Méabh De Courcy Mac Donnell considers whether Alexei Navalny is a symbol of Russian liberalisation or a unifying force for extremist elements
Dubbed “the man Vladimir Putin fears most”, attention and interest surrounding Alexei Navalny continues to grow. Initially a member of the social-liberal “Yakoblo” party, it was not until 2007 that Navalny established his National Russian Liberation Movement (NAROD) which he aligned with two nationalist groups. Navalny’s following grew quickly, though his presence remained mainly online. His blog attacked the alleged corruption of many state-owned Russian corporations. One mechanism used by Navalny to highlight state misconduct was to become a minority shareholder in their agencies and use his membership within the company to question any dubious financing.
Following a series of protests and arrests in the years 2011-2013, Navalny’s name became more mainstream in Russia. Navalny was protesting the parliamentary elections, alleging widespread electoral fraud, when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 days imprisonment. This garnered him widespread attention, which led commentators to call the prosecution “a political mistake”. Anti-Putin rallies, followed by short periods of detention and imprisonment, seemed to be Navalny’s trend for a time. He later faced more serious allegations of fraud and embezzlement, though these were widely believed to be attempts to damage his reputation.
In 2013 Navalny ran in the Moscow mayoral election, performing better than expected against the then-mayor, Sergey Sobyanin. During the election campaign, however, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for the fraud and embezzlement charges that had been levied against him. The conviction was later annulled after the European Convention on Human Rights ruled Navalny’s right to a fair trial had been violated. Navalny received 27% of the vote, higher than some forecasts but in line with his own campaign offices’ projections. This was seen as a massive success given his lack of access to traditional forms of media and state TV. Nonetheless, Navalny denounced the results and claimed they were illegitimate on account of an unfair election. Sobyanin’s office refused to recount the results.
Navalny continued to push the boundaries, announcing his presidential bid in 2016. He immediately came under pressure from state forces and supporters: his 2013 sentence of fraud and embezzlement was repeated, he was attacked with acid which resulted in eye injuries, he was arrested and jailed for a number of days following rallies, and the Central Electoral Commission banned him from running on account of his corruption conviction. This ban sparked several protests; 257 people were arrested while calling for a boycott of the election, while 1600 people were arrested prior to Putin’s inauguration.
Navalny dominated global headlines in August 2020 when he was attacked by a nerve agent while on a flight to Moscow. Following an emergency landing and initial hospital treatment in Omsk, Navalny was transferred to Berlin where it was confirmed that the poison came from the same family of nerve agents as those used to attack Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. It further emerged that the nerve agent had been smeared in Navalny’s underwear, causing underpants to become a social media meme in Russia, and Navalny to nickname Putin “Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner”.
Opposition leader, anti-corruption activist and lawyer, it seems that this growing figure is the force to combat Putin. But emerging controversies are beginning to cloud his hero image. Navalny has made a number of xenophobic comments in the past, which for the most part he has never denied or clarified. Old videos show Navalny calling Muslim militants cockroaches who must be exterminated. In another, he claims he will deport non-White immigrants from Central Asia. He has used racial slurs to refer to Georgians in the context of the Russo-Georgian war. (This comment he has apologised for). He seems to support the annexation of Crimea, saying he would not return it to Ukraine should he become president. In light of this attitude, in February 2021 Amnesty International revoked Navalny’s “prisoner of conscience” status, though they still advocated for his release. In an explanation given by the organization, they stated that they could no longer afford Navalny this status as his past comments reached a level of hate speech that “constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence, or hostility”.
Although it has been said that Navalny’s approach to immigrants and foreign nationals have “softened” in recent years, it is also clear that Navalny’s nationalistic tendencies are a cause for concern. Who makes up his support base? Liberals who want to fight corruption in the country or xenophobic nationalists who see a sympathetic leader? Supporters of Navalny argue that these debates play into the hands of the Kremlin, who use his old statements on a regular basis to allege he is a fascist. But it is hard to argue that these are not valid questions to raise.
So who is Alexei Navalny? The best hope for the liberalisation of Russia? Or a unifying force for Russia’s extremist elements?