Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Tortoise Revolution

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's supporters rally in Moscow on September 9.

When Aleksei Navalny addressed thousands of supporters on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, he surprised many when he urged the crowd to go home peacefully after the rally ended.

Earlier on September 9, the anticorruption blogger-turned-opposition leader appeared to implicitly be threatening mass unrest when he said he would call his supporters out to the streets if the authorities did not agree to a recount in Moscow's disputed mayoral elections.

"I would like to remain honest with you to the end. If we write on our posters 'Don’t Lie and don’t steal,' then I also don’t intend to lead you astray and don't intend to place you in danger," Navalny told the crowd.

"When the time comes, and it may come, when I call on you to take part in an unauthorized action, to turn over cars or to light fires, then I will do so directly and make a clear statement: 'Guys, those of you who are prepared to light torches and sleep on the payment should come. And I will sleep alongside you on the pavement!' But first of all I would like to give you a warning about it...I urge you to trust me because I know what to do next."

Navalny wasn't just speaking to his supporters that night. He was also telling all Russians that while he might be a bit of a firebrand, he had also matured into a responsible and level-headed leader they can trust. 

And he was also speaking to the Kremlin. At any time, he appeared to be telling the regime, "I could cause mass chaos in the capital." And anybody who didn't believe him should remember what happened on that hot summer night in July, after a Kirov court sentenced Navalny to five years in prison on what are widely believed to be trumped up embezzlement charges.

"I think that this ultimatum has achieved its purpose, even if tomorrow we learn that we were deceived," Navalny said.

Victory In Defeat

A day later, the Moscow Election Commission certified the official results of the September 8 mayoral elections, giving Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin a razor-thin first-round victory and denying Navalny the runoff he and independent election observers say he had earned.

Sobyanin's inauguration was also scheduled for September 12, nearly a week ahead of schedule.

"Faster! Come on, put the stamp on the paper FASTER!" Navalny mockingly wrote on his blog on LiveJournal, adding that he had "logistical and mathematical proof" that the authorities used fraud to get their man over the 50 percent barrier. 

Despite the fact that he has a legitimate claim to a recount -- Sobyanin made it to a second round by a mere 32,000 votes and an independent vote count had him winning less than 50 percent of the vote -- he will not get one. Sobyanin will be inaugurated as mayor and Navalny's next battle will be in court where he will be fighting -- again -- for his freedom.

But guess what? It doesn't matter. Because what happened in Moscow this weekend can only be described as a clear -- and even spectacular -- victory for the man who can now claim to be the undisputed leader of the opposition.

"The result of these elections is very simple: Navalny will not go to jail, and Russia now has an opposition with which the authorities must contend," political commentator Yulia Latynina wrote in "The Moscow Times."

This is not because the 27 percent Navalny won by the official tally far exceeded even the most wildly optimistic projections. That is important, but it is a symptom. And it's not because his outside-the-box campaign has upended the rules of political engagement and energized a generation. This is also important, but it, also, is a symptom.

September 8 was a victory for Navalny because it showed -- loud, clear, and unambiguously -- that he is on the vanguard of a slow, steady, stealthy revolution that has been gathering steam for years and now appears to be approaching critical mass.

The Kremlin has long been obsessed with preventing a "colored revolution" -- Ukrainian Orange or Georgian Rose -- from happening in Russia. They built up a fake political system with faux opposition parties and sham elections; they produced comical media "exposes" of cartoonish Western plots; and they deployed the ever-present riot police, all to prevent one from happening.

But right under their noses another kind of revolution was brewing. Not a rose or an orange one -- but a "tortoise revolution."

Russia was changing. Slowly but surely, it was outgrowing its leaders. And as people became more prosperous, better informed, and more politically sophisticated, as a younger post-Soviet generation came of age, it was only a matter of time before this "other Russia" began to demand something different. 

Navalny is offering them that something and a lot of people like what they see.

The Network Vs. The Machine

Speaking on DozhdTV as the results rolled in on September 8, liberal politician Leonid Gozman cut right to the chase. Navalny's performance in Moscow and opposition figure Yevgeny Roizman's victory in Yekaterinburg's mayoral election have decisively changed the game in Russian politics.

"The old political system is dead. It doesn't exist anymore. What's happening now is completely new," Gozman said.

"What happened in Moscow and Yekaterinburg isn't connected to existing structures, parties, organizations, or former political leaders. It is connected to the activities of absolutely new people. Neither Navalny nor Roizman have a party. They don't need them. We can tell all our political parties and political leaders who have been telling us how to live: 'Thanks guys. You can leave now.' A new era has come."

Gozman was driving at something that is at the heart of what is going on right now. Over the past decade, Putin's Kremlin built up a formidable political machine. Like all political machines, it is based on a combination of patronage and coercion. It's success is predicated on people being dependent upon and fearful of the state.

But the fledgling civil society that emerged below the decks of that machine is beginning to produce something else: a growing cadre of people in the big cities who see themselves not as subjects but as citizens. And they disdain the imitation of politics the Kremlin has been serving them. They yearn for the real article. They're tired of the fake. They want the authentic.

And now, the most active and engaged among them are forming something to challenge the Kremlin's machine -- a network.

Networks are voluntary associations. They rely not on patronage, compulsion, and coercion, but on shared values, commitment, enthusiasm -- and hope. The old Power Vertical is meeting a quickly maturing Power Horizontal -- and has no idea how to deal with it.

The network's power was visible in things like the Popular Election Commission, a civic body that had observers in nearly all of Moscow's polling places and reported results -- that were amplified by media outlets like Dozhd TV throughout the day. 

Their results, showing Sobyanin under 50 percent, provided strong legitimacy to Navalny's claims that the election had been stolen. "Imagine, even if Sobyanin really won 52 percent, nobody will believe it now," Gozman told Dozhd TV.

And it was also visible not just in Navalny's formidable army of young volunteers, but also in his unprecedented online fundraising, where he raised an impressive $3 million in small donations.

