Alexey Navalny, the organiser of yesterday’s unsanctioned protest in Moscow, and the person who called the protests elsewhere in Russia, has now been convicted by a Moscow court of organising an unsanctioned protest and has been ordered to pay a $350 fine.
This is part of the regular circus between the Russian authorities and Navalny. He pretends to be persecuted, and they pretend to punish him. In reality, though he now has two convictions for serious embezzlement as well as multiple public order offences – some minor, some less so – he remains free and continues exactly as before, with the authorities doing nothing to enforce the various sentences the Russian courts have imposed on him.
Navalny’s essential immunity from legal action partly reflects the authorities’ unwillingness to make a martyr of him. However it also reflects their hardheaded calculation that Navalny puts off far more people than he attracts, and that he creates for Russia’s ‘non-system’ ‘liberal’ opposition more problems than benefits. This is in part because notwithstanding Navalny’s undoubted rhetorical and public relations skills, his political views are not only not those of most Russian liberals, but are actually their diametric opposite.
Liberal opposition activist? Navalny is a far right, racist, ultranationalist, anti-Semite, gun-nut, neoliberal twice convicted fraudster. But he’s also pro-Western so who cares?
Anyone who has followed Navalny’s career with care knows that this characterisation exactly describes Navalny’s political views.
The only qualification I would make is that I suspect Navalny’s ‘ultra nationalist’ views are ultimately as phoney as everything else about him. At some point early in his career Navalny, or possibly his Western advisers, hit on the idea that ultra-nationalism and anti-corruption were the route to breaking out of the electoral ghetto Russia’s liberals have boxed themselves into. Above all the idea seems to have been to win over Russia’s working class, whom Western commentators and Russian middle class liberals axiomatically assume are ultra-nationalists.
If so then the calculation has turned out to be completely wrong. Navalny’s political constituency is the same middle class constituency that always votes liberal, and which has been doing so since free elections came to Russia in the 1980s. There is no sign of Navalny winning over Russian working class voters in any number, whilst his ‘ultra-nationalist’ pose discomforts some Russian liberals, and has earned for Navalny a measure of criticism from his liberal peers. However the ‘ultra nationalist’ pose together with Navalny’s forthright manner does at least win Navalny national attention by differentiating him from other liberal ‘non-system’ politicians, so he has stuck with it ever since, and realistically he is now too associated with it to abandon it.
Regardless, the key point about Navalny is that I suspect the Russian authorities have long since concluded that because of his arrogance and extremist views Navalny is a disruptive and divisive force within Russia’s liberal ‘non-system’ opposition, not a consolidating one, which is one reason why they tolerate his activities and his persistent law-breaking.
As for the Kremlin’s reaction to yesterday’s protests, the most important thing Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, said about them today was that he confirmed the Kremlin’s strong backing for the way the police handled them. There have been some (predictable) complaints that the police acted in a ‘heavy handed’ way. However Peskov was having none of it, calling the police’s handling of the Moscow protest “fully correct, highly professional and legal”. For the record, I agree.
I would add that politically it is also the right approach. In my opinion the moment Ukrainian President Yanukovych began to lose control of the situation in Ukraine was when he failed to give his police full backing after they cleared Maidan Square of protesters on 30th November 2013. Instead of supporting the police, who were simply doing their job, Yanukovych put up his Prime Minister – Mykola Azarov – to criticise them instead. At a stroke that demoralised the police, making them unsure how to respond to protests in future, and emboldened the protesters, whose narrative of police violence had been given official sanction. That set the scene for the collapse which followed, with the only surprise for me being that the discipline of the Ukrainian police held for as long as it did.
Obviously the authorities in Russia, like the authorities in Belarus, are not going to make the same mistake. If only for that reason the possibility of the events in Kiev being repeated in Moscow does not exist.
Lastly, in concluding my comments about yesterday’s protest, I would refer to the fine description of the Moscow protest by another interested and insightful observer – Anatoly Karlin – and I would also point out something about the protest that is so unusual as to be almost unique: that both the organisers and the police appear for once to agree that the number of people at the protest in Moscow was around 7,000 to 8,000. Apparently Navalny’s team are claiming that the total number of people who protested yesterday across the whole of Russia was around 20,000 to 30,000, which is more than the 20,000 I estimated yesterday, but hardly significantly so.
As I said yesterday, in a country of 144 million people this was in no sense a huge ‘protest wave’, or anything like it, and it is surprising for once to see even Navalny’s people agree.