Navalny’s challenge

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

As hundreds of people arrested on 12 June begin to appear in tribunal courts throughout Russia, the events of that day begin to offer a picture of the opposition developing under Alexei Navalny. The demonstrations were a test to confirm whether success of previous rallies on 26 March had been an accident or the signal of a permanent climate of mobilisation. It was also a test of whether the Kremlin’s determination is the sign of a personal challenge between two men, Vladimir Putin and Alexei Navalny.

The crowds which gathered under the anti-corruption banner of Navalny are a new phenomenon in Russia, very different of yesterday’s ideologically based fights against the authorities by communists, liberals, nationalists and others. In the same time, the personally limited nature of the movement explains the shyness, to say the least, of other opposition Russian figures towards Navalny’ anti-government crusade.

All the same, the pattern of events is emerging.


There are five noteworthy trends.

First, Navalny wants to create a climate of permanent challenge to the Kremlin, and to profile himself as a man who at any moment could attract thousands of supporters into the streets of all Russia.

Second, his movement is transgenerational. While keeping a serious appeal to middle aged middle-class Russians, he is more and more appealing to “Putin’s children”, i.e.. those who grew up under Putin. He is pushing them to question the legitimacy of the man who ever since their birth has been their “natural” leader.

Third, he appeals to the all country, taking into consideration the considerable sociological changes that have occurred in a country where young professionals are now forming a new middle class in a large number of big cities – a class which has developed recently, away Moscow and St Petersburg.

Fourth, Navalny is trying to politicise social and economic discontents that for years have been focused on local or regional issues. For example, over pollution, threats to historical sites or forests, increases of public transport fares, poor communal services, etc. Now Navalny wants to give a national dimension to such protests and to focus discontent on the Kremlin instead of just local or regional elites.

Fifth, he is trying to enlarge his single-issue anti-corruption campaign by telling people that corruption is the source of their suffering and of the shortages they suffer; that corruption feeds oligarchs, and prevents a middle class from blossoming; that corruption would be impossible without the protection of the Kremlin.

A single-issue agenda

Although the popularly sought goals are clear – to provide space for a new system under a president Navalny and the backing of all Russia – the question of means and the formation of a team are still unanswered. Navalny’s action is limited by his single-issue agenda, anti-corruption, which looks more and more a Russian version of the populism so much decried in the West. Hampered by the lack of ideology, in a country where it matters, he is obliged to sustain national and international attention by ‘actions’. This carries the risk of him being labelled a provocateur, a very destructive label in Russia.

The 12 June events were typical, especially in Moscow. The authorities had accepted a gathering off-centre, in Sakharov avenue; but on the pretext that his movement was prevented from hiring loudspeakers, Navalny called on protesters to gather in the full centre – an unsanctioned demonstration in front of cameras which he knew would be automatically disbanded by the police. On the top of which, he fastened on the date of 12 June, the National Day, which attracted thousands of families in a festive mood in the same streets.

Finally, he adopted the tactic of attracting very young people, including schoolchildren. This was high on politically sensitive symbolism about weakening up a new generation; but also high on risk. That’s to say, the popular mood can easily be switched from hostility to ‘police beating our children under the eyes of the Kremlin’ to accusations against irresponsible adults ‘’ready to endanger our children’s health for the sake of their personal ambition’.

All this explains the caution of other members of the liberal opposition who would be ready to profit take profit from the impulse given to the anti-Putin movement but fear being associated with a potential a loose cannon.

They recognise Navalny’s charisma and his sense of organisation. They admire his capacity to adopt new technologies. But like so many other Russians, they would like to know more what he stands for – and not only what he rejects.

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