Navalny Answers the Hard Questions with Hard Answers

July 27, 2013
Aleksei Navalny (Wikimedia Commons)

Since being released from prison following his five-year sentence for embezzlement charges, Alexey Navalny’s campaign for mayor of Moscow has come under intense scrutiny, both from pro-Kremlin and oppositional quarters. Below, Interpreter translator Catherine A. Fitzpatrick weighs some of the controversies surrounding Navalny’s nationalism, his past comments about minorities and foreigners and his plan for barring United Russia officials complicit in human rights abuses from holding office. — Ed. correspondent Dmitry Zykov’s tweet about the five-year prison sentence of anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny — “Political prisoner Navalny must be supported; candidate Navalny – never” — spoke for many liberals in the Russian intelligentsia – and in the West — who are made uneasy by Navalny’s nationalism but felt they had to support principles in a case manipulated by Putin to silence protest.

While Navalny enjoyed a brief post-verdict bounce arriving to cheering crowds at the Yaroslavl Station in Moscow (echoing Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station), it wasn’t long before the brutal Russian blogosphere was challenging him for his real and imagined sins.

Yevgeniya Chirikova, a popular environmental activist who has run and lost election campaigns herself, says she was deluged with hate mail for her “disloyalty” when she retweeted Zykov’s caveat. She also demanded to know why Navalny hadn’t included an environmental program in his campaign pledges, and was rewarded by Navalny’s belated inclusion of her ecological issues. Chirikova seemed mollified, and unruffled by Navalny’s patronizing pledge to give her advertising cubes made of “moss, branches and bark.” She now praises Navalny for being flexible enough to admit his mistake and reverse his position.

Meanwhile, when asked by Ksenya Sobchak on her talk show about LGBT rights, Navalny only conceded that he thought same-sex couples should be able to register civic unions, but he was “categorically against” gays adopting children. He stumbled further by implying that in some more liberal subjects of the Russian Federation, LGBT couples might be able to obtain inheritance rights, but Ivan Rakhmetov, a legal blogger, corrected him.

“The wish to please everyone at once often plays a bad trick on politicians,” commented lawyer Roman Ostrovsky. “It often happens that prominent figures speak nonsense about areas they know nothing about but it is doubly offensive when such bloopers are permitted by specialists.”  As a lawyer, Navalny was expected to know that “issues of inheritance and legalization of same-sex marriages are impossible to decide at the level of regions; such a statement is extremely illiterate from the perspective of jurisprudence,” Ostrovsky added.

Most worrisome for Navalny-watchers have been his nationalist expressions and intolerant or even hate speech about minorities. There was an uproar among some opposition members and bloggers when Navalny added his signature to a draft statement by the Coordinating Council (whose author is not known)  which appeared on the eve of his sentencing, regarding the events in the city of Pugachev where a dozen Chechens were arrested in their homes after the murder of a Tatar soldier by a Chechen teenager.

The opposition statement was ignored by 65% of the Coordinating Council members (25 people) who didn’t vote, and didn’t pass when only 10% (4 people) signed and 25% (10 people) opposed it. The ethnic clashes were a pre-existing situation not incited by Navalny. Yet the inflammatory statement claimed that hateful rallies by local and bused-in nationalists calling for mass expulsions of minorities were “lawful” and Chechen migrants were to blame themselves for their “provocative behavior” and failure to adapt to unspecific “local traditions and moral norms”.

Characteristically, both mainstream state-controlled as well as independent media referred to “the problem of migrant labor” — by which they meant Chechens leaving the Chechen Republic for other constituent republics of the Russian Federation and finding they were unwelcome in what was still supposed to be their own country, due to perceptions that they contributed to crime or took away jobs. The police in Pugachev struggled to explain that past unsolved murder cases did not even involve Chechens or other minorities, outraged locals continued to demonstrate. Navalny apparently had no comment on the situation other than his signature.

But now that Navalny has been freed from prison at least temporarily, his critics are determined to hold him to account.

A recent Facebook post by Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets Ayder Muzhdabaev (with 422 “likes”) listed the most controversial statements Navalny has been alleged to make in the past and confronted the mayoral candidate with demands to explain himself.  Muzhdabaev wanted to know if a story frequently passed around about Navalny was true, to the affect that he called a former Azerbaijani colleague of his in the Yabloko opposition party a “black-ass” and said “her place was at the market,” typical Russian slurs for Russia’s Caucasian minorities.

