(off-Guardian) – Even though Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy in the polls has been verified by Western pollsters, and even though a few more level-headed Western outlets feel obliged to admit he would likely win a free and fair election with ease, the majority of the mainstream media have taken the launch of the presidential campaign as a cue to almost entirely bury even these basic facts, and instead to focus on claims that the ‘only real opposition‘ in Russia has been banned from challenging Putin due to flagrant political censorship.
By ‘only real’ opposition they mean Alexei Anatolievich Navalny, lawyer, ‘activist’, occcasional chum of neo-nazis with an awkward tendency to compare racial minorities to cockroaches, and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, who is, ironically, currently serving a suspended sentence for fraud and embezzlement, and is, thereby, banned under the Russian Federation’s constitution from running for elected office.
In case it has passed you by, the western media love this guy. For them he is a mash up of Jesus and John Lennon spiced with a whiff of bad boy. They eat him up. And when high enough on his amazingness they celebrate him in rich prose:
For the UK Independent Navalny is “Putin’s biggest rival”. For the BBC he is “Russia’s vociferous opposition leader”. For Time he is Putin’s “Nemesis”. For Masha –facts only slow me down – Gessen in the New Yorker it is nothing short of miraculous that he is still alive, such a threat he poses to Putin. To the Guardian, abandoning all pretence and going straight for the “most heedless eulogy” award, he is a “firebrand bidding for Russia’s soul.”
Are they fazed by his aforementioned comparison of Moslems to cockroaches? Or the equally regrettable time he called Georgians “rodents”? Or is this another example of the way in which racism is now acceptable in liberal circles, providing it’s done by someone endorsed and sanctified as “ours”?
But let’s just put the far-right racism question to one side for now and deal with some hard facts. Whether you like him or loathe him, Navalny is not Putin’s ‘nemesis’, and probably isn’t a ‘firebrand bidding for Russia’s soul’ either (though since I’m not sure what that is I suppose we can’t rule it out completely). And he absolutely is not and never was the ‘only real opposition’.
Navalny – like that other (posthumous) hero Boris Nemtsov – is a peripheral figure in Russian domestic politics. Before he was ruled inadmissible for election “Putin’s biggest rival” was polling between 1-4% in opinion polls, which puts him on about the same level as the UK Green Party, which polled 1.6% in the last general election and has one seat in parliament, or UKIP, which polled 2.1% and has no seats at all.
For comparison, in the current line-up of candidates, the Communist Party polled 17% in the previous presidential election and the same in 2008. It’s current candidate, Pavel Nikolayevich Grudinin is running in early polls at between 5-7%. Not a huge percentage, but roughly twice Navalny’s level of support.
Yet the western media has not – so far as I know – celebrated Grudinin with any cool photo feature pieces yet. In fact I am pretty sure they behave as if this man and his party do not even exist.
In addition there are a further fifteen other ‘declared candidates’ currently running. These include a Green candidate, an alternative Communist candidate running as the ‘Communists of Russia’, a ‘Liberal-Democrat’ (Zhirinovsky) and a Monarchist. None of these have been banned or accused of crimes to facilitate shutting them down. All of them or quite a few of them – are pretty much as entitled as Navalny to be described as “Putin’s nemesis”, but again they are barely acknowledged to exist in the Western media.
Imagine an article which pretended Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP et al did not exist and described Caroline Lucas as ‘the only real opposition’ to the Tories. Or that libertarian Gary Johnson – who polled 3% in the last election – was the best hope against Trump.
That is how skewed the western representation of this election really is.
But why is this the favoured approach? Well, maybe it’s not as stupid as it first seems.
As the polls now stand anyone who runs against Putin will look to be easily, if not humiliatingly, defeated. The lowest estimate puts VVP at 54% and the highest at around 73% – way ahead of any rival. It’s obvious any candidate the West supports will just prove to be an embarrassment for them on election day as they nosedive into oblivion.
Navalny is different. Navalny – due to his handy conviction for fraud – will be spared the inevitable shame that his tiny share of the vote predicts. So, when all the other hopefuls are defeated, he can remain with credibility intact. A political martyr. A living testimony to the fact the Russian elections are a fraud. The 2% popular support can be airbrushed away (as can his association with nazis, his unfortunate cockroach comparisons and his general litany of bizarre behaviour). He can become a sheep-dipped western hero whom Putin censored through fear. Post-election he will be, in the West at least, the perfect rallying point for a cause, which will have many bland and virtue-signalling faces, but which will at core be about discrediting the Russian presidency as fundamentally corrupt and unrepresentative, and trying, once again, to plant the seeds of color revolution.
Navalny has already proclaimed his contempt for democracy and a willingness to support the overthrow of elected governments, which of course makes him exactly the kind of “anti-corruption” liberal we like to work with. Back in 2011 he had this to say in the Russian magazine New Times:
they can elect anyone they like in March of 2012, but by April it will all be over…I think power will change hands by undemocratic ways
Asked if he means the Tunisian or Libyan method he says:
Let’s say a Tunisian scenario
He then adds for clarification:
The current Russian authorities are thieves and crooks. We must fight them, pressure them, resist them… This resistance can take different forms – from dialogue to crowds hauling officials out of their offices and hanging them
Oh yes, this is someone MI6 and the State Department can do business with alright. Putin in an orange jumpsuit in the Hague or being slaughtered Gaddafi-style on a live TV feed has probably been a major fantasy in Western corridors of power for at least the last five years.
That Navalny is being groomed for his role is undeniable. Hence the strange concurrence of his racist and far-rightist proclamations with the kind of soft-spoken and ill-defined calls for ‘reform’ that go over well with Western media and poorly-informed liberals. In our media it’s his “anti-corruption”, not his racism, that is the story. Because “anti-corruption” is about as non-commitally ok as you can get. It’s about as meaningful as calling yourself “anti-nastiness.” So vague, so generic everyone will be in favour of it in theory, and in practice it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
We can be sure of course, as per Navalny’s own words, that part of the practice will involve fostering the seeds of Snow Revolution #2. Because Russia’s elections – just like Chile and Venezuela and Grenada and Ukraine and Iran and Guatemala and Syria et al – were “corrupt” and therefore don’t count.
Ironically, as Bryan MacDonald astutely points out, it would have been better for Putin, and distinctly worse for Navalny, if he had not been banned from running. Navalny’s conviction has done nothing to bolster Putin’s power base (at 50-80% it doesn’t need bolstering), and has played right into the hands of those who want to discredit the Russian electoral process. His elimination effectively means:
[he] will become a spoiler for the next six years, and represent an excuse for foreign criticism of the Russian electoral system. Which, like it or not, at a time where sanctions are being used as a weapon, gives external actors an excuse to punish Russia. We already have the dubious “Magnitsky list,” so is it really worth risking a “Navalny list” making things even worse?
So, why has Navalny been handed the keys to martyrdom by a state machine that had nothing to lose by letting him ride his 2% support all the way to the polls? Was it a political miscalculation? Is he an innocent (if racist and pro-violence) man being given a helping hand by a clumsily inept attempt at silencing him? Or is he guilty as charged and reaping the fortuitous benefit of a legal system that is simply doing its job? Or is there some other factor involved?
We think this election period is a good time to revisit these and related questions. Is Russia a “kleptocracy”? Does Putin murder journalists? Is he personally corrupt? Does he – as claimed even by Sibel Edmonds – have “billions’ stashed away in Cyprus or elsewhere? Good questions to which good fact-based answers are sometimes in short supply.