By Serge Rousskikh – Jul 18, 2021
Navalny became expendable because everyone got what they wanted from him.
The sky is silent. A slight breeze from the northeast keeps the city comfortable. Workers from all walks of life retreat to the subway for another commute home, while those already home step out for an evening walk.
After days of whipping winds, torrential downpours and bolts emanating throughout an angry sky, a calm sets over Moscow.
Just hours before Russia’s capital would take its tranquil state, the Moscow City Court designated Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) an extremist entity, bookending the 12-year political rollercoaster ride.
However, unlike the past, there were no protests, no seemingly obligatory press releases from the world’s highest offices, or even casual outrage from even the most ardent Russophobes – Russia experts as they prefer to refer to themselves.
The weather reflected the political climate in Moscow because Navalny’s downfall was as inevitable as the calm following a storm.
Navalny rises, then falls
Navalny’s political career began in 2000, coinciding with President Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power, when the then-24-year-old joined the Western-style neoliberal Yabloko Party. Navalny quickly rose through the ranks, although he was turfed from the party in 2007 by its seemingly eternal leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, for “causing political damage to the party; in particular, for nationalist activities.”
During his time in the Yabloko Party, Navalny was introduced to several influential acquaintances, including Maria Gaidar, the daughter of Egor Gaidar – a universally reviled figure in Russia for his “shock therapy” transition from socialism to capitalism and widely considered the perpetrator of the chaotic privatization regime of the 1990s which plunged much of the population into poverty – and Nikita Belykh, the future governor of Kursk Oblast, who would play a key role in the blogger’s first conviction.
After his exclusion from Yabloko, Navalny, with the help of his new acquaintances, polished his nationalist credentials, co-founding the National Russian Liberation Movement, known as NAROD, aligning the movement with other nationalist movements, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and Great Russia.
Navalny’s crowing moment came in the spring of 2012.
In advance of Putin’s inauguration following the 2012 presidential election, which saw him return to the Kremlin following the one-term presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, a united Russian non-systemic opposition staged a series of protests culminating in the violence at Bolotny Square on March 6 and 7. The aftermath saw many of the central figures handed significant jail sentences.
Navalny, who escaped conviction under dubious circumstances, became the Western face of opposition to Putin.
Navalny’s rise was inevitable. He was a tall, good-looking and charismatic young man that promised Russians the world. He promised “decent wages” for all, speaking to those disaffected by the economic woes that lingered since the fall of the Soviet Union. The future blogger promised to address the “ethnic question” that was top of mind following nearly a decade of war in Chechnya, vowing to arrest strongman Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Navalny even assured his followers that in his “Russia of the future” roads – a national source of comic relief – would be restored.
Navalny’s assurances elicited comparisons to a soundbite often attributed to Russia’s populist mastodon Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who once jokingly promised supporters “a man for every woman and a bottle of vodka for every man.”
What Navalny never explained is how he would follow through on each of the promises. In hindsight, Navalny was a precursor to the populist wave that swept the globe in the middle to late 2010s. However, all interested parties, including the Kremlin, were more than happy to let Navalny ride the wave.
In Navalny, the NATO bloc received a neoliberal flagman in an increasingly independent – from the unrivaled neoliberal world order established at the conclusion of the Cold War – and assertive Russia.
Marginal Russian opposition parties and movements, left leaderless and disjointed following the events at Bolotny Square, saw Navalny as a brand they could latch onto to stay in the spotlight.
Mainstream opposition parties opportunistically piggybacked on his notoriety.
Most notably, contrary to established consensus, the Kremlin also had a vested interest in seeing Navalny as the non-systemic opposition’s mantle bearer.
The protests that swept Russia beginning in 2011, culminating in the Bolotny Square case, were Putin’s toughest test since assuming power at the turn of the century. The protest saw Russia’s communists, nationalists and neoliberals unite to protest Putin’s return to the Kremlin.
Those truly well-versed in Russian domestic politics are tuned to the fact that in the pecking order of threats to the current government, the neoliberal agenda trails leftist and nationalist doctrines by a country mile.
