On a clear crisp morning just before the Ides of May in 2008, I ascended two flights of stairs in a modest central Moscow office building to meet a Russian opposition activist. I had been interviewing several leading members of the “opposition” – loosely defined – during this visit, including journalists, activists, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, seeking to get a bead on where Russia was headed after two terms of Vladimir Putin. A mutual acquaintance felt I might find it interesting to meet with the increasingly outspoken Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had just positioned himself as an activist shareholder in several of Russia’s largest and most powerful companies: Rosneft, Gazprom, Lukoil, and others. His goal, by being a shareholder, was to bring transparency to what these companies were up to. It was the first step in what would develop into over a decade of shrewd anti-corruption activity by Navalny, who later gave the United Russia ruling party the telling moniker, “the party of crooks and thieves.”
This interview was also about a year after Navalny had split with Yabloko, the liberal opposition party in which he had been an active, rising star since 2000. In July 2007, he founded Народ (The People), a political movement that argued for "democratic nationalism," raggedly defined as a fight for democracy and the rights of ethnic Russians. Soon after my meeting with him, he united with two other nationalist groups, Movement Against Illegal Immigration and Great Russia, into a coalition called the Russian National Movement. He was explicit in saying that his was not a skinhead nationalism, but a democratic one, and a movement more realistic in its aspirations for political success than the liberalist wing.
Since 2008, Navalny has trudged through a string of electoral movements, demonstrations, trumped-up court cases, arrests, two aborted runs for the presidency, and a very respectable showing (27%) in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election. Through it all, his star steadily rose toward that of Russia’s leading opposition politician. But, more importantly, his influence and gritty work as an anticorruption crusader garnered him attention and respect inside Russia and without.
At the news of his Siberian poisoning this week, I thought back to our May 2008 meeting. For one reason or another, no article ever came of it. So I decided this week to give the recording a new listen.
In all the coverage of Russia’s opposition, rarely do journalists give their interviewees adequate time to explain their ideas or their philosophy, opting instead for neat summarizations that then become short-hand definitions. In Navalny’s case, it is either that he is an anticorruption crusader or a thinly disguised nationalist. As you will see if you read his unfiltered views below, it is not quite that simple, and many of his thoughts in 2008 have a new resonance given the events of the past 12 years.
We began with a discussion of the opposition and my asking him what Narod’s place was in it. That led to a long, meandering reply that gave an interesting picture of political opposition in Russia.
“The opposition… despite the fact that it involves this generally stormy existence, where we see these constant scandals, jealous scenes, constant movement… nonetheless, it is mainly a storm in a glass of water. And the Powers that Be and most people look at it all with, basically, a kind of sad smile...
“For the most part, our opposition is people who were in power in the 1990s and then, for some reason or other, they could not or would not reconcile themselves with the system that Putin had built… so they declared themselves to be the opposition that would fight against the Putin regime. In reality, not everyone believes in the veracity of these words… and while they offer all manner of criticisms, none of them are capable of offering their own alternative… The majority of our oppositionists say ‘we propose the complete dismantling of the Putin regime, and then after that, we’ll decide what to do.’ But that is not very satisfying…
“As we say in our organization, Putin is building a corrupt state, corrupt bandit capitalism… yet he at least has his clearly understood policies… he is against the West, but he is for a market economy, which should be built on the basis of state corporatism. And he is at least paying people their pensions, and his position is more or less clear… and that is all just fine with the people. And as to what the opposition is opposing, that is utterly unclear…
“One of the main problems of our opposition… [It] is called the democratic opposition… But in reality, there has never been a democratic opposition in Russia, ever. It has been a liberal opposition, I would even say left-liberal. And despite the fact that it has always oriented toward the West… left-liberals are not in power anywhere… Why, even in the US, Democrats are considerably more conservative than our democrats…
“So our democrats express these strongly left-leaning positions and for that reason, they can never gain popular support in Russia, because Russia… has its very specific character, and it is fundamentally a very conservative country… For better or worse, and we can react to this fact differently, but we must understand this. So, when the liberal opposition seeks to not just get into the Duma, or to influence political decisions, but to seek to lead the country, it is simply ridiculous. It is completely impossible and unrealistic.
“And so, we, in the movement Narod, are trying to transform our opposition from a liberal fountainhead, from a liberal field – if I can say that – into a more democratic one, I would even say into a national democratic one. We feel that the time for opposition to exist in Russia in the form of a party has been extinguished. All legally existing parties exist at the interest of the Kremlin…
“We feel opposition should exist outside the system… even outside ideology… not hemmed in by this or that political definition… we believe the point of concentration should be national democratic ideas. We believe all these discussions of whether there can ever be democracy in Russia, or whether Russia can follow some third path – it is all absolute nonsense. In reality, this is just pure Russophobia.