This weekend's election was never really about Navalny becoming mayor of Moscow, even though he came closer than anybody imagined he would.

It was about building and strengthening the fledgling -- but maturing -- network that is giving the Kremlin machine the scare of its life. And it was about taking another step toward eroding, wearing down, and ultimately replacing the existing regime by patiently and efficiently chipping away at the monolith.

This slow-burning revolution won't happen overnight. But its happening.

Navalny is playing for keeps. He has his eye on a prize bigger than the Moscow mayor's office. And believe it or not, he's winning.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on September 13, where my co-hosts and I will discuss the issues raised in this blog post.

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Audio Podcast: There's Something About Autumn

Aleksei Navalny campaigns in Moscow. Can his "network" best the Kremlin's "machine"?

As summer fades into fall and the weather cools, Russia's political environment tends to heat up.

From the shelling of parliament in October 1993 to the meteoric rise of Vladimir Putin in September 1999 to the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October 2003, the autumn season is often one of high-stakes political showdowns -- and often one of change.

And starting with the September 8 regional elections -- from Aleksei Navalny's outside-the-box insurgency in Moscow, to Yevgey Roisman's strong bid for the top job in Yekaterinburg -- the fall of 2013 is shaping up to be potentially historic.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we kick off the coming political season and look at what it might portend. Joining me is co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."


Power Vertical Podcast: There's Something About Autumn
Power Vertical Podcast: There's Something About Autumni
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Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Audio Podcast: One Year After Pussy Riot, Culture War Vs. Countercultural Insurgency

Pussy Riot's brief act of defiance last year helped lift the lid on some deep divisions within Russian society.

A year ago, much of the world's eyes were on a Moscow courtroom where three young women were on trial for a two-minute act of defiance in the Russian capital's main Orthodox cathedral.

The Pussy Riot case exposed deep divisions in Russian society -- divisions the Kremlin was eager to exploit for its own purposes.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the implications of the cultural war and countercultural insurgency that has raged since the verdict.

Joining me is co-host Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service, a contributor to the online magazine, and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, author of Sean's Russia Blog.

Podcast: One Year After Pussy Riot, Culture War Vs. Countercultural Insurgency
Power Vertical Podcast: One Year After Pussy Riot, Culture War Vs. Countercultural Insurgencyi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

A Year Of Cultural Warfare, From Pussy Riot To 'Mizulina's List'

Pussy Riot (left) and Ksenia Sobchak (combo photo)

As far as signs of the times or cultural markers of an age go, the spectacle of Ksenia Sobchak being interviewed by Yulia Taratuta on the Dozhd-TV on August 8 was pure gold. 

I'd heard about it. Read about it. Seen tweets about it. But nothing prepared me for actually watching it, which I finally got around to doing this week.

Over the course of a nine-minute interview ostensibly about current affairs -- and specifically about State Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina's slander case against Sobchak and others -- the phrase "oral sex" was used no less than 22 times. In case you're wondering, that's about once every 25 seconds.

These were questions like this gem from Taratuta: "So how long did you and the investigators discuss oral sex?" Sobchak's answer: "My interrogation lasted about an hour and 40 minutes and about one hour was devoted to the topic of oral sex."

There was this zinger from Sobchak: "I am ready to say to Yelena Mizulina that if you are, in fact, in favor of oral sex and I'm in favor of it, too, then let's all be in favor of it so there will be something to unite everybody, including those who sit in the State Duma."

And this classic: "Frankly, my husband and I just had our first night together since my interrogation and we are thinking of filing our own countersuit against Mizulina for ruining our private life. The phrase 'oral sex' is now so firmly associated in our minds with Mizulina now that we no longer feel like having it anymore."

WATCH: Ksenia Sobchak interviewed on Dozhd-TV (in Russian)

Oy vey! What will we tell the children? But this is what Russia's public discourse has come to.

Mizulina, of course, is the primary author of the so-called "gay-propaganda" law, passed by the Duma and signed by President Vladimir Putin, that prohibits the promotion of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.

The controversial lawmaker's crusade for what she considers "traditional values" has led Sobchak and others to wonder -- in the media, on blogs, and on Twitter -- whether she is bent on banning oral sex in Russia.

Mizulina, in turn, has since called on prosecutors to open a criminal slander suit against Sobchak and several others -- including former Deputy Prime Minister Alfred Kokh -- for making the suggestion. Sobchak has dubbed those facing the charges "Mizulina's List."

Thus, the bizarre interrogation Sobchak described in her X-rated -- and highly entertaining -- interview on Dozhd-TV.

It's fitting that this whole wacky, absurd, hilarious -- but at the same time, disturbing -- kerfuffle over "Mizulina's List" comes just as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Pussy Riot verdict on August 17.

When members of the feminist punk-rock collective were tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison for performing a two-minute "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, it kicked off a Kremlin-sponsored cultural war that rages to this day -- and has culminated in the pornographic public discourse we are now witnessing.

Rattled by the protest movement and the loss of support among the urban middle class, Team Putin decided to turn to the most conservative elements in society -- traditional Orthodox Christians, the working and rural classes -- to shore up its base. In doing so, the Kremlin appealed to their deepest cultural anxieties and prejudices.

And Pussy Riot -- which, in the regime's eyes, epitomized the spoiled and ungrateful rich kids in the capital who fueled the protest movement -- gave the Kremlin a perfect foil and a perfect opportunity to change the conversation.

In the wake of the Pussy Riot trial came the so-called "blasphemy law" making it a crime to insult someone's religious (read Orthodox) sensibilities, the "gay-propaganda" law allegedly protecting minors from corrupting influences, and a wave of often violent homophobia.

In the year since the verdict, Putin -- with the help of surrogates like Mizulina -- has been able to argue that he stands for the salt-of-the-earth Russian heartland and their "traditional values" against all those touchy-feely cosmopolitan urban sissies and their feminist and gay-loving ways.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Putin is hardly the first -- and won't be the last -- embattled leader to deploy such tactics.

