Staunton, October 16 – Since at least the time of the Russian Civil War, it has been common ground among many observers in Moscow and the West that Russian liberalism “ends at Ukraine,” a notion for which Alexey Navalny’s statement that Russia will retain Crimea whatever happens appears to provide fresh evidence.
But Navalny’s own statement was both more nuanced and more reflective of his longstanding effort to triangulate his positions with the views of the Russian population, and more than that, it has set off a firestorm of criticism by other Russian liberals who reject his position out of hand.
Indeed, the reaction to Navalny’s words strongly suggests that there are a growing number of Russian liberals who now do understand that if Russian liberalism “ends at Ukraine,” it will have no future in Russia either and that by betraying Ukraine on Crimea or other issues, those who identify as Russian liberals will end by betraying themselves and their own country.
On an Ekho Moskvy program October 15 devoted to Navalny’s views on the future of the political opposition in Russia, he was asked whether “Crimea is ours” as Vladimir Putin insists. Navalny first responded that “Crimea consists of those people who live in Crimea,” an answer that did not satisfy his questioner.
Navalny then responded directly: “Of course, Crimea now de facto belongs to Russia.” Moreover, he continued, “despite the fact that Crimea was seized in clear violation of all international norms, nevertheless realities are such that Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation.”
“And let us not deceive ourselves,” he continued. “And I strongly advise Ukrainians not to do so. [Crimea] will remain part of Russia and never again in the foreseeable future will become part of Ukraine.” In the near term, he said, there should be a genuine referendum – not one like that which Putin arranged – to settle the matter.
However pragmatic and realistic Navalny’s words may be, they have disturbed many Russian liberal commentators and infuriated others. Sergey Davidis, a sociologist, put the best face on Navalny’s comment, suggesting that it was little more than a recognition of current realities.
But even he denounced the opposition leader for proposing a new referendum to ratify what even Navalny said had been an illegal act and even more for presuming in the current environment to give advice to Ukrainians. In the current situation, Russians simply have no right to do that.
Others have been more sweeping in their condemnation of Navalny on Crimea. Aleksey Melnikov argues today that the political leader’s comments show why Navalny has not said anything about the war against Ukraine in the past: He clearly shares Putin’s “nationalist line”.
Ivan Tyurin suggests that Navalny is simply the latest in a long line of unprincipled politicians, who decide what they will say on the basis of public opinion polls. He is “a politician without a firm ideological position,” who seeing that 90 percent of the Russian electorate believes “Crimea is ours,” will not challenge that because to do so would cost him votes.
But Boris Vishnevsky, a Yabloko deputy in the St. Petersburg assembly, was more direct and thus brutal in his criticism. He said Navalny had made his name by going after individual thieves in the government, but when the Russian government as a whole acts as a thief, then he takes a position that is “different in principle.”
(For translations of Navalny’s interview and critiques by Vishnevsky and others, see Russia This Week and Ukraine Liveblog.)