Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries – Pt. II

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“Good government grows out of the people; it cannot be handed to them.”

(R. A. Heinlein, “My Object All Sublime” from “Off the Main Sequence“, 2005)

Welcome back to everybody,

let us resume the analysis of what is happening in the Russian Federation, with the intention of delving into the current situation as we generally listen to it in the course of the news. We are left with several questions that may not necessarily find their answer here, but at least they have been asked, as it was necessary, in my opinion, to do.

last time we talked about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, how the elimination of uncomfortable personalities for the Kremlin is not “new”, and the oddities surrounding this particular case. In this regard, on a personal level, it is difficult for me not to feel a certain discomfort for this desensitization, and I wanted to express sincere admiration for those who are waging this battle at the risk of their own lives; the fact is that here we are trying to make an analysis that has as much a scientific value as possible and that necessarily involves a more or less large degree of depersonalization, but it is good that I remind myself, first of all, that we are talking about people’s flesh and blood, however distant they may appear to us through a screen.

The Return of Alexey Navalny in the Russian Federation

After recovering, Navalny decided to return to Russia: he did so on January 17, and was arrested by the police as soon as he passed passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, all in live streaming. In response to his arrest, many of his supporters called for protests across the nation, and, another important element, while in custody in prison Navalny managed to publish a documentary known as “Putin’s Palace” (in original entitled “Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки”, “A Palace for Putin. The history of the biggest bribe”), in which a princely palace on the Black Sea is shown in detail, stating that it is the “de facto” property of Vladir Putin and that it was financed by the wealthy members of his circle to gain favors in return (to date, the video has passed one hundred million views).

In the political activity carried out by Navalny this system is nothing new: in September 2016, another documentary entitled “He’s not Dimon to you” (original “Он вам не Димон”) targeted the heritage of the then Primo Minister Dmitry Medvedev (the title is a reference to the derogatory term with which the then Prime Minister was called: “Dimon” is in fact a colloquial diminutive of Dmitry used in the underworld), led to mass protests in March 2017, which lasted until October 2018, the year in which new elections would be held in which Navalny himself tried to run, blocked by the Kremlin-controlled bureaucratic opposition (and, as mentioned , will also be the period in which FSB members designated as responsible for his poisoning began to monitor him more closely).

So, in spite of those who speak of a “new phase of protests”, this seems to be Navalny’s usual method of “attack”: that is, trying to corner the Russian power system by revealing its rampant corruption, self-referentiality and what is often an opulent and unregulated lifestyle. This time of course, as we saw in the previous article, he has one more weapon: his own attempted murder, to be taken as an example of the brutality exercised by the regime, who, for his part, immediately used the “heavy hand” against him and against the activists who met in the square to protest his arrest.

Navalny knows very well the mechanisms by which power moves in Russia, and knows how to exploit it to his advantage: in my opinion, his return to his homeland, however courageous, has been carefully calculated to provoke a reaction of the system which, as already said, it is unfortunately now considered “obvious”. What is the problem with this strategy? In the first place, I would say, paraphrasing Sun Tzu, is that if Navaly knows Russian power very well, Russian power knows Navalny and “himself” very well.

That is, because if this method is capable of arousing strong indignation, it is also true that they lead nowhere: if you try to storm the most fortified bastion, the propaganda machine built in more than twenty years (if we want to consider only the Putin Era), needless to say that you will come out with broken bones (forgive me the rather poor metaphor). If Navalny has decided to continue on the path of the “Internet Guerrilla” and the “clash of personalities” whit Putin, he has already lost. And it’s not a prediction: Lev Gudkov, director of the Moscow-based Levada pollster, told Reuters: “The euphoria in the liberal community is clearly very exaggerated. The main mass of the population is responding inertly to all the events linked to Navalny […] [Putin] It’s got a bit worse among young people, but it practically hasn’t changed for the main mass (of people)”.

Of course, it is by no means an easy task to organize a protest involving about 120 cities, with peaks of 40,000 people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, both because of the new strong sanctions for those who organize unauthorized demonstrations, and because of the restrictions caused from the Covid-19 Pandemic. But are we sure they were all there for the same reason? As we have already seen, 2020 saw numerous demonstrations and clashes related above all to the management of the pandemic that the federal government has unloaded on the shoulders of local administrations, many of which have ended up in serious economic and social trouble due to this decision (to the point that, I’ll be honest, at the time I learned about Navalny’s poisoning, I thought he was making a documentary about the situation in transuralic regions, and not about Putin’s alleged Dacha).