Was it successful? It did alter the national conversation to a degree. And as a wedge issue, the regime's gay baiting worked to unite the Kremlin's conservative supporters and divide the opposition, most of which is still clearly uncomfortable championing LGBT rights.

But as political commentator Masha Lipman wrote recently in "The New Yorker" magazine, the apparent social conservatism of the Russian heartland is a complex beast.

"The country may appear to be fairly conservative, if one looks at its widespread homophobia or public condemnation of irreverence toward Russian Orthodox Church. Yet when it comes to other social habits, such as divorce, abortion, or birth rate, the picture is very different...

"Premarital sex and single motherhood are fairly common...And while a large majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, the proportion of those attending services or observing religious rituals in Russia is not dissimilar from many European countries."

The Kremlin has been playing with symbols, albeit ones with potent cultural and emotional punch. Team Putin has managed to shore up its hard-core support, drive a wedge through society, and buy itself some time.

But such tactics tend to have diminishing returns over time. When you scratch the surface, those once potent symbols are often exposed as empty vessels.

Like, for example, when somebody like Ksenia Sobchak comes along and points out in graphic detail what banning the propagation of "nontraditional sexual relations" might actually entail.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical podcast on August 16 for a discussion of the one-year anniversary of the Pussy Riot verdict -- and the cultural warfare that followed it.

Tags:Ksenia Sobchak, Pussy Riot, Yelena Mizulina

Audio Podcast: Backlash -- Russia's LGBT Battle Goes Global

Protesting homophobia in Russia on two continents: an LGBT rights protester in Moscow (left) and one in New York.

It started as part of Vladimir Putin's efforts to shore up support among traditionalist Russians after losing the urban middle class. But Russia's laws marginalizing gays and lesbians and an ensuing string of violent homophobic attacks have turned into a major international headache for the Kremlin -- sparking everything from vodka boycotts to calls to strip Sochi of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss the issue of LGBT rights and how it is driving yet another wedge between Russia and the West.

Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Power Vertical Podcast: Russia's LGBT Battle Goes Global
Power Vertical Podcast: Russia's LGBT Battle Goes Globali
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, LGBT rights

The Audacity Of Navalny

Which side are you on? Aleksei Navalny (right) meets the voters.

There's just no escaping Aleksei Navalny.

Whether one thinks he's Russia's greatest hope, or the most dangerous man in Russia, he is absolutely dominating the conversation right now.

The ruling United Russia party is complaining about his online fundraising, as is Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Television personality Ksenia Sobchak is worried about his aggressive tone, Vladimir Putin still won't utter his name in public, but even he can't avoid talking about Navalny.

And with good reason. How the Navalny story winds up will probably tell us a lot about how this turbulent and important chapter in Russian history that began with the castling of September 2011 -- and whose plot thickened with the rise of the protest movement -- will finally end.

And both friends and foes of the anticorruption blogger-turned-opposition leader know it.

Take Navalny foe Sergei Markov, the pro-Putin political analyst who tends to either parrot or telegraph the dominant party line.

Writing in "The Moscow Times" this week, Markov manages to cram in every Kremlin-sponsored meme about Navalny out there: he's just "a blogger" and "what kind of profession is that"; he's planning an "Orange Revolution"; he is a project of Hermitage Capital CEO William Browder and the "global oligarchy"; he was recruited while studying at Yale University to overthrow the Russian government; and, of course, he is a dangerous nationalist. 

How one can be a tool of the West, a project of the global oligarchy, and a Russian nationalist all at the same time isn't really explained.  But never mind.

"Navalny is reminiscent of" former President Boris "Yeltsin, whom Russia fell in love with initially in the early 1990s, although he was responsible for  the collapse of the Soviet Union and the impoverishment of millions of Russians," Markov concludes.

"Twenty years ago, Yeltsin infected the country with an aggressive virus. But I am sure that Russians can stop Navalny's virus from spreading and crippling the country. We have the antibodies to fight this disease, which was developed in special laboratories in the West."

On the other side of the ramparts is Stanislav Belkovsky, the rambunctious and bombastic political commentator for "Moskovsky komsomolets" and a well-known Navalny booster.

In a highly entertaining piece last week, Belkovsky cuts right to the chase, only half ironically calling Navalny a "messiah" whose work of saving Russia has only just begun.

Contrary to popular belief, Belkovsky writes, Navalny isn't really running for mayor of Moscow. He's in the "quarterfinal duel between Good and Evil." And his opponent isn't incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. "What are you thinking?" he writes. "His opponent is Vladimir Putin, head of the Bloody Regime. The semifinal will take place in the next State Duma elections. The final will be the battle for the presidency."

The funny thing about the the Markov and Belkovsky articles is that despite their different premises, they come to exactly the same conclusion: this man is serious and he is playing for keeps. 

And the audacity of Navalny, this chutzpah to take on the Putin juggernaut head-on, has fast-forwarded and brought new urgency to what was a slow-burning and low-intensity conflict between the authorities and the opposition.

Like him or not, Navalny is forcing the Kremlin's foes to make a choice.

"Know that by coming out against Navalny, you are coming out against the Bolotnaya prisoners. Against those who came out alongside of you and who were seized on your behalf in order to make you afraid," political activist Maria Baronova wrote on her blog on Ekho Moskvy, which was cited by Belkovsky. 

"You are coming out against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev having a chance to be freed... You are coming out against any changes in Russia, however small. Because until Navalny wins, there will be no new people.  No new politicians. No new ideas."

The Moscow mayoral election on September 8 can be looked at, as Belkovsky suggests, as the "quarterfinal" match in Navalny's battle against the ruling regime. It can also be seen as a dry run to test the strength of his political operation.

Few expect Navalny to win in the formal sense. The key question is whether he will perform well enough to fight another day.

"The main element of suspense in this election is what will happen on the morning of September 9," Belkovsky wrote. "At the moment when the preliminary results are announced, what will the people of Moscow say and where will they go?

