Russians' idealism is dashed too often for them to believe in Alexei Navalny

Something doesn't make sense about Alexei Navalny, and it's not just the trumped-up charges against him. The Russian corruption whistleblower and opposition leader, who will be formally arraigned this Wednesday for allegedly embezzling half a million dollars from a state-owned timber company in 2009, is in a peculiar bind. "The case against Navalny is a case against us all," chant his admirers. But if that is true, why are people who seem to otherwise trust Navalny's anti-corruption work apparently so reluctant to support his political bid?

Recent polls by the independent Levada Centre show Navalny's name recognition rising steadily over the past three years, to nearly 40% in March 2013. And of those who have heard of him, more than half trust his muckraking exposés of the corruption endemic among Russia's elite.

Yet the number of people who say they would definitely vote for him should he run for office has fallen from 5% in 2011 to a mere 1% today. Last week, just 1,500 people turned up at a Moscow protest organised in solidarity with the detained dissident. Meanwhile, significantly more people (a fifth of those questioned) said they would vote for the liberal-leaning oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, despite nearly half (wisely) suspecting him to be a Kremlin plant.

The public's strangely lukewarm attitude towards Navalny certainly appears to have little to do with the patently false accusations he faces. The ludicrousness of the charges is evident to all, not least the Kremlin itself, which accused Navalny of the same crime back in December 2010, only to be forced to close its own probe for lack of evidence. So flimsy is the case against him that the government couldn't even make it stick during the two critical years when the marches he was leading in downtown Moscow sent the authorities scrambling for any excuse to silence him.

On the contrary – Navalny's greatest problem might be the public's fear that he may actually be innocent. For, as a result of Russia's ignominious history, particularly during the last cataclysmic quarter century, its citizens have come to view politics as so inherently corrupt, dirty and cruel that anyone who comes in attempting reform is viewed with utmost suspicion. After so many repeated disappointments with democracy, Navalny's countrymen may have simply become resigned to the fact that might is right and politics is little more than a strategy for direct personal enrichment. It's one reason why voters may be more likely to support a self-interested ruler backed by the power of the state, such as Prokhorov: at least there are no illusions – and, who knows, something good might even get done amid the usual plunder.

Whereas Navalny, with his big-city middle-class supporters and western-style volunteerism, remains a mystery to many Russians. In a country where a casual smile at a stranger connotes either idiocy or threat, where everything is about money and everyone has a price, what kind of person would do something as dangerous as Navalny's brand of political protest for nothing? Even if he's not guilty of embezzlement, goes the popular logic, he's sure as hell guilty of something. Otherwise, he's just plain crazy.

The last time Russians allowed themselves to be carried away by hopeful promises was in the heady post-communist euphoria of the early 1990s. And their faith was brutally dashed by the Yeltsin government's barely-concealed allegiance to rapacious capitalism masquerading as liberal democracy. As Victor Pelevin put it in his cult novel Generation P, in those days, the only use for the word "parliamentarianism" was to flog Parliament-brand cigarettes.

As that old Texan proverb beloved by the former president George W Bush (a famous seer of the Russian soul) has it: "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me, you can't get fooled again". Thus, it's a jaded electorate reeling after a heartbreak too many from democracy's gilded promises, rather than the Kremlin's iron fist, that may yet become Navalny's biggest obstacle.

Alexander II, Khrushchev, Gorbachev: the country's history is littered with failed reformers and idealists of all stripes, whereas the leaders it most reveres have been its cruellest ones: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin and now Putin. If Russia reserves its biggest punishments for the well-meaning, Navalny's biggest crime is to be the candidate of hope in a land that has long since given it up.

Vadim Nikitin is a freelance journalist and blogger.

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