As such, Navalny, whose public support never cracked 5 percent and personal approval rating never rose above 20 percent, according to even friendly pollsters such as the Levada Center, perfectly suited the Kremlin. While Navalny was a great outlet for disenchanted Russians to blow off political steam, the Putin administration was not concerned in the least that he would be able to galvanize a national uprising.
Navalny, for his part, was more than happy to collect money from a variety of sources, including members of Russia’s crony business elite, who used the “anti-corruption crusader” to conduct smear campaigns against rivals, unfriendly foreign governments and NGOs. Neither was the man, who always claimed to be ‘one with the people,’ one to shy away from international PR tours on the Western taxpayers’ dime.
The Kremlin and Navalny had a mutually beneficial relationship, with both parties careful not to overstep their bounds, as evidenced by their respective overtures when things went too far; the Presidential Administration allowed Navalny to seek treatment abroad after being doused with “zelyonka,” despite being on probation, while the blogger held a clandestine meeting with businessman Yevgeni Prigozhin, better known in the West as “Putin’s chef.”
However, as inevitable as his rise was, Navalny’s fall from grace, too, was a matter of time.
Throughout his meteoric rise, Navalny, who despite his noble claims, was still a by-product of Boris Yeltsin’s crony capitalist regime that ingrained itself in the fabric of the Russian state following the fall of the Soviet Union, never straying from monetary pursuits.
The anti-corruption crusader has twice been convicted on corruption charges. Navalny’s current jail term is for his involvement in the Yves Rocher case, concocted by his brother. Furthermore, the blogger was found guilty in the lumber smuggling scheme with old friend Belykh and miraculously escaped prosecution for illegally appropriating funds during his nationalist days.
The European Human Rights Court condemned the convictions, albeit citing procedural inconstancies rather than a politically motivated prosecution. In a statement ahead of Navalny’s sentencing on February 2, Yves Rocher issued a statement saying that it considers the case to be “closed.”
“Suspicions of fraud on the part of the Navalny brothers against private companies have been confirmed by three judgments and this case is therefore closed and it is no longer possible to reverse it,” the French cosmetics giant said in the statement.
Navalny also never shied away from accepting help from foreign, and certainly not friendly, entities or governments. An investigation showed that some of Navalny’s nationalist-era work was funded by the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED) agency. And a clip published by state-funded broadcaster RT showed the FBK’s acting director, Vladimir Ashurkov, meeting with British Embassy staffer James Ford, identified by Russian intelligence as an MI-6 agent, to secure support for the anti-corruption foundation.
The pandemic, meanwhile, has made Navalny expendable and conversely liable for his previous misgivings.
Like the rest of the world, Russia is seeing societal problems, such as income inequality, the lack of social elevators and corruption, amplified by the effects of COVID-19. The Putin administration, like the others is dealing with growing discontent, most importantly among members of his base.
Putin’s base, consisting largely of those still haunted by memories of Russia’s experience with ‘wild west capitalism’ during the 1990s, was increasingly dismayed by impunity granted to the non-systemic opposition, while rank-and-file Russians face increasing administrative and legal burdens.
Putin loyalists had long been skeptical about Navalny’s ability to avoid serious consequences, but seeing Navalny flagrantly thumbing his nose in the face of the Russian legal system during one of the country’s most significant challenges since the Great Patriotic War was too much for some; ignoring Navalny’s nearly sixtieth breach of probation, could have overloaded a system already stretched to the max.
The Kremlin also understands that in the age of great power competition and geopolitical realignments, sanctions are a reality and an inevitability. If not Navalny, the Western alliance could impose sanctions at any time for any reason. Further leniency for Navalny in exchange for the sake of postponing sanctions was simply not worth the political risk of alienating the base.
Navalny, for his part, began taking things too far.
The 45-year-old blogger was no longer the fresh-faced, charismatic blowhard he once was. Increasingly criticized for his iron grip on Russia’s neoliberal opposition scene, more recently, Navalny began taking a more hardline tone, feeling the pressure to act or risk being supplanted.