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Podcast: Voting In The Eye Of A Perfect Storm

Are storm clouds brewing over the Kremlin?

Will September 8 be the next December 4?

In just over a month, eight Russian regions will elect governors, 16 will elect legislatures, eight cities will elect mayors, and five will elect city councils.

It promises to be the most consequential election day since the State Duma poll on December 4, 2011 -- which led to the largest antigovernment protests of Vladimir Putin's rule. And given how restive the public is, many observers are expecting it to be the most competitive election -- and the most explosive to falsify -- in a long time.

And, with the ongoing schism in the elite and economic storm clouds on the horizon, some Kremlin watchers say it could be coming in the midst of a "perfect storm," which could shift the political landscape.

In the latest edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the upcoming elections in the context of Russia's ongoing political turbulence. Joining me is co-host Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, and Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices.

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Sean, Kevin, and I discussed rising ethnic tensions in the wake of a series of incidents in Moscow and elsewhere.

Power Vertical Podcast: Voting In The Eye Of A Perfect Storm
Power Vertical Podcast: Voting In The Eye Of A Perfect Stormi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:ethnic violence, Russian regional elections

Audio Podcast: Russia's Hot Cucumber Season

On the way out? On the way in? Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny

Nobody expected a quiet summer this year. And nobody expects it to quiet down anytime soon.

Russia's traditional cucumber season, when people retire to their dachas and politics tends to take a breather, is quickly turning into a season of high-stakes intrigue and maneuvering.

And change is in the air.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at four important trends that are emerging during this tumultuous and consequential summer: the very real battle in the elite to become Vladimir Putin's designated successor; the return of public politics with Moscow's upcoming mayoral election; the meteoric rise of Aleksei Navalny; and the emergence of so-called "liberal nationalism."

Joining me on the podcast are co-hosts Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service and a contributor to the online magazine

Power Vertical Podcast: Russia's Hot Cucumber Season
Power Vertical Podcast: Russia's Hot Cucumber Seasoni
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Sergei Sobyanin, Aleksei Navalny, Russian politics

Why Navalny Is Winning

Vladimir Putin submerging into the depths in a submarine. Aleksei Navalny being greeted by an adoring crowd as he triumphantly returned to Moscow.

Something old, something new.

The two images bookended what was a remarkable -- and highly consequential -- week in Russia. As the Navalny saga was unfolding -- from his conviction and detention, to the street protests that followed and his subsequent release and arrival at Moscow's Yaroslavl railway station -- Putin was largely invisible, save for one of his tired old macho photo-ops.

And even with that, someone in the Kremlin clearly forgot to think through the optics. "The long descent begins," one Twitter user wrote, in reference to a photo of Putin's submarine stunt. 

Optics are, indeed, important and Navalny clearly won last week's image war.

Inevitable comparisons have already been made between the heroe's welcome he received in Moscow on July 20 to that of Andrei Sakharov when he arrived at the very same train station in December 1986. And some have compared Navalny's fiery comments to supporters with Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's famous speech upon returning from exile at Finland Station in Petrograd in April 1917.

Navalny, of course, isn't Sakharov -- and he certainly isn't Lenin. But 2013 is beginning to have the feel of a time, like the early 20th century or the late 1980s and early 90s, when the tectonic plates of Russian politics are shifting. And Navalny is quickly assuming the role of the figure in tune with the new zeitgeist who is able to ride the turbulent wave to a new political epoch.

Checkers, Chess, And Pumpkins

In an interview with the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" just days before his conviction, Navalny said that if he wins the Moscow mayorship, "Putin's regime will turn into a pumpkin."

And he is right. There is no office in Russia save the presidency with so much power and independence as mayor of the capital. Which is why the authorities will never allow Navalny -- or any opposition figure for that matter -- to come close to winning it.

Indeed, as soon as Navalny was released on July 19, after less than a day in jail, the theories of a dark Kremlin conspiracy appeared. The authorities needed him in the September 8 Moscow mayoral election. Otherwise, Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin's inevitable victory would appear illegitimate. As soon as Navalny has fulfilled this purpose, they'll imprison him again.

This is probably true, but it misses the point about what is going on right now. Navalny is playing chess and the Kremlin, it appears, is playing checkers -- and playing quite poorly at that.

Despite the rhetoric in his fledgling election campaign, Navalny knows he has little chance of winning the Moscow mayorship. But Navalny's long game is not about winning an election inside the confines of the Putin system. It is to erode, wear down, and ultimately replace that system by patiently and efficiently chipping away at the monolith -- attacking its weak points, building up his street cred, and expanding his base of support in the process.

The events of the past week advanced that goal considerably. The Kremlin has just given him the aura of a martyr, and he only had to spend one night in a holding cell to get it.

And the opportunity Navalny has now to openly campaign in Moscow -- which means rallies that will no doubt draw big crowds and television appearances that will boost his name recognition -- will advance it further still, even in defeat.

Navalny's July 19 release, after being convicted the previous day on what are widely seen as trumped-up embezzlement charges, marked the second time in just over a week that he was taken into custody and then set free to make a made-for-YouTube speech. 

Several prominent Russian lawyers have noted that the prosecutor's decision to take a reverse step and free such a high-profile prisoner pending appeal was unprecedented.

And if Navalny performs reasonably well in the Moscow election and expands his base of support, it will be harder still -- and costlier still -- for the authorities to incarcerate him yet again.

'We Are Citizens!'

One of the most poignant moments of Navalny's speech upon arrival in Moscow wasn't even spoken by Navalny. It came from the crowd in response to him.

"You have destroyed the main privilege that the Kremlin has claimed -- its alleged right to arrest anyone in court and cause that person to disappear," Navalny said as he thanked his supporters for taking to the streets after his sentencing.

"It's because of you that we were released the next day. Thank you! We are a huge mighty force and I am glad that we are realizing this and I am glad to be one with you."

"We are citizens!" came a single -- and clearly audible -- voice from the crowd.

