One might wonder, “What’s all the excitement about? What does the Alexei Navalny case have to do with our lives here in Ukraine?”—and with good reason. Yes, he was jailed for opposing the Russian government, then he was released temporarily but will most likely go back. What’s surprising about this story? Of course, we’re sorry for the man but he is not our problem; don’t we have plenty of our own political prisoners?
First of all, we are impressed by his courage in daring to challenge the system – so impressed that we are nearly willing to turn a blind eye to his personal motivations. Courage is courage. Do we have anyone as principled as Navalny among our current opposition leaders?
Second, Ukrainians are intrigued to see parallels between Russia and Ukraine. It is a common belief that the Bankova spin-doctors consistently mimic their Kremlin colleagues, and the latter keep a close eye on what is going on in the territories it used to control. Yet the precedent of another opposition activist in prison has a cumulative effect on the whole post-Soviet sphere. It all looks like a long-distance dialogue between dictators: “Can we get away with that? –Yes we can. And that? –That too. What about that? –You name it, we can do it.”
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The third thing is the similarity of backgrounds. Monopolized asset grabbing by the ruling class is as much a problem for Russia as it is for Ukraine. Russia seems to have no civil society. Nor does it appear to have any parliamentary or systemic opposition whatsoever. It seems to have wasted all of the protest energy of the “creative class” as soon as it erupted, giving the current leader his unfailing 55% as long as oil prices remain high and stable. Then out of the blue, Russia shows that a comprehensible, mature and reasonable civil initiative is possible there. Many people voluntarily support this initiative organizationally and financially. It has no hidden motives other than perhaps the leader’s political ambitions – and these are substantial (some have speculated about exotic scenarios of plans to replace Putin with Navalny. This may sound insane but the mere existence of the rumour speaks loudly). In other words, the feeling of trust has suddenly sprouted in a limited segment in the country that seems to barely have any social capital. This is exactly what Ukrainians lack critically – initiative and trust.
Clearly, Navalny is not a democrat. He was once scandalously kicked out of the rightist-liberal Yabloko party for using “politically incorrect expressions”. Navalny is a nationalist. He does not care for “black asses” (a derogatory Russian slang word most often used in reference to immigrants from the Caucasus region – Ed.) and has been struggling to hide this ever since he became a public figure, a politician at the federal level and one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. However, Russia’s real problem is that any purely liberal project is impossible there at the moment – and will hardly become an option in the foreseeable future. Russia skipped the nationalism phase while chasing illusionary roles as the “bulwark of Orthodoxy”, the “avant-garde of communism”, and most recently, ruler of the “Russian World”. Now, some of its respected politicians are playing with the word “nationalism” in various senses. The dominating and undeniable element of all these senses is that the state should serve and protect its people rather than struggle to conquer Ukraine, Mongolia, India, Constantinople, and others. In this sense, nationalism is quite the opposite of imperialistic chauvinism, although the two ideologies do share some defining points.
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Let’s talk with a true nationalist. I offer you this quote by the popular Russian writer Dmitri Bykov, speaking of an irreconcilable ideological opponent and nationalist: “But this man had a chance of evolving, and I had something to debate with him about. While boys whom I encountered from time to time […] admitted openly that they had no ideals, just a desire to integrate themselves into the hierarchy, […] they rule out dialogue because they are creatures from a different world, I actually fear them… These are people for whom the ideological element of life does not exist. They are living corpses, androids, aliens, if you will. But there is a solid difference between a person I find disgusting and an alien I don’t understand. This person has a notion of good and evil, up and down… I find this disgusting but I can understand it.”
A subjective truth is better than no truth at all. Russia’s current imperialist leaders—including its national chief—seem to believe in none of this. For them, doctrine is simultaneously an instrument for amassing wealth and also a way to communicate with the most conservative electorate. We’ve seen this before.
This is what makes the Navalny incident important for Ukraine. I hope that Ukraine has not yet lost its chance at pursuing a liberal project. It will require trust as well as strong personalities, which we currently lack. However, we ought to look for role models in places where such projects have already succeeded.