Navalny replied in a blog post on Ekho Moskvy, wondering why Muzhdabaev was asking him the uncomfortable questions first among all the candidates. (Indeed, Sergei Mitrokhin openly called for a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants from Central Asia but hasn’t faced the same scrutiny.) Navalny said he had already replied “138 times” but would take the opportunity to reply once again to say that no, he had not used the slur. He questioned Muzhdabayev’s purported source for the story, an older woman named Engelina Tareyeva who wrote critically of the National Democrats including Navalny on her Live Journal blog in a series of 4 posts in 2011.

Tageyeva claimed that Navalny laughed disparagingly when she spoke about “Georgian poetry” in a discussion club. She described how she agreed to campaign for him and another Yabloko candidate, Ilya Yashin (also later expelled from Yabloko) and when she refused wages for her work, Navalny told her to accept payment and “leave behind your intelligentsia stuff”.  Tageyeva recounted the incident with the slur and said the Azerbaijani woman, Saadat Kadyrova of Yabloko’s Moscow office, ran from the room in tears.

Kadyrova then organized a party discussion but Navalny denied using the derogatory term.  Navalny further added that Tageyeva exaggerated when she claimed to have “worked with him for years” in the party when in fact she “saw me several times in the office”.

The incident and its sourcing has received much scrutiny.  In a blog post for Global Voices, Andrey Tselikov notes that although Muzhdabaev appeared to refer to statements Kadyrova made herself, saying Navalny’s behavior forced her to leave the party, Navalny chose to respond to Tageyeva’s post. Tselikov describes Tageyeva as “an 88 year old woman who briefly mentioned the incident in her LiveJournal but seems to have a generally positive view of Navalny.”

But a careful reading of Tageyeva’s 2011 posts show that in fact she wrote extensively about the National Democrats saying she considered Navalny “the most dangerous man in Russia” calling him a “nationalist,” and implying he was comparable to the neo-Nazi youth in Russia. She added that only a superficial similarity in Navalny’s appearance to her deceased husband had prevented her from viewing him objectively at first, but ultimately she detected his “chilly eyes, in which the cold was preserved even with a smile, but I know that this blue ice can turn into a blue flame.”

Tselikov, a Russian émigré who now lives in the US, pours some fat on the fire by describing Navalny’s characterization of Tageyeva as “half-senile”. But in fact, Navalny said no such thing and called her “rather nice.”

The incident doesn’t seem to have witnesses other than Kadyrova herself. Tselikov cites a source, Semyon Burd, Deputy Chairman of the Moscow chapter of Yabloko who said that Navalny was lying when he claimed to have seen this “grandma” only a few times, since he recalled them frequently when they worked in the 2005 campaign. Yet he doesn’t provide any concrete testimony about the ethnic slur. Another Yabloko member, Alexander Gnezdilov, recollects that Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky mentioned the incident at a party meeting and that Navalny “didn’t try to claim it was a lie” — a statement still shy of actual eyewitness testimony or an admission by Navalny.

But while the story of Kadyrova may be difficult to pin down, Navalny admitted he did use an ethnic slur in response to Muzhdabayev’s question about Georgians (calling them “rodent” or gryzun, a word that has two letters’ difference in Russian than gruzin, the word for Georgians). Navalny said he used the slur “in a post about the war, and I regret it. It was not pretty, and in fact negated the entire post.”

Regarding the oft-cited “Russian Marches” of nationalists where Navalny was sighted, Muzhdabayev asks whether they were Navalny’s “political allies” and whether he would collaborate with them if he were elected mayor.

“Hellooo!” responds Navalny sharply and points out that the same marchers, headed by Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, cooperate not only with the mayor’s office now but with the Kremlin. Navalny added that the government was obliged to deal with Russian citizens and residents of Moscow.

In an article at Ezhednevny zhurnal 24 July, Mikhail Berg elaborates on the sentiment of Krytov’s tweet, noting that “I understand those who demanded the unconditional release of Navalny in the lawlessness of Putin’s court, and are prepared to further advocate for his right to freedom, but cannot support Navalny as a political figure with mayoral and presidential ambitions, who has stained himself with nationalist statements and actions.”

