8 min read

Schrödinger's Opposition

Schrödinger's Opposition

Despite his ubiquitous presence in western media accounts of Russian politics and the lingua franca around Putinism in the transatlantic think tank circuit, few who invoke the example of Alexei Navalny seem to have a strong grasp on the man himself. Especially now that he's stuck in prison, Navalny's taken on totemic significance for western audiences. Through the man, a semblance of a better tomorrow for Russia can be glimpsed. Yet no one seemed to have taken the time to compile what we can readily know about him without worrying about access to an inner circle that almost certainly has varying personal agendas and spin to offer. Just as much as an undefined and nefarious "collective Putin" shapes the way countless commentators talk about the regime, a "collective Navalny" exists in the western consciousness as proof of a vibrant opposition politics in waiting. Just as the personalization of the regime in Putin excessively strips away the role of consensus, shared ideas or goals, and institutional constraints or concerns that shape the use of power, the personalization of the opposition in Navalny ironically robs it of a diversity of views and opinions one would otherwise expect. Ben Noble, Morvan Lallouet, and Jan Matti Dolbaum – if that is their real names – do an admirable job in condensing what's out there on Navalny and his team in their new book Navalny: Putin's Nemesis, Russia's Future?

The authors divide up the complicated character Navalny presents into different component parts that quite usefully illustrate the difficulty of being an opposition figure in Russian politics: an anti-corruption activist, a politician, and protester. Each part of his personality reflect different stages of the evolution of Russia's political economy since 2000 as much as discrete agendas or aims he and his team have had over the years. Perhaps surprisingly, Navalny got his start as a shareholder demanding transparency during the heady boom days of the mid-2000s commodity rally. As an upstanding and well-to-do member of the country's burgeoning middle-class, he noticed that when you dug into the publicly available financial statements and reports from various Russian companies, money that should have been returned to shareholders via dividends was vanishing. He apparently started the habit of speaking up at shareholder meetings in 2007, going so far as to complain at a meeting for Surgutneftegaz shareholders in April 2008. For those who aren't aware, Surgutneftegaz is not only a financial blackbox but run in a manner that's incredibly difficult to decipher. In recent years, the company was literally sitting on a pile of cash greater than its estimated market value as a firm. Where the money goes has never been transparent.

Given where Navalny's movement has gone since he started out blogging and protesting poor corporate management, these early days are quite telling. Aside from being a liberal, chief of staff for the Yabloko party's Moscow branch from 2004-2007, his initial protests speak to a particular class interest that emerged during the commodity boom. Many analysts of Russia's evolution from the 1990s pointed to the mid-2000s as a turning point when "things went wrong." The cumulative stresses of the Russian and American wars on terror and invasion of Iraq had shifted the calculus on foreign policy matters, the budget was reaping the benefits of highly progressive taxation on the oil sector, and the political system had solidified around Putin after he won reelection and could replace Yeltsin's friends with his own. For Navalny, a member of the first generation of post-Soviet Russians to see a sustained financial market boom and able to buy enough stocks and bonds to care about financial market performance, asset ownership was supposed to provide some form of income. Shareholder democracy had always been core to Yabloko's political project as a party. Not just privatization for its own sake, but the promise of real competition and competent management accountable to shareholders and the rule of law. When the boom failed to materialize into the kind of shared prosperity he expected as an investor and liberal, he took action against those he rightly identified as the prime culprits: the class of state managers who'd moved into positions of authority running companies both state and publicly-owned. One can see through Navalny that it was reasonable for members of the then growing middle class to see these state-backed brahmins as a ceiling on their own prospects and the exercise of democratic political power.

While the focus of Navalny's anti-corruption evolved over time from rebukes of corporate managers to state officials and eventually the commanding heights of the regime in the form of then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, its core aim and usefulness didn't. Corruption remains a galvanizing source of frustration because of how visible self-dealing, bribery, theft, the misuse of public funds, and legalized forms of corruption are across Russia's economic and political system. As seen throughout the book, the team that builds around Navalny and local organizers all have their own motivations and stories that drive their investment in the collective Navalny that emerges after the Balotnaya protests when coordination between different opposition groups scared the Kremlin but had little long-term organizational effect. The book does an excellent job tackling Navalny's nationalist turn after the Global Financial Crisis head on. Both opportunistic and amenable to sloganeering, Navalny seemed certain that "nationalism with a human face" and a more liberal view towards institutions and democratic governance would breakthrough with a public still able to see the considerable gains in incomes and living standards seen between 1999 and the 2008-2009 crisis. After Putin's return to power – itself emblematic of the kind of corruption he had already begun to target – and the stagnation of the economy lead to a very different political context.

