Much to the disappointment of the Western media, which has been building up the – illegal – run of the Russian ‘non-system’ neoliberal opposition politician Alexey Navalny in March’s Presidential election for more than a year, the protests he called on Sunday 28th January 2018 fizzled out to practically nothing.
Lest anyone think this is my assessment, here is the assessment of the protests given by Russia’s Human Rights Council as reported by Russia’s official news agency TASS
About 5,000 people took part in rallies organized by Russian opposition activist and blogger Alexei Navalny across Russia, chairman of the presidential human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, told TASS on Sunday.
“According to preliminary data, about 5,000 people took part in rallies of Alexei Navalny’s supporters, both authorized and unauthorized,” he said, adding that final data would be available when all public rallies were over.
He called on both Navalny’s supporters and the authorities to demonstrate restraint. “Rallies are still going on and I call on both side to show restraint and observe laws,” he stressed.
Kirill Kabanov, a council member, said earlier the unauthorized rally in Moscow had brought together 400 people, including reporters.According to the official website of the human rights council, about 1,000 people took part in Navalny’s rally in Yekaterinburg, about 600 people – in Novosibirsk, some 550 – in Nizhny Novgorod, 380 – in Perm, 350 – in Chelyabinsk, 270 – in Omsk, 230 – in Saratov, 220 – in Samara, 205 – in Krasnoyarsk, 200 – in Tomsk, 200 – in Vladivostok, 190 – in Irkutsk, 150 – in Khabarovsk, 150 – in Barnaul, 150 – in Kemerovo, 120 – in Izhevsk, 115 – Tyumen, 100 – in Orenburg, 80 – in Kurgan, 70 – in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, 63 – in Chita, 60 – in Ulan-Ude, 50 – in Astrakhan, 35 – in Yakutsk, 35 – in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 20 – in Magadan, 16 – in Blagoveshchensk, and one person – in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
The numbers attending Sunday’s protests across Russia — some shouting “Putin is a thief” — appeared lower than previous demonstrations staged by Navalny, Reuters reporters said, suggesting momentum may have shifted away from him.
(bold italics added)
The whole Navalny phenomenon serves as a case study of Western wishful thinking about Russia.
After 18 years of Putinism, the country’s political process has all the verve of the Novodevichy cemetery.
It is no triumph to rule over a forcibly becalmed people. Mr Putin has yet to come up with an election programme. There are hints of a readiness to make some kind of peace in Ukraine and rebuild relations with the West to ease sanctions. But even this suggests that the president is more concerned with enriching his courtiers than improving the lot of the Russian people.
The core issues are those being addressed by Mr Navalny. In unashamedly populist style, he has highlighted the feathered lifestyle of the oligarchs, promising “hospitals and roads instead of palaces for officials”. Uprooting corruption, he says, will free up cash for education and healthcare. Courts will become more independent, media given more freedom, safeguards introduced for competitive elections. There will, he promises, be a generous minimum wage and subsidised loans to allow more young people to buy homes.
The programme may not be realistic but it addresses the concerns of the middle class — the garage owners who are fed up with paying bribes, the entrepreneurs squeezed out by fixed procurement contracts, and young families in small towns who just want better schooling for their children.
Mr Putin has neglected such concerns. If he thinks Mr Navalny is a charlatan, he should fight him on the election stump. Instead, he sends in his goons and in doing so says everything Russians need to know about the hollowness of his rule.
To suppose that Navalny, who can bring out crowds of no more than 5,000 to 6,000 people across the whole of Russia, is more in tune with public opinion in Russia than Vladimir Putin, who has an approval rating of over 80%, is not just outlandish; it is positively fantastic.
Even as propaganda it is simply too ridiculous to work.
Yet this is the delusional thinking which underpins far too much Western reporting of Russia.
Before leaving the subject of Sunday’s protests a few further points about Navalny need to be made:
(1) The constant practice in both the Western and even in parts of the Russian media of saying that Navalny has been ‘banned’ from standing in the Presidential election needs to be seriously challenged.
Navalny was not ‘banned’ from standing in the election since he was not eligible to stand in the election in the first place.
Navalny is not eligible to stand in the election because he has two unspent criminal convictions both of which come with suspended prison sentences, and his standing in the election as a result of these convictions would be contrary to the provisions of Russia’s constitution and election laws.
Russia’s Electoral Commission – chaired by the liberal former Yeltsin era government minister Ella Pamfilova – has ruled as much, as have Russia’s Supreme Court and – more recently – its Constitutional Court.
Given this clear legal position – which is by the way the same in most countries – these institutions had no choice but to make the rulings that they did since for them to have done otherwise in order to allow Navalny to stand would have broken the law.
As I have discussed previously, Navalny, who is by training a lawyer, undoubtedly knows this. His entire ‘election campaign’ was therefore phoney from the start, notwithstanding which he persisted in it, and raised money from the public in support of it.
