A plea for Navalny

14 June 2021, 08:15

Alexei Navalny is a brave and stubborn opponent to Putin, he resisted to various forms of psychological and physical terror for decades, managed to create both a party and an original network of social activists, survived to poisoning and came back to Russia knowing that he would be imprisoned. He claims to be liberal and nationalist. What this means is complex and ambiguous. His statements on Ukraine raise legitimate concern. Unlike Boris Nemtsov and Gary Kasparov, he did not condemn the occupation of Crimea as such in 2014, and his position since then remain ambiguous. Please note however that he envisages the return of Crimea to Ukraine, albeit in the long run, that he considers the 2014 referendum as an electoral farce, and that Crimeans should be asked their will in fair conditions and, last but not least, he acknowledges that Ukraine has legal grounds to reject the annexation and even the legitimacy of such a vote. By declaring in 2017 to Der Spiegelthat “there is no easy solution to the issue of Crimea. It may remain unresolved for decades”, he implies that annexation cannot and will never become legal and internationally recognized.

 As Volodymyr Yermolenko recently recalled on NV.ua, there is no genuine liberal tradition in Russia, unlike in Ukraine. The appeal to modern values of democracy and national sovereignty coexisted (and still do) with imperial authoritarianism. Many Russians deny the very existence of Ukraine as a nation, considering it as “a version of Russia” (smaller, better, worse, whatever). Yermolenko suspects Navalny to be inclined to such opinion. Ukraine has actually little place if any in his agenda. Nevertheless, I think Ukrainians should trust Navalny. For two reasons: first, his stance on Crimea, however unsatisfactory, is open to recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty; second, his political views evolved dramatically since his first steps in politics, notably on the rule of law and on the concept of the Russian nation. 

Putin’s Anschluss on Crimea was a pervert move. It was not only designed to weaken Ukraine but also to corrupt further his own fellow citizens. Putin knew he would flatter not only the imperial chauvinism among Russians, but also their nostalgy for the “Riviera” of Soviet times. I remember a short story by a Russian writer beginning in Soviet Crimea where a woman and her daughter spend a holiday. The name of the place is not even mentioned until they go back to Moscow by train: for Russian readers, the description of the landscape and climate was enough to recognize Crimea. By the way, the story is by Ludmila Ulitskaia, who was among the few Russians intellectuals who protested against the invasion, although she admitted she had to overcome her feelings and memories to do so. Navalny choose not to clash with Russian feelings on Crimea.  This appeared opportunistic and disappointing. Yet one can understand his position as based on respectable grounds. First, Navalny’s strategy was to focus on the corruption of the regime, “the crooks and the thieves” and their boss, so that all other issues were put aside. At that time, his hopes for the shift of Russian nationalism towards a European type of conservatism had vanished. He tried to mobilize the largest front on the fight against corruption. Second, this strategy appears in retrospect more legitimate and efficient: over the years, Navalny smartly broadened his campaign, from targeting Putin and his close associates’ plunders to the global consequences of corruption on justice, private property and welfare. In a recent interview for VTimeswith prof. Sergei Guriev (former Rector at the New Economic School in Moscow, who fled to France in 2013), he says that if it were possible for his party to compete in free elections, his program would focus on three priorities: free all political prisoners, fight corruption, build an independent and competent judicial system. He explains that the last two policies are sine qua non conditions to secure the basic rights of people and also to allow for easier and safer creation of small and medium businesses. Breaking up the “judicial mafia”, from Supreme to local courts, is the mother of all reforms: “as long as there is no place where citizens can confront the government, nothing will happen”. In this interview, one will find an articulate program of government planned on 10 years stemming from the fight against corruption. Of course, this program is hypothetical, given Putin’s autocracy and the resulting lack of genuine political pluralism, the repression of any public conversation. That’s why Navalny’s network works primarily through social activism and support to any party and candidate who is not United Russia. This strategy requires to work with all sorts of people, some dubious and even scary.