WATCH: Navalny's arrival in Moscow after his release (in Russian):
Алексея Навального встречают на Ярославском вокзалеi
July 20, 2013
Сотни сторонников встречали Алексея Навального и Петра Офицерова на Ярославском вокзале в Москве. Навальный обратился к собравшимся с короткой речью, поблагодарил их за поддержку и сказал, что он оказался на свободе только потому, что после приговора люди вышли на улицы.

Which gets to the heart of why Navalny is winning his long battle with a Kremlin that doesn't quite know what to do with him.

"Navalny showed Russians how not to be afraid," Julia Iofe wrote in a recent article in "The New Republic."

Estimates varied on how many people took to the streets of Moscow (as well as other cities) on the night of July 18-19 in support of Navalny. Police said 2,500 came out in the capital, the opposition said 10,000, and journalists more or less split the difference and said 5,000.

In fact, it was a hard crowd to count because it so diffuse, fanning out around the center of Moscow -- and even up the walls and onto the ledge of the State Duma. 

But the point wasn't the numbers. It was the intensity and the bravery of people who were willing to take to the streets for an unsanctioned protest amid a heavy police presence in full expectation of a crackdown -- albeit one that didn't materialize.

Navalny has indeed shown Russians how not to be afraid.

This was also on display on the morning of July 20, when police, in a lame attempt to clear the crowd from Yaroslavl Station, warned of a bomb threat. "Ooh, a bomb. We're really frightened," one man mockingly told a police officer

Navalny, of course, probably wasn't freed due to pressure from the streets. As recently pointed out, deep splits in the elite over how to handle him -- and the ongoing political crisis -- go a long way toward explaining the Kremlin's vacillation.

But optics do matter. And as my co-host Mark Galeotti of New York University pointed out in the most recent "Power Vertical Podcast," Navalny can now claim that it was because of the power of the "Russian street" that he was set free. And just as importantly, his growing cadre of supporters believe this to be the case.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Podcast: The Empire Strikes Out

After months of speculation about the fate of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, it looks like the Kremlin decided to show its teeth -- or at least it did at first.

In a courtroom in the city of Kirov on July 18, Judge Sergei Blinov sentenced Navalny to five years in prison on embezzlement charges widely viewed as trumped up.

Navalny was immediately handcuffed and taken into custody, ending speculation that he might get a suspended sentence -- and apparently ending his run in Moscow's mayoral elections.

So the Kremlin decided to play rough. Or did it?

It wasn't long before cracks began to appear in the monolith.

As thousands braved police cordons and took to the streets in protest in Moscow and elsewhere,the Prosecutor-General's Office announced that it was, in fact, illegal to detain Navalny in court and he should be free on bail pending appeal.

And that's exactly what happened. On July 19, Navalny was released less than 24 hours after he was detained and was soon on a train back home to Moscow.

Navalny's saga has reached a critical juncture. But does the Kremlin even have a strategy?

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss this ongoing political drama with New York University professor Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service and a contributor to, and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."


Power Vertical Podcast: The Empire Strikes Out
Power Vertical Podcast: The Empire Strikes Outi
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Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Final Curtain On A Tragicomic Trial

Packing sweatpants, slippers, and sheets? Aleksei Navalny boards a train from Moscow to Kirov.

On the eve of judgement day, Aleksei Navalny has some very personal and some very practical matters on his mind.

He's making sure to spend a lot of time with his wife and two children. He's had a thorough medical examination. He's giving final instructions to colleagues in the anticorruption watchdog he heads. He's wondering whether he'll end up in a prison colony "in Chita or in Karelia." He's worried about how he will communicate with the outside world from a prison colony. 

And in case anybody's wondering, he will definitely be traveling from Moscow to Kirov with slippers, sweat pants, and sheets in his suitcase.

"It doesn't fill me with joy, but it is stupid to find yourself in a cell without slippers and sweatpants," Navalny told the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" in an interview published this week.  "You don't want to sleep on the prison sheets -- so you have to get your own and spread those out."

On July 18, Navalny will finally hear the verdict in the so-called Kirov Forest case in which prosecutors allege he organized the embezzlement of 16 million rubles ($500,000) from a state-owned timber company. 

The charges are widely viewed by experts and much of the public as fabricated. According to the independent Levada Center, 57 percent of Muscovites and 44 percent of Russians see the charges as Kremlin-sponsored political retribution against the anticorruption blogger and opposition leader. Just 23 percent of Russians believe the case has any merit. 

Nevertheless, few -- least of all the defendant -- doubt that a conviction is coming.

"You know you are innocent and everyone in the courtroom knows you are innocent. The judge and prosecutors know you are innocent. The court officials look at you with sympathy and nod their heads, whispering as though to say -- hang on in there. Nevertheless, it will end with you being handcuffed," Navalny told "Moskovsky komsomolets." 

"Of course these are complicated feelings. It is important not to take offense against the whole world."

The case against Navalny has pushed the limits of the absurd. Of the 35 witnesses called by the prosecution, 33 gave testimony that supported Navalny's version of events.

And the prosecution's star witness, Vyacheslav Opalev, appears to have a clear incentive to frame the defendant.

When Navalny was serving as an adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh in 2009, he recommended that Opalev be fired as director of the Kirovles state timber company and investigated for corruption. The company had run up 200 million rubles ($6 million) in losses before Navalny arrived in the region. 

Moreover, Opalev was given a suspended sentence in his own corruption trial in December 2012 after pleading guilty to conspiring with Navalny to fleece Kirovles.

The only other witness to give evidence supporting the prosecution's case was Opalev's daughter.

There were also some truly Orwellian moments. One prosecution witness, Kirov Oblast Deputy Governor Sergei Shcherchkov, openly testified in Navalny's favor. But prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov, in his closing statement, used selective portions of Shcherchkov's testimony to suggest he had incriminated him. 

Moreover, the judge did not allow Navalny to call a single defense witness. Not one. The court did not commission any expert analysis. None.

