Will Russia’s Only Opposition Leader Become the Next Putin?

The Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny attended a court hearing in Moscow on June 16. Credit Andrey Borodulin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the wake of the impressive street protests in Russian cities on June 12, you may wonder what can be expected next from the Russian opposition. This is one of those rare cases where a political prediction can be guaranteed: There will be no news from the opposition before mid-July.

On June 12, Russian authorities sentenced the opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny, 41, to 30 days in jail. And, except for him, no true opposition leaders remain in Russia today.

That was not the case until very recently. In the winter of 2011-12 President Vladimir V. Putin faced opposition from a broad political coalition that had arisen in response to accusations of widespread violations during the parliamentary elections. Leaders of leftist, rightist and liberal opposition groups gathered around a single table, and although Aleksei Navalny was already quite popular by then, he was still just one of a handful of equally powerful leaders. He wasn’t even the most influential among them; unlike, say, Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov or Mikhail Kasyanov, Mr. Navalny did not have his own party, had not won an election and had no government experience.

Today, only Mr. Navalny persists as a leader. He’s become the sole face of the opposition. But is he really the thorn in President Putin’s side that he seems to be?

Mr. Navalny had been an activist in the liberal Yabloko party, but he was kicked out in 2007 for damaging the party’s brand with his involvement in xenophobic, nationalist causes. (He once called Georgians rodents.) For a while afterward, he experimented with different forms of protest, seeking a theme that would set him apart as an opposition activist. This turned out to be corruption in Russian official circles; his law degree and his popular blog made him an online political superstar.

After the 2012 protests, the liberal forces were wavering and losing momentum; fewer and fewer people were coming to rallies and demonstrations in Moscow, and liberals failed to win seats in local elections. The liberal opposition, having suffered numerous crises and schisms, returned to its weakest position, and nothing remained of the former alliances: Mr. Nemtsov was murdered; Mr. Kasparov left Russia; and Mr. Kasyanov’s party fared poorly in the parliamentary election in 2016 and he faded into the background.

Mr. Navalny remained, returning to his anti-corruption campaign. At the end of 2015 he accused Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika of corruption, and in March, a film about Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s secret business and property appeared on Mr. Navalny’s YouTube channel. After the film, he threatened to bring thousands of demonstrators into the streets to trigger Mr. Medvedev’s resignation. When Mr. Medvedev declared that he would make no comment in response to the accusations, Mr. Navalny’s supporters protested — first on March 26, and then on June 12. Both protests were the largest in recent years, and both times the police employed maximum force to break them up.

This is very much like the protests of five years ago, with the main difference that the people taking to the streets now do not represent various political forces. They are exclusively Mr. Navalny’s supporters. Over five years, he has become not simply the most popular, but the only active opposition leader. He has no need for parties or coalitions. His hundreds of thousands of online followers are enough.

For the first time in his 17 years in power, Mr. Putin has one chief opponent — a dominant opposition leader who is, in fact, a lot like Mr. Putin. Like the president, Mr. Navalny cannot be pinned down as a leftist or rightist. His ideological statements are vague and contradictory. Even on simple questions — for example, the political status of the Crimean peninsula — Mr. Navalny tries to answer in broad terms.

In his work with his supporters, Mr. Navalny adopts an authoritarian leadership style. His closest associates have come from the hired staff of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, people to whom he pays a salary and for whom he will always be a boss, not a partner. (Very similar to Mr. Putin.) Also like the president, who has consciously sought to get people to identify him with Russia itself — the speaker of the Duma once said, “If there’s Putin, there’s Russia; if there’s no Putin, there’s no Russia” — many of Mr. Navalny’s supporters are his personal fans, who equate his name with hopes for a future democratic Russia.

Some of Mr. Navalny’s detractors accuse him of working for the Kremlin. That is probably not the case. But Mr. Navalny may very well be unwittingly serving Mr. Putin’s interests.

In 2013, Mr. Navalny was immediately released from prison the morning after being sentenced to a five-year prison term so that he could participate in the Moscow mayoral election, and when he failed to gather sufficient signatures to be registered as a candidate, Mr. Putin’s party provided him with those signatures. Mr. Navalny has declared his intention to participate in the presidential election next spring, and although the law does not allow him to run because he has a criminal conviction, as the Central Election Commission recently affirmed, the possibility cannot be excluded. In Russia, such decisions are made not based on the law, but in accordance with the Kremlin’s needs. If Mr. Putin runs, he will have to demonstrate that it is a real election, and that he is capable of defeating not only fictitious opponents of his own choosing, but also a real opposition leader.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Navalny cannot do without each other, and their confrontation somehow is evolving into a state of codependency, whose obvious result is the duplication of the Putin leadership model in the anti-Putin opposition. Mr. Putin can be criticized for destroying democratic institutions in Russia, concentrating the whole government around himself and paralyzing civil society; by this logic, the alternative to Mr. Putin ought to be democracy.

But there is another logic at work as well: Mr. Putin is simply a bad authoritarian leader, ineffective at wielding his unlimited power, and if Mr. Navalny were to replace him, then everything in Russia would work out fine — even without democracy. Just as at the end of the last century, when Boris Yeltsin came to embody the democratic hopes of the Russian people, so too now, new hopes have a specific name: Aleksei Navalny. This entails the risk of creating a new authoritarian model even after Vladimir Putin is gone.

Oleg Kashin is the author of Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin. This essay was translated by Carol Apollonio from the Russian.

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