Here comes the crucial point: when Navalny began to flirt with nationalists, he started from a rather simplistic and rough allegiance to Russian pride which he tried to combine with liberal democracy. Then he evolved towards a civic and democratic brand of nationalism. In a telling article, “The Evolution of Navalny’s Nationalism” (2021), Masha Gessen, an exiled Russian journalist deeply alien to nationalism, explains how she changed her opinion on Navalny when she realized that his nationalism dramatically evolved in two decades. Crucial evidence come from some of his mentors and associates who cannot be suspected of indulgence with xenophobia, antisemitism or chauvinism, like journalist Evgenia Albats, historian Alexander Etkind. Etkind launched the proposal to nominate Navalny for the Nobel Peace Prize, followed by several academics and policy makers, among them Lech Walesa. Etkind is one of the most perceptive scholars in the foundations of Russian political culture. He introduced the concept of “internal colonialism” to understand the failure of a modern national conscience in Russian and later Soviet experience. In a conversation book with Adam Michnik published in 2015, Navalny claims that “you need to communicate with nationalists and conduct explanatory work with them. Nationalists in Russia do not always have a clear ideology. (…) I spent a lot of energy on this. At some point, Russian nationalism even began to evolve in the direction of a completely European type of conservatism. Unfortunately, Putin destroyed all this, and imperial nationalism became again the mainstream of Russian nationalism. (…) Imperial nationalism is the most harmful and dangerous of all varieties of nationalism. You need to fight with him. But it is necessary to understand that there can be no vacuum. Everywhere there is a conservative part of the population, nationally oriented, and it needs to be presented with an alternative project: civil nationalism, based not on physical similarity and a sense of national superiority, but on the unity of civil rights and freedoms, a real opportunity to jointly determine the fate of our country. And it is possible. I have invested a lot of effort in this and hope that I can restore the dialogue” (quoted from excerpts published by Colta). 

Such sentiments display not only a political evolution but, I think, a personal experience. Navalny copeswith the curse of Russian national consciousness (a frustrated nationalism finding satisfaction in imperial expansion) because he empathized in the past with such passions. Comparing his statements along time, it seems to me that he struggled to free himself from unfortunate features of Russian mindset: overstatement, need for love without empathy, superiority complex. For instance, as a “liberal”, he had to be more liberal than anyone, he promoted unbounded free market, where the strong will survive and the useless go out of business. Now, he insists on minimum wage at a decent level, health care, public support to small businesses, etc. 

There is no question that Russian Westernism has too often been wedded to imperial authoritarianism, that even the ideas of freedom and of the value of the individual remained unpolitical in Russian culture, before being eradicated by Soviet rule. Yermolenko rightly points out that “even Berdiaev’s philosophy (or similar Russian "personalisms" of the early 20th century) had little focus on the social, political and legal dimensions of human freedom. It remained in a philosophical and artistic ghetto. Berdiaev was later justly criticized by Isaiah Berlin, the Riga-born influential British liberal thinker whose family left Russia in 1921. Berlin knew that the lack of a liberal vaccine can turn even Russian “Westernism” into a new type of dictatorship.” Now Navalny is not an average Westernist: his decision to come back to Russia while he is still suffering from the after-effects of the poison, putting his life at great risk display a typically Russian sacrificial courage. But his political views do not belong to the so-called Russian liberalism. The fact that he had to make his own way to reach the positions he holds today makes him more reliable. He started as a naïve nationalist and became a patriot in the democratic European sense. Obviously, he is not an experienced statesman — who is in Russia? — nor a cultural thinker, just a politician, not free from weakness and ambiguity. But, if I am right, his scope is no less than getting rid from within of the Russian imperial curse. Then he deserves to be trusted.

Thanks for help to Galia Ackerman and Marlène Laruelle. Opinions and mistakes are mine.

RELATED ARTICLE: Dr. Phillip Karber: “The best deterrent to Russia is Ukraine as a strong part of the West and member of NATO”


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