"No evidence against Navalny was presented during the trial. No profit was made from the alleged illegal transaction. The case for the prosecution was based on allegations from a local magnate Navalny had attacked for insider dealing," Peter Pomerantsev wrote in an excellent -- and hilarious -- piece on the case.

Of course, fabricated charges against the Kremlin's political opponents are nothing new in Russia. But in the Navalny case -- like in the so-called Bolotnaya trial against protesters who gathered on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration -- the authorities seem to be pushing the envelope of believability into new territory.

The Bolotnaya case is ongoing and has had its share of eyebrow-raising moments recently.

Last week, one of the prosecution's star witnesses, Moscow police Colonel Dmitry Deynichenko, gave testimony that contravened his own police report. He also contradicted himself on the stand on numerous occasions.

In the report on the anti-Putin protests that erupted on May 6, 2012 -- which prosecutors allege was the kickoff of a foreign-backed uprising against the Russian government -- Deynichenko wrote that police encountered "no emergency situations" during the demonstrations. 

On the stand, as reported, "he said something else entirely."

So confused -- and confusing -- was Deynichenko's testimony, the online newspaper wrote, that "he went from being a prosecution witness to someone more resembling a witness for the defense." 

Will it matter? Probably not. Just like in Navalny's trial, the Kremlin needs convictions in the Bolotnaya case and will no doubt secure them.

Just shy of 10 years ago, Putin cemented his vise grip on power when he was able to have oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion.

It was selective justice to be sure. Any of the oligarchs who earned their wealth in the shady privatizations of the 1990s could have been taken down on similar charges. Khodorkovsky's real crime was opposing Putin.

But if the Khodorkovsky trial a decade ago underscored how Putin and his team were confident and rising, the Navalny case -- and the one against the Bolotnaya protesters -- reeks of desperation.

-- Brian Whitmore

UPDATE: Navalny was found guilty, given a five-year sentence, and taken into custody. From the courtroom, he tweeted the following message to his 369,000-plus followers: "It's ok. Try not to miss me. And most of all, don't be lazy. The toad won't leave the oil pipeline by itself."

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Podcast: The Kremlin's Navalny Dilemma

Where is he more of a threat?

It's not clear exactly whose bright idea it was to have police detain Aleksei Navalny outside the Moscow electoral commission this week.

But whoever it was, they unwittingly provided the anticorruption blogger and opposition leader with a picture-perfect kick-off for his longshot campaign to become mayor of the Russian capital.

The whole incident -- which saw Navalny roughly seized, held in a bus, and then released after his supporters confronted police -- also illustrates the Kremlin's paradox in dealing with this charismatic and wily foe.

With Navalny facing six years in prison on embezzlement charges widely viewed as fabricated, the Russian authorities find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: an acquittal will make him a conquering hero and a conviction could turn him into a martyr.

In the latest Power Vertical podcast, I discussed the Kremlin's Navalny dilemma with co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and special guest David Satter, a longtime Moscow correspondent and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Is Navalny more dangerous to the Kremlin in prison or on the street?

Power Vertical Podcast: The Kremlin's Navalny Dilemma
Power Vertical Podcast: The Kremlin's Navalny Dilemmai
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Navalny Wins A Round

Aleksei Navalny speaks outside the Moscow Election Commission shortly before being briefly detained by police.

One has to wonder whether the Moscow police aren't secretly working for Aleksei Navalny.

Accompanied by hundreds of supporters and with video cameras rolling, the anticorruption blogger and opposition figure walked down the capital's central Tverskaya Street to the city's election commission on July 10 to register as a candidate.

When Navalny came out of the building to address his supporters and speak to journalists, he was inexplicably seized by police and hauled into a waiting paddy wagon. Chanting "shame," "Navalny is our mayor," and "release him," the crowd surrounded the bus.

And then, after a tense standoff, the police let Navalny go -- and reportedly apologized to him.

"Thus begins our spectacular election campaign," he told his cheering supporters, who then fanned out to stump for their newly minted candidate.

"Thank you everyone! Thank you that you didn't disperse and didn't leave me alone in this. Because of you they let me go. Let's be like this for everyone. One for all!" he said.

And the crowd chanted back: "And all for one!"

It could easily be turned into an advertisement -- and perhaps will be. The video, in any event, is clearly destined to go viral. (You can watch the whole thing from start to finish here or here.) 



As a metaphor for -- and a microcosm of -- the battle Navalny finds himself in, the whole incident was pretty fitting.

Today he started his campaign for Moscow mayor, an uphill struggle under the best of circumstances.

And next week, on July 18, a court in Kirov Oblast is due to issue a verdict in Navalny's highly politicized trial on embezzlement charges widely viewed as trumped-up. If the expected guilty verdict comes down, Navalny could find himself incarcerated for a lot longer than the brief stint he spent in a paddy wagon. 

But with thousands of people already pledged to take to the streets in his defense, locking up Navalny for the six years prosecutors -- and thus the Kremlin -- are asking for will not be without cost.

Which gets to the heart of the asymmetrical tactics Navalny has long deployed.

If I'm right about him, and I think I am, he's playing a long game, building up a reservoir of goodwill and street cred that make him the clear eventual alternative to Vladimir Putin's regime.

In his closing statement in court last week, when he vowed to "liquidate the feudal system that is stealing from us all," Navalny acted like someone who knows he owns the future.

"Despite the fact that you sit in judgement of me and can imprison me, I will fight for you," he said.

"And if anybody thinks I am afraid of this six years I am threatened with and will run away abroad or somewhere, they are seriously mistaken. I will wait it out. I cannot run away from myself. I don't want to do anything but help my fellow citizens."

This is a man who just might be even more dangerous to the Kremlin in prison than he is on the street.

NOTE TO READERS: I wasn't planning on blogging on Navalny for the second day in a row, but today's events left me little choice.

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

The Moscow Front

Aleksei Navalny presents his election platform on July 1. But will he make it onto the ballot?

With Moscow's election months away and the result likely predetermined, the next big showdown in the Russian capital should come as early as next week.

