny’s release was the result of a large-scale unauthorized protest by  his supporters in Moscow

 The way Navalny ran his mayoral campaign was very different to anything seen in Russia before. Russian politics mainly takes place in the Kremlin. Navalny’s campaign open up new perspectives. He relentlessly raisied money from both open and covert donations. In contrast to early days of the Rospil project, people were more open about their backing for the Navalny campaign. Entrepreneurs openly concluded a ‘social contract’ with Navalny, promising their support. Navalny himself held three campaign rallies a day, met voters in every district, and gave dozens of interviews. His election advertising managed to reach nearly 70% of Muscovites and the campaign his popularity rise from 3% to about 20%.

 President Navalny?

 Navalny has already stated that he wants to become president. But could  a politically self-made man make it all the way in Russia without the use of ‘administrative resources’?

Navalny has been able to build a strong support base and turn it into political force. He has not only managed to become as a politician, at least on the Moscow scale, but has turned his supporters into grassroots activists for change. This bottom-up approach has proved successful in raising awareness about the ineffectiveness and corruption of the government, which has weakened the sistema.

However Navalny has to an extent done so by going along with the rules of sistema, by accepting votes of the United Russia in order to get on the ballot. Moreover, many people are also skeptical about his populist slogans and nationalist views.

Alexei Navalny still has a long way to the Kremlin, but his support is still expanding. His trial and conviction could still see him go to jail or end up with suspended sentence which will limit his political activities. But he has managed, for the first time under Putin to mobilise from the bottom-up to take on the sistema and is continuing to do so.

 Ekaterina Besedina is a postgraduate student at UCL-SSEES. Her interests include social media advertising and politics. She wrote her Masters dissertation on ‘Can a Self-Made Man Make It in Russia? The Story of Alexei Navalny’.

She organised a Facebook group for Alexei Navalny in 2011. The group now has more than 2300 likes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.