The authors do a great job of outlining Navalny's attempts to run for office, his campaign for the presidency in 2018 despite being kept off the ballot, and the long process by which his team arrived at smart voting as a solution. If early attempts were akin to the Leninist logic of debauching a key currency for the regime – in this case the public legitimacy of managed elections – it morphed into a tactic to mobilize what had increasingly become a protest movement as the regime excluded liberals from political power so that it could affect electoral outcomes. And just as Navalny's team adapted, the Kremlin did too. The steady rise in pressure against protests and participation in elections for liberal candidates and Navalny's supporters over the last 9 years speaks to that, as do the rapid escalation of repressive measures taken against his team after his arrest in January as well as modifications to how the regime practices politics at the local and regional levels. Attacking Navalny as personally corrupt was a logical mirror to his own anti-corruption campaigns. Similarly, there have been efforts by the Kremlin to crackdown on the appearance of corruption among state officials whenever it doesn't threaten the interests of insiders and core elite constituencies or else hide the information from the public more effectively. The shift in electoral strategy post-2012 was also part of this calculation since the Kremlin decided to double-down on voter demographics less likely to buy into Navalny's mission and message.

I found particularly useful all the asides pointing out how different volunteers and individuals working for or supporting Navalny have entirely different attitudes and assumptions about policy and their material interests. If Putin is the only option to lead the country for the public, Navalny has fashioned himself into a de facto face of a wide range of "oppositions." Hence the mirroring between collective Putins and Navalnys. His chief aim is to create a competitive political system, after which the mayhem would really begin. As one can glean throughout, Navalny's policy program is pretty standard fare for a 90s liberal. Privatization implicitly figures heavily, concerns about establishing real competition, and properly investing in public goods all play an important role. But therein lies the tragedy of Navalny as an opposition figure and what the book exposes because of its focus on his movement. There isn't anything approaching a coordinated set of material interests uniting Russia's divisive and rambunctious opposition parties and figures. Not only is Navalny far too black and white in his attacks on others he sees as lacking, his program makes little room to practice interest group politics. Anti-corruption is, in many respects, a conservative political plank. It doesn't actually necessitate an overhaul of the economy, for instance. One could conceivably make considerable progress fighting it within the parameters of the emergent political economy the regime has relied upon for much of the last 2 decades.

Pensioners have little reason to overturn the current system so long as it can get inflation under control, keep indexing their social transfers, and cap cost of living increases by managing markets. It would take a wholesale collapse of their living standards to really see a change there, a huge part of why Putin's address to the new Duma convocation boldly claimed low incomes are the greatest enemy of the state (regime) at this point. State employees, whose ranks have grown from expanded state participation in the economy, similarly have less reason to rock the boat. But among the rest – small business owners, people struggling to get onto the property ladder, anyone under the age of 50 having doubts about the regime – potential solutions to Russia's current problems vary. Some would love to see a restoration of the state's control mechanisms over the economy, not just its ability to command businesses to do something when needed. Others would love to soak the oil & gas sector for even more and redistribute the earnings via direct income payments. Some support the reduction of the role of the state in the economy, but many others might actually suffer in proper competitive conditions because of how employment has been managed at the expense of productivity by the regime going back to 2000. Housing shortages could best be fixed through a large increase in state investment in public housing, but newfound homeowners might not like seeing their assets depreciate in value. A visa regime with Central Asia would lock in higher inflation across most sectors for a long time to come due to labor shortages, though it could spur greater productivity investments as well.

The larger point is that the sweep of Navalny's career as a politician in Russia exposes the shortcomings of a politics first and foremost approach to change. Whereas Yavlinsky at least has a cogent theory of Putinism – he calls it "peripheral authoritarianism" because of its underdevelopment and dependence on resource exports to Europe and China – Navalny doesn't actually seem to have a working theory of how to smash the economic interest group coalitions underpinning the regime. This problem only worsens upon further reflection about the security services as their influence across the economy has grown, particularly since Crimea. Russians aren't exactly screaming out for privatizations again, though the business community would love to see its property rights properly protected. The result is a portrait of a political organizer who's made some intelligent tactical choices to frustrate the regime, but poor strategic ones to build a lasting, durable, and expansive coalition. Corruption is not the stuff regime change is made of. It's too easily weaponized by the powers that be. A clearer vision beyond a world where real political competition takes place is necessary.

The book captures the complexities of Navalny as a political figure very well for a generalist or specialist who never bothered to look before. Anyone looking to get a solid grasp of his career and significance should grab a copy. It deserves a followup to help us as readers push past the acknowledgement that the annexation of Crimea created an emotional bond between the regime and the public and how that fits into its enduring ability to head off a serious opposition challenge. What's needed is a materialist account to complement our grasp of Navalny as an emblem of what's wrong with opposition politics in Russia and the regime he stands against even from prison. Thankfully Noble, Lallouet, and Dolbaum have made it that much easier by writing this book.

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