Berg also understands those who see Navalny as an interim figure and the only one who can unite the divided opposition. He even ascribes to him “careful liberalism, anti-totalitarian and anti-corruption rhetoric” although noting that his nationalist element means he is “unacceptable for many” even if outvoted by “numerous” nationalists. Berg says he was surprised to find intellectuals who support Navalny and finds a new right-wing conservatism among old Soviet nonconformists which leads to support of Putin and antagonism to America; “perestroika and Putin’s nihilism have burned out their doubts; today the disappointed mind is capable of anything, right up to open Nazism.” Berg bemoans the turn from Soviet unofficial cultural values toward nationalist figures, Petersburg Cossacks, and “positive alternatives to European values” and says Navalny has caught this public zeitgeist:

Navalny really does represent a reflection of the day — but one where hope, however, is mixed with possibly more obscurantism than even under Putin, as hard as that dimension is to imagine. In recent days, Navalny was asked many questions about his nationalism, he answered some, but not all of Ayder Muzhdabayev questions quite decently, but he didn’t convince me.

Nationalism isn’t the only feature of Navalny that is worrisome for some voters — the animosity toward the rich, especially those with ill-gotten loot evinced by Navalny himself, notably in his recent court speech, is applied toward Navalny himself.

Russian News Service claims that Navalny is the “richest candidate” for mayor, based on the candidates’ income declarations for 2012.  Navalny reported that he earned 9.29 million rubles and had savings of 2.73 million rubles, and that his wife had 2.49 million rubles. The couple owned a 78.5 square meter apartment in Moscow and had a 2004 Hundai Elantra and a VAZ 21083

Sobyanin trailed behind him with 5.32 million rubles, and his wife made only 42,000 rubles; they had an apartment of 118 square meters and garage of 26.8 square meters, but in Tyumenskaya oblast and Khanty-Mansysky autonomous region, respectively. And so on.

The article failed to mention that Sobyanin, currently the acting mayor, has received campaign contributions of 35.9 million rubles already. As Navalny was just recently cleared as a candidate and was expecting to go to jail until his release, his contributions are not yet reported but they are unlikely to exceed those of the incumbent with “administrative resources”.

Aside from the hard questions about Navalny’s nationalism, there are the hard questions even supporters worry about given the realities of Russian politics and the tendency for rebels to be coopted in the authoritarian system.

In an interview with Ksenya Sobchak about her interview with Navalny, (the Russia blogosphere tends to get recursive that way), Vasily Sonkin cited a Facebook post by Yury Bogomolov: “Navalny is at a crossroads; he could beat the system but lose himself as has already happened with Solzhenitsyn and Yeltsin”. Sobchak said she thought Navalny was becoming harsher under the stress of the trials, but that it was “temporary”.

Navalny told Sobchak he would turn his campaign into a boycott of the elections if he were  not allowed on the ballot, rather than call on his supporters to back, say, Mitrokhin. Sobchak would like to see less ridicule of leaders (i.e. caricatures of Putin’s botox-filled face) and more mature pronouncements.

“I’m worried when Navalny says ‘I’ll put Putin in jail,” she told Sonkin. “How does he differ then from Putin, who is now putting Navalny in jail?” If Navalny actually comes to power, opponents might not get jobs in the government.

Such “lustration” (as the policy of barring Communists from high offices came to be known in Eastern Europe) was also discussed in a lengthy interview of Navalny by Kirill Sirotkin, who wondered if Navalny would go wild punishing the “crooks” and “thieves” he has often railed about — and  “once again there will be repressions and 1937”. Navalny’s reply:

There will not be any 1937, that’s all extremes and exaggerations. Our country needs law and order. Ensuring legality and the battle against corruption means a battle with specific corrupt people. The Rotenbergs, the Kovalchuks must be put in the dock; there are facts regarding these people, their blame will sooner or later be proven by an honest court. But to just grab comrades from the Presidential Administration and drag them into prison, no one will ever do that  even if such an opportunity presents itself. Everything has to be investigated. In normal courts, according to honest rules. These people have to be tried for real crimes which they committed. There is no 1937.

And how else can it be? Why do all this, if having changed the government, you forgive all these people. To say, for example, to Miller and all those Gazprom bandits, “You swiped hundreds of millions of rubles from there, but now we have a new government and we forgive everyone.” I believe that the people involved in corruption must have accountability, and the money that they have embezzled and taken abroad must be returned to the country to the maximum extent.

