Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny under the microscope

Russia is back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons again. This time, the regime of President Vladimir Putin has received ample criticism for the imprisonment of the informal Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Thanks to the international coverage, the majority will now know who Navlany is, but just to recap: Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement on 18 July 2013, after a highly controversial trial. Many believe that Navlany has become a threat to the Putin establishment, and that is the main reason why he was given a prison sentence. Navalny has claimed to be exposing the extraordinary levels of corruption that exists among the Russian officials. He has written about it with savage ferocity laced with poisonous sarcasm. But his progress has been terminated when a court in Kirov, 900km (560 miles) north-east of Moscow, found him guilty of conspiring to steal timber worth 16 million roubles (£300,000) from a state-owned firm, Kirovles, in 2009. He denied wrongdoing and told the judge that he would fight on with his colleagues “to destroy the feudal state that’s being built in Russia, destroy the system of government where 83% of national wealth is owned by a half per cent of the population”. The case has not stopped him running as a candidate for the post of Moscow mayor in the September 2013 elections. He has also claimed numerous amount of time that he plans to run for President in 2018 (if he is not in jail).

The Western media and politicians have unsurprisingly put Navalny on a pedestal. After all, anyone who stands up to Putin, is seen as a hero in Western eyes. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has issued a statement saying the verdict ”raises serious concerns as to the state of the rule of law in Russia.” US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, as saying: “We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial.” UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the verdict showed that there was selective justice in Russia and a lack of adherence to international human rights obligations. Perhaps all of these claims are true, but is Navalny really that person who the West should be idolising and is he really so popular as to receive the title of the opposition leader?

Navalny the nationalist

One aspect of Navalny’s character which often gets left out of the Western press is the fact that he has extreme nationalistic tendencies. Navalny compared militant people from the Caucasus to cockroaches that he would suggest to kill in a supposed jokey statement. Additionally he participated and also co-organised a “Russian March” and appeared as a speaker alongside Nationalists and anti-immigration political groups. One could argue that he resembles someone who would join the English Defence League (EDL) here in Britain. Given the ethnic diversity of Russia, it is highly unlikely that Navalny with his anti-immigrant tendencies would be a beneficial leader of the country. Would Britain want to elect an EDL member to be their Prime Minister?

Is he really popular?

Reading the press over the last week, one would get the impression that Navalny has mass support and is neck and neck with the Putin regime. The facts are quite different. A poll by the independent research organisation has found that in the upcoming mayoral elections in Moscow, the incumbent Mayor Sobyanin would win 34% of the vote. Navalny would be second with only 4%, according to the poll. Given the fact that Moscow is considered to be Navalny’s main support ground, thanks to a large group of young, urban, tech-savvy and rebellious Russians living there, 4% does not seem like a high enough percentage to consider Navalny a true opposition leader. Given a more conservative ideology among those living outside of Moscow, and thus more in tune with President Putin’s ideals, it is likely that Navalny would get even less that 4% of the vote if the Presidential elections were held tomorrow. The same Levada Centre research has found that only 34% of Russians overall in the country have heard about Navalny. Ultimately, these numbers illustrate that Navalny is not as popular as the media makes out to be.

Is Navalny really a threat to Putin?

Given the above numbers, it is rather farfetched to claim, as some media outlets have done, that Putin is scared of Navalny and that the imprisonment of Navalny could lead to the demise and self-destruction of Putin. Apart from the fact that Navalny does not have a strong support base, Putin continues to be a popular figure among Russians. Though his ratings have been slipping, he still enjoys a healthy 63% approval rating, due to the continuous rise in living standards and economic prosperity over the years. As the article in Forbes has argued, Russia is not Egypt- the majority of Russians are in employment and enjoy many of the niceties enjoyed in the West. Though some parts of Russia continue to live in poverty, overall, the trajectory is that Russia will continue to develop and improve. Just recently, Russia overtook Germany to become 5th largest economy in the world according to the IMF.

All this means that President Putin is likely to win the Presidential elections in 2018, if he decides to run again.

Is Navalny really innocent?

Many have made it a foregone conclusion that Navalny is innocent of embezzlement charges he was trialled for. The majority assume that he may become a political prisoner, rather than a thief in jail. This may be so, but on the other hand, Russia is at times a lawless country which almost encourages corruption and pocketing of money. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were no rules to break in Russia and many could get away with simple economic crimes. This means that many businesspeople in Russia today have dirty secrets, and if the Investigative Committee wanted to, they could find dirt on anyone. The same could be said about Navalny. Is he a criminal or a political prisoner? Most likely both. What he did in the past with the timber company would probably be considered illegal right now, but it is also true that the prosecution only decided to pick on him because he has become an annoyance to the Russian political system. Even, Alexei Kudrin, a former Finance Minister who remains close to Putin, wrote on Twitter: “The verdict seems less like punishment and more like it is aimed at isolating him from society and from the election process.”

What it all means

No doubt Russia is a corrupt and at times a vile country. It is also indisputable that President Putin likes to crush his enemies and get his way. However the way the Western media and politicians have gone about selecting Alexei Navalny as the right man and as a martyr to save Russia from the semi-authoritarian Putin regime is simply clutching at straws, trying to find anyone to put on the pedestal as a worthy opposition leader to Putin. Russia needs change, but Navalny will not be the man to deliver it. If the West continues to have high hopes for him, they will be greatly disappointed.

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Categories: International politics

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