“We believe that the Russian people, throughout its history, has shown that its people have strived for democracy and that it can live on the foundation of European democracy. Russia should choose the European path of development. Yet, at the same time, it is stupid to deny the country’s specific, conservative national characteristics. And it is obvious that one cannot deny, which the liberals always try to deny, the huge problems that the Russian people face. That the Russia people is the largest, divided people in Europe… that they lost their empire… that millions of Russians ended up in different parts of that empire, and they were exposed to long years of humiliation… and their rights have been constantly violated. And we should answer the basic questions that are before the Russian economy and society. For example, migration. For some reason… it is not possible to talk about this topic… and if you are a democrat, and speak of migration, then you are a fascist…
“If you look at the candidates for president in the US, we see every single one voted for building a wall with Mexico. It is impossible to think of a politician in Russia saying ‘let’s build a wall between us and Tajikistan.’ He would immediately be nicknamed a fascist…
“We believe such issues cannot be avoided…. Putin he at least seeks out an adequate answer to such issues… but liberals and democrats prefer to not talk about these issues, and just say ‘first let’s oust Putin, and then we’ll resolve things somehow.’ It’s not possible to be like that… no one is going to accept that or believe in that. And I will repeat, 90 percent of our opposition is people of the 1990s. They were in the government. And they need to answer the simple question – maybe they have tired of this, but so what – because is very relevant: ‘So what did you guys do before? Before you didn’t do anything…’
“Of course, back then, then lived in different circumstances. The Soviet Union collapsed, no one knew what needed to be done, but they did what they could. These were people who just the day before were in the Communist Party, and now they were democrats. No one back then knew what needed to be done. They did what they could. They just simply could not govern the country. The people did not listen to them… they were not successful…
“The Russian opposition… needs to do something concrete… the struggle against concrete issues is still in the end a struggle against Putin, but we have to do something concrete. You can’t do some protest... Because you can’t explain to the majority of the population why you are protesting… ‘You are just do-nothings,’ they will say…
“Of course, one can say these people just don’t understand, that they are stupid. But if you are a democrat, you have to find a simple general language with which to speak to the people. To explain it to them. But they [the liberal opposition] have not done this. So the people have their existence, and the opposition has theirs.
“So what are we doing?…”
Navalny then explained the rampant corruption in Russia’s oil-exporting sphere, and how, by buying a small share in certain oil companies, his group is able to sue the company for depriving shareholders of earnings when diverting money corruptly. About how despite record earnings, shareholders are only being paid tiny dividends.
“It’s a dangerous business, but we consider it is something that the opposition needs to be doing. You want a battle with Putin, there you are. It is a battle directly with the corrupt system that Putin is building. But at the same time it is a battle for the rights of hundreds of thousands of shareholders…
“And then we can explain to people… they stole your money, and we are struggling for your rights, and here are our other political demands. But before we stated other political demands, we at least were able to explain what we are doing.”
Navalny then mentions a series of public debates his group has been sponsoring, offering opposition politicians a forum to discuss and debate their ideas in the open, because none are allowed to appear on TV.
“I feel this is the sort of thing that the opposition should do. Sure you can go to meetings and say ‘Putin is bad, Putin is a butcher,’ but you have to do something. So we occupy, unfortunately uniquely so, this niche – no one wants to do anything. But we operate on the principle that we should be engaged in concrete projects. Of course, it is very complex… very wearying work, which is something our opposition is not accustomed to.”
Navalny cites a humorous episode. It was at the organizing session for a meeting of opposition forces, and so they began discussing the date for the next meeting. Someone proposed Tuesday. But Tuesday is a workday, another said. So someone asked, who would be working on that coming Tuesday.
“Not a single hand went up,” Navalny recalls. “No one was working. No one was doing anything. For all intents, unfortunately, our opposition has transformed into this group of rowdy do-nothings, or crazy city people – people who in general don’t do anything at all, ever. They don’t have a place of work, regular tasks, some defined profession, they are not even experts on some subject or other. They are just people who don’t have anything to do.
“This is a problem. It’s a problem because the opposition should not be so marginalized… but there is some movement in this area… some new people are coming in… more or less professional people… who are at least not akin to crazy people… so the process is moving forward, but it is still rather weak.”
So, I ask, after additional discussion, how long is the path forward? How long until things change?
