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Richard Royal: Putin's Navalny misjudgement may have created a monster

Richard Royal is Chairman of Westminster Russia Forum

Navalny1In a claustrophobic courtroom in the city of Kirov, ironically named after a popular and prominent Bolshevik who fell victim to a jealous Stalin in 1934, a controversial but not entirely unexpected sentence was passed down upon Alexei Navalny, an equally popular and prominent political activist who appears to have fallen victim to a jealous Putin in 2013.

The name of this tall, articulate activist has been on everyone’s lips of late, having gained widespread attention for his determined questioning of big business and his canny use of social media. His prosecution has catapulted him onto an even greater stage whilst subsequent reports have placed him on the pedestal reserved for great men of history. But as is so often the case, the frenzy of people clamouring to denounce the system neglect vital details and considerations in their desperation to indoctrinate the masses.

Moral judgement

We have a bad habit of trying to simplistically divide the world into black and white issues, excluding shades of grey. After 9/11 George Bush instructed the Earth’s population that they needed to decide if they were “with us or with the terrorists”. Throughout the seemingly never-ending ‘Arab Spring’ we impulsively assume that rebels are democrats by virtue of them opposing a government that happens to be non-democratic. And in Russia, we talk of those who oppose Putin as anti-corruption campaigners or fighters for justice, without consideration for how corrupt or unjust those same people may also be.

The verdict sentencing Alexei Navalny to five years imprisonment was unquestionably ludicrous, the evidence upon which it was based almost certainly fabricated, and the decision without doubt politically motivated. But this doesn’t make the accused a virtuous knight in shining armour, in the way he is being portrayed currently.

One might debate whether a leopard can change its spots but Navalny was stalking in the wild Russian political tundra long before he became obsessed with the fight against corruption for which he has won many admirers.

A controversial past

Navalny may believe in protest now, but in 2007 when a group of hecklers protested during a meeting he was speaking at, he offered them outside and shot one of them with a 'traumatic pistol'. He later defended his actions by arguing that he fired the shot from a reasonable distance and didn't aim for the demonstrator’s head.

He also had a dalliance with the extreme right, creating a group called ‘Narod’ resembling the concept of the German ‘Volk’ and over several years spoke at and took part in the Far-Right’s annual Russian March alongside skin heads, ultra-nationalists and holocaust deniers. In quasi-political videos he warned of the Islamification of Russia, portraying those from the Caucasus as flies and roaches that need swatting and comparing illegal immigrants to bloodied teeth that required painfully brutal extraction. Even his fellow activist Maria Gaidar referred to his actions as ‘fascism’.

One Human Rights leader banned Navalny from attending conferences, whilst his antics got him expelled from the liberal party Yabloko, one of the few serious legitimate organisations that might have stood a chance of challenging the status quo if they could have harnessed him. But just like many turbulently charismatic politicians throughout history, all others were mistaken in thinking they could control and use his skills for their own ends. Putin may well also find this to his cost.

As usual our own media only tells readers half the story. Referring to him simply as an “anti-corruption blogger” the BBC’s profile of his ‘rise to prominence’ begins in 2008, conveniently omitting his suspect previous activities, whilst The Telegraph begins its account in 2011 when he is already heading up mass protest movements. Some publications have even referred to his imprisonment as “Russia’s Mandela Moment” which does a huge disservice to the former South African President.

In his excellent latest book, journalist Ben Judah describes Navalny as a “rabble-rouser” and a showman with a quick temper. He astutely compares Navalny to Putin himself, pointing out how over time the oppositionist has picked up and run with several of the President’s core themes such as the ‘liquidation’ of oligarchs and heavy-handed policies in the Caucasus. Putin’s clamp down on adversaries has also led to a political vacuum which such a man can fill by replicating the popular side of early Putin and adding a double dose of handsome charm. In many ways Navalny has out-Putined Putin.

Reputation and reality

Indeed Navalny is nothing if not an opportunist. He has an enduring lust for power and prominence which has seen him turn his sails whenever the wind changed over the last decade. Those wondering why he looked so unmoved, even smug, when listening to his sentence should look no further than the resulting crowds on the streets chanting his name and the endless use of the #Navalny hash-tag on the social media site he is so addicted to. He knows that with the perceived dark figure of Lord Vader-Putin striking him down, he becomes more powerful than the President could ever imagine.

As with much else in recent years, it appears that Navalny has shrewdly recognised the prevailing mood and ridden with it whilst Putin’s government has made what could turn out to be a colossal misjudgement. Of the President’s own creation, the recent political climate has woven together disparate organic pieces into an increasingly united body and with his verdict, the prosecutor delivered the lightning bolt capable of animating a monster.

Even if an objective observer was not morally or ethically opposed to the judgement he should be pragmatically opposed simply on the grounds that it foolishly gives momentum to the very problem it is intended to prevent. Aside from adding one of the most astute, charismatic and dangerous politicians in the country to the growing list of symbolic martyrs that help to incite an already disenchanted and active segment of society, it increases the dismay that many Western observers feel when they look upon Russia from afar. I have said before that Russia is like a teenage son, you may love it for a variety of reasons, but its foolish and reckless behaviour often disappoints you. Russophiles throughout the World, myself included, tear their hair out when confronted with such a turn of events.

Within hours of the verdict, the Russian stock market dropped by several percent, losing around £200m from its exchange, with companies like VTB and Sberbank losing up to 2.5% off the value. For a country looking to promote its economic importance as a way of excusing its other problems, this is unforgiveable. Mikhail Prokhorov quite rightly questioned why young businesspeople and professionals such as lawyers would want to remain in a country where their endeavours are put at risk.

Economic impact

Russia needs external skills and investment, whilst it also seeks to partner with Western businesses. But those potential providers, investors and partners are understandably nervous about involving themselves with Russia in such circumstances. Money and morality are rarely comfortable bedfellows and whilst the occasional ‘activist’ is thrown in jail it is easy for ruthless businessmen to look the other way, but they are much less likely to do so when each slamming of the prison door also has an economic impact. If Russia wants businesses to risk their capital within its borders rather than in other emerging markets, it needs to provide stability and reliability not petulance and vindictiveness.

Whichever stance you approach this judgement from, it is difficult to contemplate the nonsensical decision making or to project a result anything other than a victory for Putin’s critics.

Mark Twain once said that “martyrdom covers a multitude of sins” and it is evident that with this verdict the Kremlin has assisted Navalny in his rebirth from sinner to saint. There are many who want Putin overthrown, but those talking of Navalny as a messianic alternative should be careful what they wish for.


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