Yes, young people pick up calls to protest, and that’s an important thing, but if their idea of ​​protest is to applaud an MMA champion hoping to beat OMON agents one by one like Captain America, it means something is wrong in the premises. And no, it is not even enough that many say they are “fed up”, or that they strive to find ways to avoid being arrested or stopped by the police.

Not to mention that this attitude, as we have seen in recent days, provides the possibility for the regime to use the protests for its propaganda purposes. Specifically choosing highly presidediated places so that physical contact between demonstrators and police is reached is a deliberate choice: as mentioned before, this is precisely one of the strategies used by Navalny and by him to show police brutality. Too bad that this attitude, in addition to being reckless, is also easily usable by the regime’s propaganda: in summary, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov asserted that in the end the demonstrators were explicitly violating the law, accusing Western countries of double standards (and, of course, of secretly direct the opposition), making a meaningless, but no less effective comparison with the events on Capitol Hill or with the recent protests in Brussels.

In a January 19 article published in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, recounting the story of Navalny’s arrest, said: “Navalny’s superpower has been his ability to show people what they had always known about the Putin regime but had the option of pretending away. He has shown the depth of the regime’s corruption. He has shown that Putin’s secret police carries out murders. With his return to Russia, he has shown the regime’s utter lack of imagination and inability to plan ahead. He has also shown that, contrary to the Kremlin’s assertions and to conventional wisdom among Western Russia-watchers, there is an alternative to Putin. Politically, Navalny was not a candidate who could have unified Russia a few years ago—he has a history of espousing nationalist views that made much of the intelligentsia wary of him. But he has shown that the alternative to Putin is courage, integrity, and love. The name of Russia’s next leader is almost certainly Navalny, or Navalnaya.”

Here, this is an example of rhetoric, typically “Western”, which at this juncture is completely dysfunctional: if there is something that the opposition would now need is a bit of healthy realism and concreteness. What importance can the name of a possible next President have, if he is not really able to have the support, the will and the ability to reform a system that is rotten to the core, and of which corruption is the last of the problems.

And here we come to the second and most important problem of Navalny’s “strategy”: the complete lack of any political program worthy of this name. In his analysis of the affair for Foreign Policy, Alexander Gabuev noted the lack of any kind of political result by Navalny and his colleagues: it seems quite logical, since there were none. Is not that Putin has learned how to manege protests well, is the protest that doesn’t have learned to menage itself. If it all boils down to the comparison between two different ways of doing “Storytelling”, the protest becomes an end in itself, and the same pattern we have seen on other occasions will be repeated: clashes, indignation, exchange of accusations with Europe and the United States, and finally oblivion

The mobilization of the streets without some kind of precise objective, even a minimal political program, leads people towards two paths, both equally harmful: senseless violence or aphasia. Generally the first is soon followed by the second: the city of Kharabakovsk, to say, has had an average mobilization of 60,000 people a day, for one hundred days, which in the last week has decreased to just 1500. Fear, disaffection and a sense of helplessness are the natural consequence of a snake moving headless, aimlessly. It’s even too easy to depict those who gather to manifest any kind of dissense as “domestic terrorists” in the first case or as “a small minority of freaks” in the second.

A political program that only says “Enough Corruption” or “Let’s kick the President out” is fine if you decide to reform the Republic of Malta, not the Russian Federation. I have deep doubts that once Putin is gone, Russia will become a paradise on earth, or, at least, a different country: we must remember that the President is a symptom of a disease, not the cause.

What I wrote a few months ago about Lukashenko and the situation in Belarus (but if it is also about Donald Trump, or what concerns the political situation of my country) also applies to Putin’s Russia; as “Western observers” we can only sympathize with Navalny’s cause, we admire what it does, we empathize with people arrested, beaten and threatened, but the thruth is that our emotional bias prevents us from asking the fateful question: “and then?

We will discuss the reasons for this in the next article, which will try to look at events in a more global perspective. In the meantime I hope that you have found everything interesting and a harbinger of reflection. For any questions, clarifications or corrections, do not hesitate to contact me as usual.

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