In the last couple days, more than 6,000 people have already joined a special Facebook page calling on Russians to gather on Moscow's Manezh Square on July 18 to "discuss" the verdict in Aleksei Navalny's controversial trial -- which wraps up in a Kirov court that day.

City authorities, meanwhile, have warned the opposition against staging any unsanctioned rallies, adding that they would take "appropriate measures" to prevent them. Organizers of the Manezh event say Article 31 of the Russian Constitution guarantees their right to peacefully assemble and they don't need any official permission to do so.

The ensuing standoff should mark a fitting end to Navalny's highly politicized trial, which the anticorruption blogger has skillfully used to get his message out despite facing the prospect of a long prison sentence for charges widely seen as fabricated.

In his stirring closing statement last week, Navalny denounced what he called Vladimir Putin's "feudal regime," derided his trial as a bad "soap opera," and said "nobody has the right to neutrality" in Russia's ongoing political struggle. 


And his message appears to be resonating.

According to a recent poll by the Levada Center, a strong plurality of Russians, 44 percent, believe the case against Navalny is political and was initiated in retaliation for his exposés of official corruption. Just 23 percent believe the charges against him have merit. In Moscow, a healthy majority, 57 percent, view the trial as political revenge.

Navalny, meanwhile, cleared the final hurdle this week to register as a candidate for Moscow's September 8 mayoral elections. Given this, a conviction next week -- as likely as one is -- will appear even more politically motivated.

And although a conviction would disqualify him for running for office, Navalny has stubbornly insisted on carrying on with his campaign. On July 1, he unveiled his platform in a laid-back event that had the vibe of a U.S.-style roll out, using supporters in the room to illustrate various problems in the city's governance and how he would address them.


The contrast with incumbent Sergei Sobyanin's clumsy campaign kickoff is striking.

Shortly before announcing his decision to hold early elections, Sobyanin, a close Putin ally, decided to show voters how hip he was. He camped out in Moscow's Jean-Jacques Cafe, a favorite venue of the capital's "creative class," and gave an interview to the weekly "Moskovskie novosti."

The fact that Sobyanin thought such a move was necessary showed that authorities may be more worried about the September 8 elections than they are letting on. And the way it turned out showed why such concern might be well-placed.

To accommodate the mayor, the cafe had to be cleared out and closed, which didn't exactly go over well with its patrons -- the exact constituency he was trying to appeal to. And bloggers soon uncovered, and publicized, that a special throne-like chair was brought to the cafe from City Hall for a photo shoot accompanying the interview.

Sobyanin has also reportedly split his election staff into two teams. One will target working-class voters with traditional methods: showing Sobyanin solving urban problems and visiting construction sites. And another, as reported recently, will target cool and trendy voters by showcasing projects like bicycle paths and the reconstruction of Gorky Park.

Try as he might, Sobyanin just isn't going to appeal to Moscow's hipster set -- and he probably doesn't have to in order to win. And the fact that he feels the need to do this speaks volumes.

"The minimum task is to prevent the mobilization of the creative class against Sobyanin and to demonstrate that he is not a symbol of the ruling regime," political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov told

The capital is slipping -- slowly but surely -- from the Kremlin's grip. And in many ways, the Moscow front is a harbinger of the battle for Russia.

Navalny will probably be convicted on July 18 and could be imprisoned for six years. But a strong majority of Muscovites and a healthy plurality of Russians believe the charges to be trumped-up.

The authorities will easily break up any rally that ensues to support Navalny and denounce the verdict, but that could only serve to further alienate the emerging middle class that represents Russia's future.

And with the administrative resources and mobilization tools of City Hall at his disposal, Sobyanin will win election in September, whether Navalny is on the ballot or in prison. But he will do so with a growing critical mass in the capital hungry for change.

The authorities should win this round. But time is clearly not on their side.

-- Brian Whitmore

Audio Podcast: Khodorkovsky At 50 -- Man, Myth, Symbol

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's fate has long been a bellwether for Russia's direction.

He spent his 30s flying high as an oil executive and one of the magnificent seven, the group of Kremlin-connected oligarchs who controlled the commanding heights of Russia's economy during Boris Yeltsin's rule in the 1990s.

He spent his 40s in a prison colony, a convenient fall guy as President Vladimir Putin's entourage took control of Russia's energy sector.

But even as he was derided by the Kremlin-controlled media as an example of the crony capitalism that marked the decade following the Soviet collapse, Mikhail Khodorkovsky also became a liberal martyr -- a defiant and dignified symbol of the vindictive selective justice and legal double standards that mark Putin's Russia.

Khodorkovsky turned 50 this week and thousands of well wishers from Russia and around the world sent him letters of support.

But even as marked that milestone, there were indications that the authorities are preparing a fresh set of charges that would keep him incarcerated indefinitely.

For many, Khodorkovsky's October 2003 arrest was the point when it became crystal-clear where Putin's Russia was headed -- and his fate has since been seen as a bellwether.

In many ways, Khodorkovsky's story is Russia's story. So what is his story telling us now?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss the Khodorkovsky phenomenon and its larger meaning with co-hosts New York University's Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service, a contributor to the online magazine


Podcast: Khodorkovsky At 50 -- Man, Myth, Symbol
Podcast: Khodorkovsky At 50 -- Man, Myth, Symboli
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The End Of The Consensual Hallucination

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

A lot of things that people say never happened before suddenly seem to be happening.

When news agencies incorrectly reported -- based on a forged government press release -- that President Vladimir Putin had sacked his longtime ally, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, last week some analysts called the incident unprecedented.

"Nothing like this has ever happened before," Alexander Rahr of the German Council of Foreign Relations, a biographer of Putin, told Reuters.

Actually, it did.

Back in February, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich appeared to announce his resignation on Twitter. He later announced on Facebook that he hadn't resigned, that his account had been hacked, and the tweet in question was a fake.

But Dvorkovich is pretty peripheral to Putin's inner circle while Yakunin is a bona fide member of his Politburo.