While in his earlier career there were lines he wouldn’t cross, Navalny, in the months leading up to his jailing, openly mused about lustrations and politically motivated repressions in his “Russia of the future,” alienating remaining moderates while attracting young radicals, best characterized as “alt-Russians,” considering their semblance to Q-Anon-like cultists ready to steamroll anyone perceived to be an impediment to their leader.
For the West, Navalny, too was becoming a burden.
Of course, should Navalny be jailed for an extended period of time, he will likely become the recipient of an international award, up to and including the discredited Nobel Peace Prize, or perhaps have his name attached to an anti-Russian sanctions package or legislation, as previously seen in the case of the late Sergei Magnitsky. However, there’s very little stock left in a free Navalny.
His low approval ratings and a host of legal issues leave him with no viable options for a future in politics.
Even his ability to draw a crowd increasingly came into scrutiny. Since the Bolotny days, when upwards of 100,000 Muscovites hit the streets in protest, attendance at opposition rallies has continued to decline throughout the decade. In the aftermath of Navalny’s arrest following his return from Germany, protests billed as a now or never moment for regime change advocates drew 15,000 attendees. The following weekend barely 3,000 showed up. Navalny’s right-hand man, Leonid Volkov, who is coordinating the remnants of the movement from Latvia, canceled rallies until the summer but ultimately had to retool the format of the protest to make it easier to participate in, to save face.
Navalny’s demise also has roots in the West’s own problems. Like Russia, Western countries, too, face an increasingly irritated public, exhausted by systemic issues that the pandemic has exacerbated. Additionally, NATO countries no longer have unlimited financial resources or the time to consistently breathe new life into the Russian opposition, especially in light of an increasingly ambitious China preoccupying the bloc’s attention.
The West’s resignation was on full display during Navalny’s return to Russia, following his stay at the Charite Hospital, where he was treated for poisoning. German authorities were fully aware of Navalny’s impending legal issues before he boarded the ironically named Pobeda (Victory) Airlines flight back to Moscow. In fact, Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service communicated their intention to detain the opposition figure days before the opposition figure arrived in Moscow.
But for Berlin, Navalny had to go. It would be hard to explain to the average German struggling to make ends meet amid the pandemic why a foreign political figure enjoys German taxpayer-funded perks, including a €15,000-a-month private rental home and around-the-clock police escort.
Ultimately, even Navalny understands that the inevitable has become a reality and his career as a politician has run its course, evidenced by his tirades in Moscow courtrooms. Navalny received an 850,000 ruble ($11,475 USD) fine for the slander and subsequent harassment of a Second World War veteran after calling 94-year-old Colonel Ignat Artemenko a “traitor” for appearing in a TV ad advocating for the adoption of Russia’s constitutional reform last summer. The 44-year-old blogger miraculously escaped prosecution for contempt of court after being reprimanded on 20 different occasions for his meltdowns.
Apart from the two-and-a-half-year prison term for repeatedly violating the terms of his probation conditions stemming from his conviction in the Yves Rocher case, Navalny’s legal troubles are far from over.
The blogger is under investigation on fraud charges in relation to the misappropriation of campaign funds for his “presidential campaign.” In advance of the 2018 Russian Presidential election, Navalny, who in light of his numerous convictions is legally barred from running for public office, announced his intention to run against Putin and subsequently collected $8 million in donations. Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, the Investigative Committee, alleges that the opposition blogger appropriated 4 million dollars’ worth of donations for personal expenses. According to the Russian stature, Navalny faces an additional ten years of jail time if convicted. Russian legal analysts say that the likelihood of conviction is high.
In total, Navalny could potentially spend the next dozen years behind bars, a remarkable fall from grace for a politician with his prospects.
When Navalny next emerges from prison a free man, perhaps more than a decade from now, he will step foot into a new world and a new Russia, but he will be long forgotten considering the speed at which the modern world moves. The world and Russia will be immersed in different issues and new challenges, and Navalny, whose downfall was as inevitable as his ascension, will be, also inevitably, an afterthought.
Featured image: Photo Credit: (The Moscow Times/Google Images)