Asked if he planned to conduct a “lustration” campaign, Navalny replied:

Yes, I cannot imagine a situation when under the new government, [Vyacheslav] Surkov [former deputy prime minister dismissed by Putin] or [Vyacheslav] Volodin [first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration] would be hired. Of course, investigators who fabricated criminal cases will face criminal liability. And the people who give political authorizations at the meetings in the Presidential Administration must bear political responsibility if no criminal evidence is found in their actions.  That means the entire highest leadership of United Russia, but not millions of members of the party, where teachers are forced to join, but those who are important political figures, they must be deprived of the right to take any government posts, or teach in state universities or work in companies with state investment. This is the normal form of lustration, it has been applied many times, including in East European countries. This will serve society and the people. If no criminal evidence is found among these “crooks,” then they can be kicked out, let them do business, let them open car repair shops. But this should not concern millions of people.

For some reason, Muzhdabayev didn’t raise another statement Navalny is often challenged about, his slogan, “Time to Stop Feeding the Caucasus”, a slogan at the “Russian Marches” which is as much about prejudice as it is about corruption. Some opposition members have tried to justify the call by saying it’s actually a demand to cut off corrupt government leaders in the Caucasus or human rights abusers such as Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya; some  even style it as a kind of Randian demand to turn bids for independence into economic self-sufficiency.

Sobchak, however, did take up Navalny’s controversial plan:

When I say “That’s Enough Feeding the Caucasus,” this means [indicted businessman] Akhmet Bilalov. What’s going on around the Northern Caucasus Resorts is a typical story which wouldn’t happen if the idea of the campaign “That’s Enough Feeding the Caucasus” were applied. “That’s Enough Feeding the Caucasus” means so that under cover of national special features, the local raj and the clans do not create strange organizations which suck money out of the federal center like a vacuum cleaner, and steal from their already impoverished population. It’s about the struggle against those who race along the demolished roads of Makhachkala and Nalchik in their Gelendvagens, shooting in the air and looking haughtily at a population picking cherries so as to feed their families.

Navalny says “there must be law and order” in the North Caucasus as throughout the whole country; no one will stand for the creation of “offshore regions,” from which “bandits will come, dance the lezginka, shoot in the air outside, kidnap and murder people, and then return there and avoid punishment.” He spoke of the irritation people had with “shaggy shepherds with FSB, Interior Ministry and Investigative Committee IDs who sit in the President Hotel, scare everybody and commit crimes. The irritation with them is one hundred times worse in the Caucasus. There they terrorize the whole population, people live in poverty. What is happening with Ingushetia and Dagestan? Terrible poverty of the population and super-wealth for the ruling clans.”

They must understand in the Caucasus that we want to live together in a European secular state where there is tolerance for other religions, where it is not proper to shoot outside during a wedding, where the rights of women are respected and it is not acceptable to shoot a person with a paintball gun even if she has a very short skirt. If some woman is not behaving as accepted, this is a problem for her alone, her husband and her parents, and not some sort of morals police. Uniformity of laws must be ensured, residents of the North Caucasus must not protect the extremists and the freaks who do such things under the excuse of cultural features.

Navalny rejects the claim that nationalism stains his reputation and describes his views as “centrist” and “conservative”.

Many don’t like it that I have a dialogue with people whose life has many outward effects – the “Russian Marches” and so on, they see a threat in this. I rather see a threat in not engaging in this. You can’t just leave the conservative agenda to anyone. Both I and Leonid Parfyonov, who I love very much, must say that Russia is in second place in the number of illegal migrants, and first place in the use of heroin, and heroin is brought here by migrants in order to somehow feed themselves. If we don’t speak of this and believe that these are some sort of horrible nationalist topics, then people will talk about this who believe the solution is to just whack them over the head. I am glad that I am one of the few politicians who can find cooperation both with liberals and nationalists. I simultaneously cross myself at Russian Orthodox cathedrals and am friends with Leonid Parfyonov. I don’t think he has any problems with this.

Ultimately, Navalny’s competition is Putin, not the other opposition candidates. Sirokin quotes an interview where Navalny said, “I would forgive Putin a lot if he were a Russian Lee Kuan Yew. Yes, he would install totalitarian policy, but he would chase the crooks even so. But Putin can’t become a Russian Lee Kuan Yew. He can’t even become a Russian Lukashenka.” Sirokin asks if Navalny is prepared to become a Russian Lee Kuan Yew:

We shouldn’t think up idols. We have to take the good things and the correct, tested experience. What Lee Kuan Yew did in the area of economics and fighting corruption was amazing and we should orient ourselves to that. What he did in the era of politics is absolutely unacceptable for any European country and will never be accepted in Russia. The country needs a man who will lead Russia on the path of European development, relying hard on principles of legality and ruthlessly destroying corruption like Lee Kuan Yew and several other Asian rulers. If there is a Third Way for Russia, then it’s in this.