Misreading the Navalny Phenomenon
1 March, 2021
Aleksey Navalny is Putin's biggest enemy. But he has been accused of not being flawless himself. Does the end justify the means to break Putin's power?

As a result of the recent transformation of Moscow’s anti-corruption activist Aleksey Navalny into a figure of current Russian history, world-wide attention to his biography has grown. Delving into Navalny’s past has led many observers, however, to become skeptical about the Russian opposition politician. A number of older – clearly nationalist –  statements by Navalny have been frequently cited in press reports and political comments. In Ukraine, in particular, Navalny’s unclear position on Ukraine’s independence and the future of Russia-annexed Crimea has generated considerable pessimism about the effects of his possible further political rise.

Not only in Kyiv, but also in many Western capitals, there is general sympathy, albeit not full political support, for Navalny. He would – so the story goes – certainly be a better Russian president than Putin. Yet, in view of Navalny’s ambivalent political biography as a nationalist, Russia may remain far away from proper liberal democracy under his possible future rule. Foreign support for Navalny can, from this viewpoint, be determined by general concerns for the rights of political opposition in Russia. It would and should be less driven, however, by any further hope for a fundamentally different Russia under Navalny.

There are – in view of Navalny’s earlier nationalist and imperialist statements – good reasons to perceive him in this way. In Ukraine, there is an old political proverb which says that “Russian liberalism ends where Ukrainian independence begins.” Many Russian politicians and intellectuals are in favour of democracy and freedom for the Russian people, yet they become less tolerant when it comes to the rights and liberties of other people in and around Russia. When push comes to shove, such is the bitter lesson from Russian history: imperialism trumps liberalism – whether in the Kremlin’s domestic or foreign affairs.

Such general skepticism not only towards Navalny but also towards Russia’s entire opposition is, perhaps, apt. Yet, it diminishes the immediate political relevance of the Navalny phenomenon. It is not yet clear, to be sure, what exactly his political future will be. In the worst case, he could die in prison, and in the best case (for him), he could become Russia’s next president – or it could be something in between. Yet, the recent rise of his popularity has had, via all of these future trajectories, a more or less unsettling effect for the current Russian political regime. Seemingly healthy caution towards the ideology of Russia’s opposition underestimates (a) the role of context for, (b) potential of evolution in, and (c) transformative power of the Navalny phenomenon in the context of Putin’s political system.

Firstly, while a number of Navalny’s nationalist statements – for instance, with regard to Georgians – are inexcusable, others need to be seen in context. For example, Navalny’s rejection of the idea of an immediate return of Crimea to Ukraine should he become Russia’s president is unacceptable to most Ukrainians. Yet, the context of such statements lies in widespread neo-imperial daydreaming among many Russians as result of Putin’s propaganda over the last twenty years.

Immediately after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Navalny stated in an op-ed for The New York Times on 19 March 2014 that “Putin has cynically raised nationalist fervour to a fever pitch; imperialist annexation is a strategic choice to bolster his regime’s survival.” Navalny’s proposal to hold a second referendum on Crimea about the peninsula’s future is an unsatisfactory prospect for Kyiv. Yet, the very announcement of such a plan delegitimises Putin’s 2014 land-grab, as it was based on a pseudo-referendum that the Kremlin’s satraps had conducted on Crimea in March of that year. Navalny’s idea of another, presumably real referendum, is within the Russian political context alone sheer blasphemy. Other ambivalent statements by Navalny may also come across as less worrisome once properly contextualised within Russia’s current public discourse.

Secondly, over the years Navalny has been and probably still is undergoing a personal evolution from a mere activist to a national leader. While it is difficult to say how far and in which way he will eventually evolve, he may be – one hopes – becoming more mature, moderate, and balanced. While his various early nationalist statements should put the West on alert, the trajectory of his political evolution may still not lead him to become a second Putin or Lukashenka, if he ever takes over the Russian presidency. Whereas Putin’s stay in East Germany in 1985-1990 did not lead the future president to become a political liberal, Navalny’s involuntary stay as a patient in united Germany in 2020 may have had different effects. As he seems to envision Russia as part of the European rather than Eurasian realm, Navalny’s further political evolution – should he ever rise into a high position – can be expected to be influenced by EU norms and standards.

Thirdly and most importantly, the politically crucial aspect of the Navalny phenomenon is less its concrete ideological content than its disruptive effects on Putin’s peculiar system of political power, personal patronage, public dominance and social influence. Navalny’s rise over the last months has created a nascent alternative political centre that is not rooted in the ubiquitous patron-client relationships within the Putin regime. Instead, Navalny has built up considerable popular support from outside Russia’s governmental structures, in parallel to the ruling elite’s old-boy-networks, and entirely independently from Putin.

Navalny’s rise is thus a very different story than the palliative presidency of Dmitry Medvedev in 2008-2012. Although Navalny has harshly attacked Medvedev, the two men’s political visions of Russia as a European, modern and democratic country are, in their substance, not very different. While Medvedev is a reformer, he is also a product and hostage of the Putin system that did not let him go beyond it. In contrast, the extra-systemic Navalny phenomenon is a potentially deadly virus for the Putin system – even if Navalny never becomes president.

By way of undermining the logic of Putin’s power pyramid and modus of social control, the Navalny phenomenon entails the chance to revive substantive pluralism in Russia’s party landscape, mass media, and political life in general. The importance of such a transformation of Russian state-society relations cannot be overestimated. Once national TV channels, for example, become platforms for meaningful journalism and debate again, many crucial episodes and common places of Putin’s biography and rule will be scrutinised anew – from his initial rise in the late nineties to his foreign escapades over the last fifteen years.

Cautiousness towards Navalny will become apt should he ever be released from prison and acquire political power. Today, however, his political rise and emerging movement function as an icebreaker to the corrupt Russian political system in general, and Putin’s increasingly repressive authoritarian rule in particular. A more pluralist and democratic Russian polity would moderate the domestic and foreign behavior of any future Russian government – including one led by Navalny himself. In the absence of – at least, so far – any alternative path towards deep reform, Navalny does not only deserve rhetorical sympathy. He and his emerging nation-wide opposition movement should have the full political support from everybody hoping for a new Russian democratisation.

/This article written by Andreas Umland was originally published in on February 25