Co-opting the Russian Opposition

July 25, 2013
Protests spontaneously erupt in Moscow on July 18 after the Navalny sentencing

Last Wednesday, we went to bed with the knowledge that opposition figure Alexei Navalny could be headed to prison while we slept. This thought did not escape Navalny, either. The investigative-blogger-turned-Moscow-mayoral candidate did what he did best in the final days before his sentence. His last blog post, translated by The Interpreter, was a heartfelt call to action, a treatise on how grass-roots movements can fight the system.

What got considerably less attention was another blog post published right before Navalny’s sentencing. Knowing that his work could be interrupted by a prison term, Navalny published details of a claim against Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian Railways. In the claim, Navalny argued that Yakunin’s expenditures are so high that he could never afford them based on his salary. His income, therefore, must be illicit or off the books. The primary focus Navalny’s investigation isn’t liquid assets, but real-estate, specifically Yakunin’s second home (dacha), and the land that the home is on. Furthermore, Navalny suggests that Yakunin used family members to create a complicated web of offshore companies through which the property was obtained and the mechanisms for payment were obscured.

This week, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that the managers of 29 state-owned companies, corporations, and government-established organizations, will have to report both income and major expenses. However, the only state-owned corporation on that list is Russian Railways.

On the surface, it would appear that Medvedev is making a major concession by doing precisely what Navalny called for.

Another issue Navalny wished addressed was Russian officials’ personal use of publicly-purchased (and expensive) vehicles. Navalny led a public petition that would block publicly-owned vehicles worth more than 1.5 million roubles ($46,000), as often cars driven by officials are worth more than twice this amount. That petition has over 100,000 signatures. This month, the Minister for Open Government also advocated for limiting the value of these vehicles (he wants the limit placed at 3 million roubles) and the Duma committee that is looking at the issue is considering Navalny’s lower limit. Again, on the surface this appears to be somewhat of a concession to Navalny.

Both of these moves, however, will probably not be retroactive. So, in Yakunin’s case, as long as he has hidden his tracks well enough, and he doesn’t make similar purchases in the future, he may not be caught in this new net. The officials at dozens of other publicly-owned companies and organizations will also escape this kind of scrutiny, at least for now. In other words, this only looks like Yakunin is in the spotlight, when in fact this will not place additional pressure on Yakunin, and other officials at companies like Gazprom and Rosneft will be excluded from the new restrictions:

An official of one of the federal agencies called the decision “half-hearted.” “They promised to seriously strengthen control over management of state companies,” and the only large company on that list is Russian Railways. This restriction in terms of who has to report their expenditures is difficult to explain, agrees Vladimir Yuzhakov, Director of the Institute of Modernization of Public and Municipal Administration. “The list should be expanded.”

Still, these concessions look suspiciously as if they were aimed directly at disarming parts of Navalny’s platform. There are other examples of this, the most obvious one being Navalny’s release from prison. Navalny, who is not ahead in the polls, will be allowed to run for mayor of Moscow. He’ll be allowed to lose. Then, the outcome of his appeal will matter much less. Furthermore, even if Navalny were to win, if he loses his appeal then he cannot hold the office. Nothing is gained by Navalny’s opponents, then, from keeping him in prison and out of the race.

Similarly, let’s look at Thursday’s pro-Navalny protests in Moscow. The Interpreter’s Sashe de Vogel wrote that they were a sure sign that the opposition was healthy and vibrant. Protesters blocked major intersections and climbed the walls of the Duma, yet relatively few were arrested, and there were no significant signs of police brutality on the scale of other recent protests or, certainly, other protests held in other countries. This is a sign that Navalny is feared, and that the police did not want to turn the protests into a riot or Navalny into a kind of living martyr. Again, however, with Navalny set to be released just hours after the protests, this leniency may have been another calculated concession, hedging on the idea that Navalny would be unable to effectively criticize the police for brutality once he was released.

This week, The Interpreter also translated an analysis by Aleksandr Morozov who suggests that arresting Navalny in the first place has only empowered him, and has opened up a “corridor” for political change:

Navalny’s possibilities have grown enormously in an instant. Yesterday, at the Yaroslavl Station, this was expressed visually with great clarity. Throughout his entire past political life, Navalany (and we along with him) saw the police and the OMON [riot troops] in helmets only as a “front,” only along an invisible line on the pavement which separated them from us. But yesterday, we saw that people in helmets freed up a corridor for Navalny to pass from the train out on to the square.

While it is narrow, a CORRIDOR has now appeared for Navalny. I think that there are more risks than advantages for the Kremlin to close down Navalny again using the same court case. It’s impossible to rule out that this could be done through another case. But for now, the main thing is the fact itself of the corridor.

Morozov is correct. All of these things demonstrate how powerful Navalny has become. But all of these examples also demonstrate that Navalny’s platform can be diffused by the establishment’s “bomb squad.” If the forces in power can make the argument that they are reforming, even when they are not, then Navalny is just another corrupt individual and a destabilizing force, and they will win. And if they can’t win, they will cheat and win anyway.

Sasha de Vogel’s analysis ends by saying that last week’s events prove that the opposition movement is larger than Navalny:

Beyond its meaning for the opposition, this protest demonstrated to the Kremlin that the movement can continue without its leader. The state’s interest in putting Navalny behind bars is in part based in a Soviet belief in the power of hierarchy. That logic dictates that a single leader holds all the power and dictates his subordinates’ actions. If the leader is eliminated, the whole organization dissolves. This protest indicates that the opposition movement does not, in fact, work according to that logic. As persuasive a figure as Navalny is, he was not the sole motivating force of the opposition. (Indeed, if he had been, the opposition would probably be less disorganized). This protest makes clear that large rallies of passionate, committed citizens could easily continue regardless of whether or not Navalny is sitting in prison.

The subtext in her analysis, and in Navalny’s “Before the Sentence,” is that the opposition movement is not only larger than one man, but that it needs to be. Navalny’s campaign may be diffused or derailed, but he has started something larger. In order to see change in Russia moving forward, however, the movement can’t just be about Yakunin or public cars, or even about Moscow. It needs to be about a genuine effort to fight corruption and champion democracy, and that effort is still in its infancy.