“You know, the majority of the population, and even a significant portion of the liberal-oriented people and democrats, feels that nothing needs to be done. There is Medvedev [Dmitry Medvedev, who would serve as president from 2008-2012]… There is this thinking that Medvedev will be more liberal than Putin, but a significant portion of political observers feel there will not be any significant changes. Russia already had its Orange Revolution, back in 1991. Now there will just be gradual changes that are oriented primarily on the gradual improvement of people’s living conditions…
“Our organization is founded on the idea… that the basis of the regime is corruption in exchange for political loyalty. That is, if you declare your political loyalty, and you do not get involved in politics, then you can steal all you want. When Putin came to power, he did so on the slogan that he would drive out the more corrupt governors. Yet we see that the governors who are being driven out for corruption… they are all still in power, and they are delivering to Putin the maximum number of votes. They are not getting involved in politics, they are delivering votes, and then they are being allowed to steal all they want. That is the foundation of the Putin regime.”
But this corruption, these payoffs, Navalny said, will only last as long as high oil prices last, and there were indications that inflation is cutting into the riches that can be shared and stolen.
“We are seeing corruption reach astonishingly new heights and therefore the Powers that Be are going to be facing some new problems, and it seems unlikely that the term (or two terms) of President Medvedev will be as cloudless as it was for Putin. You can see this on the face of the elite…”
Indeed, some observers both inside Russia and without were predicting in 2008 that the Putin-Medvedev bromance would not succeed, that there might be a split.
“Even if they split,” Navalny said, “in order for us to have a chance, we need to have a responsible position. We need to answer those questions that are asked, not by respected journalists from foreign publications, but the questions that the Russian people are asking. Yes? You should answer the question, What is to be done with the oligarchs? Yes? The question is there, but the democratic opposition does not have an answer. What should be done about the privatization that took place in the 1990s? What should be done about migration?... We need to answer these questions. If we cannot answer them, we cannot propose solutions…
“In the movement Narod, we believe that privatization was unjust, and we believe there should be a partial nationalization…”
There is no one in Russia, Navalny says, that believes that all the current oligarchs living large off Siberian crude got there by dint of their intelligence or business acumen – they all used their former position in the communist party to gain their fortunes.
“And take the question of migration. We have a body in Russia that oversees migration and they cannot estimate the quantity of illegal immigrants in Russia with greater accuracy than plus or minus five million… in no other country would this be acceptable…. So we need to somehow resolve this…
“So, we need more than a fracturing of power at the top. We need to have our position, which we can explain to the population…”
Then, after a discussion of the hard work of getting people on down-ballot lists, of the top opposition leaders who don’t want to do that hard work but only want to take on Putin, head to head, in hopes of replacing him.
“That is a dead-end,” Navalny said. “Not a single intelligent person in Russia would trade President Medvedev for Garry Kasparov, Grigory Yavlinsky, Boris Nemtsov, etc. Because, what would we achieve from that? Despite the fact that even I think that Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov and Grigory Yavlinsky are better than Putin, nonetheless… you have to administer thousands of people, you have to reach a compromise. Putin found his compromise, a compromise based on corruption… and what their compromise would be is unclear…
“Our expensive opposition – Yabloko, Kasparov, etc. … I think if you took them all together, they are spending no less than $20 million per year. The effectiveness of this money, I just don’t understand. We [Narod] live of a few thousand dollars per year… we don’t have an apparatus, etc. … but I would not say that our activity is any less effective than theirs…”
Finally, in the end, we come back around to Navalny’s view of democratic nationalism, and how he feels that it is a solution for Russia, that it offers the right answers to the questions he feels people will have about how to deal with its most important political issues.
“Let’s look at the republics of the former Soviet Union. Every republic that undertook a democratic reorganization or revolution in recent years, they all were founded on nationalist democratic ideas. Democracy through nationalist interests – these were nationalist-democrats. Ukraine – absolutely all nationalists. Georgia – all nationalists… But here, unfortunately, everyone – in particular liberals – considers nationalists to be fascists. This is a problem of our country, of our political system. It arose during the period of the USSR, the nationalists fought alongside the communists… they fought against democrats, against Yeltsin, etc. And [liberals] to this day think they are in 1991, that these are nationalists fighting against Yeltsin. But everything has changed. Those old nationalists don’t exist. Modern new nationalists in Russia are on a par with those in Europe…
“We put forward these ideas, but it’s difficult when people come out and say, ‘You’ve gotten old, we’re the new guys here and we’ve come to take charge.’ Of course, it is difficult to agree with that.”
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