(2) One of the reasons why the protests Navalny calls are invariably small – and this was also true by the way of his ‘bigger’ protests last year – is because he persists, completely unnecessarily, in staging his protests illegally.
In the case of the Moscow protest yesterday the Moscow city authorities offered Navalny two legal venues where he could have held his protest legally and peacefully.
Instead, in wilful contempt of the law, Navalny chose to stage his protest illegally along Tverskaya – just as he did a year ago – disregarding the fact that this is not only a key traffic artery but is also Moscow’s main street running through the heart of Moscow’s business and entertainment district and therefore likely to be full of ordinary people going about their normal business on a Sunday.
In the event the police on this occasion took little action other than arrest Navalny himself, obviously because the size of the crowd (estimates range between 400 and 1,500) was too small to affect Moscow’s normal life.
It is a consistent fact of Russian political life that in this very orderly and law abiding country Russians will not turn out in large numbers for protests which are staged illegally.
It has long been my opinion that one of the principal reasons why the opposition protests in 2011 to 2012 were so much larger than usual was not because there was any significant increase in pro-opposition sentiment at that time but because in a change to their usual tactics the protest leaders – including Navalny himself – decided to conduct their protests legally in the venues offered by the authorities.
That meant that many more people turned up than would have been the case if the protests had continued to be staged illegally.
By contrast Navalny’s persistent habit since the end of the 2011 to 2012 protests of staging his protests illegally means that far fewer people attend them than might otherwise do.
This pattern of persistent law breaking is incidentally very characteristic of Navalny, both in his business dealings – as shown by his two convictions – and in his political activities – as shown by his running and raising money for a phoney election campaign and by his persistent habit of staging illegal protests.
The reality is that far from Navalny being harassed by the Russian authorities in the way that the editorial in the Times of London says, they actually treat him with kid gloves.
Despite two criminal convictions, repeated and flagrant violations of his bail conditions and of the conditions of his two suspended prison sentences, and despite an almost unending succession of public order offences, he has never served any significant time in prison.
Nor have the Russian authorities taken any step to suppress his blog.
A cynic would say that the Russian authorities have no reason to act otherwise since Navalny’s behaviour makes the case against him for them.
(3) It has become increasingly clear over the last year that the primary motive for Navalny’s behaviour is not to challenge Vladimir Putin for the Presidency. As the Times of London admits in its editorial even Navalny himself acknowledges that he has no chance of winning an election against Putin in any circumstance.
Rather Navalny’s primary motivation is to preserve his position as the de facto leader of Russia’s ‘non-system’ liberal opposition by preventing any alternative leader from emerging.
His real purpose in running a phoney election campaign and in staging illegal protests is to take attention away from other liberal ‘non-system’ politicians who might otherwise attract attention so as to keep attention focused on himself.
That is why he is now calling for an election boycott.
If Navalny were a serious politician really interested in building up a strong liberal opposition to the government in Russia he would not have run a phoney Presidential campaign and would not now be calling for a boycott.
He would be supporting other legally eligible liberal ‘non-system’ candidates for the Presidency such as Grigory Yavlinsky or Ksenia Sobchak, and would be campaigning on their behalf.
Navalny’s call for a boycott is instead calculated to reduce their vote, and to be clear that is unquestionably its purpose. As Navalny knows perfectly well, it is liberal candidates like Yavlinsky and Sobchak who are most likely to be hurt by a boycott of the election by the sort of liberal voters who are most likely to heed Navalny call, whereas Putin’s prospects of being resoundingly re-elected are not going to be affected by any call Navalny makes for a boycott in the slightest.
This fact is very well understood by other liberal ‘non-system’ politicians in Russia even it is completely lost on Russian affairs ‘commentators’ in the West, which explains why so few of them have any time for Navalny.
I am not sympathetic to the liberal ‘non-system’ opposition in Russia.
These people had their chance in the 1990s when they failed disastrously.
Since then they have shown no regrets for what happened and have made no acknowledgement of their failure, and nor have they given the slightest sign that they have learnt anything from it.
At the same time I acknowledge as a political fact that there is a certain percentage of the Russian population which shares their views, though how large it is it is difficult to say. Claims that it is as much as 10-15% of the Russian population are I am sure over-estimates, but there is no doubt these people exist, and that they have a right and indeed a need to be represented.
That Navalny is not the person to represent them or to provide them with political leadership should by now be obvious.
On the contrary the way Navalny conducts himself serves only to divide and discredit further a liberal ‘non-system’ opposition which is already divided and discredited. As a result it remains locked in the political ghetto it has been in ever since it lost power in the 1990s.
The fact that Western governments and the Western media – who presumably want to see Russia’s liberal ‘non-system’ opposition win – are unable to see this, and continue to support Navalny despite the damage he is doing to the liberal ‘non-system’ opposition that he pretends to lead only shows how little they understand Russian politics or indeed Russia.