Nevertheless, if last week's firing wasn't exactly unprecedented, it was at least highly unusual. And so, too, was another firing that actually happened.

According to most accounts, Putin really didn't want to remove Anatoly Serdyukov as defense minister in November despite the procurement scandals engulfing him. But he appeared to have been pressured into doing so by a cabal of aides including Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Russian Technologies chief Sergei Chemezov.

It "may have been the first instance of Putin giving in to pressure and doing something he didn't want to do," political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky wrote recently. 

Yakunin's fake firing and Serdyukov's real one each illustrate that despite his bluster, Putin has actually become an increasingly weak leader who can no longer control his courtiers. On last week's "Power Vertical" podcast, co-host Mark Galeotti of New York University likened the phenomenon to that of a collective mirage being lifted. 

"In politics, everything is about a consensual hallucination. Everything is about people agreeing with each other about what really matters. People agreeing with each other about who is powerful," said Galeotti, who authors the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."  

"Putin for a long time was the beneficiary of this," Galeotti added. "He had this astonishingly effective image as the ruthless, mechanical, totally well informed chekist in the Kremlin. People on the whole didn't want to go up against him."

Nobody is going up against him yet. Not directly anyway.

But he couldn't prevent what was a clear attack -- even if it is still unclear from whom -- against Yakunin, one of his closest allies. And he couldn't resist the Ivanov-Rogozin-Chemezov conspiracy to get Serdyukov fired.

Putin is also known to disdain the elite airing its dirty laundry in public, and during his first stint in the Kremlin the mudslinging was kept to a minimum.

Now it is commonplace.

Remember those videos attacking Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that appeared on the YouTube account of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin? 

It was once unthinkable for members of Putin's inner circle to openly vie to be his successor. Now it is conventional wisdom that the president's own chief of staff is angling for that designation.

All the open infighting, brazen shenanigans, and naked ambition suggest not only that the chimera of Putin's omnipotence is fading. It also suggests that Putin is no longer able to perform his key role as the ultimate trusted arbiter of disputes among the elite's various clans -- the role that has long made him Russia's indispensable man. 

Nobody is quite saying "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" quite yet.

But the consensual hallucination in the Kremlin is indeed fading.

And we still don't know what reality -- or the next hallucination -- will look like.

-- Brian Whitmore

Audio Podcast: For Clan And Country

Clan Men (clockwise from top left): Sergei Ivanov, Dmitry Rogozin, Aleksandr Bastrykin, Vladimir Yakunin, Igor Sechin, and Sergei Chemezov

Someone is apparently out to get Vladimir Yakunin, the powerful chief of Russian Railways and a longtime protege of President Vladimir Putin. 

False news reports this week that Yakunin had been fired were just the latest effort to undermine him. And they came as the powerful Kremlin clans, the patronage networks that make up Russia's power elite, are undergoing a realignment and jockeying for position amid political uncertainty.

In the latest edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss the increasingly intense sparring among Russia's warring clans with my co-hosts, New York University professor Mark Galeotti and Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Also on the podcast, Mark, Kirill, and I discuss Putin's proposed amnesty for white-collar criminals.

Power Vertical Podcast: For Clan And Country
Power Vertical Podcast: For Clan And Countryi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Kremlin clans, Power Vertical podcast, Vladimir Yakunin

Fake News And Real Clan Warfare

You're (not) fired! What was behind the strange fake reports of Vladimir Yakunin's sacking?

It spread around the Internet like wildfire. Vladimir Yakunin -- the head of Russian railways, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin, and one of the most powerful men in the country -- had been fired. It was all there in black and white on an official government press release.

The news was picked up late on June 19 by all the major Russian news agencies: ITAR-TASS, Interfax, RIA-Novosti. The Russian "Twittersphere" started blinking red.

This. Was. Huge.

And then, it wasn't. Russian Railways and the government quickly denied the reports. RIA-Novosti did some belated due diligence and determined -- and reported -- that the press release came from an IP address that didn't match the government's. Further digging revealed that the bogus press release was actually disseminated from a server in the Irkutsk Oblast.

Russian Railways spokesman Aleksandr Pirkov called the incident a "provocation" and a "cybercrime," adding "we still don't know who did this."

But this being Russia, we can be pretty confident that this wasn't just some random Siberian hacker playing a practical joke on the media. No, something is clearly afoot and somebody is clearly out to get Yakunin.

The case of the counterfeit press release appears to point to turbulence among the various clans that make up Putin's power elite as they realign and jockey for position amid political uncertainty. And the current tussle doesn't necessarily break down along traditional siloviki-technocrat lines.

The fake reports of the railway chief's dismissal came just days after photographs of what was purported to be his ornate mansion in the Moscow suburbs appeared on the Internet.

And they come just a few months after a think tank associated with Yakunin issued a controversial report claiming that the December 2011 State Duma elections were flagrantly falsified. Yakunin quickly distanced himself from that report, criticized its author, and claimed it had been unlawfully published. 

In the aftermath, Russian media speculated that Yakunin may in fact have been on the verge of being sacked and that he talked Putin out of it. He was reportedly meeting with Putin as the initial reports of his sacking appeared. 

Political analyst Aleksandr Morozov told that Yakunin may have become a victim of bureaucratic warfare between Putin's team and that of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Gleb Cherkasov, deputy editor in chief of the "Kommersant" daily, maintained that this is highly unlikely given the Medvedev team's weakness.

"Medvedev's people are so much weaker than Putin's circle," he said. "You can't even talk about any kind of resistance from them." 

Cherkasov, I believe, is correct. Yakunin is a powerful figure who has been by Putin's side for a long time. A serious attack on him would come not from Medvedev's circle of technocrats, but only from among the siloviki, the security service veterans close to Putin.

And as political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky points out in a recent article, the Kremlin clans -- and particularly the siloviki groupings -- have undergone a significant realignment since Putin's return to the Kremlin last year. 

Most significantly, the siloviki have split into three distinct groups: one centered around Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin chief of staff; one tied to Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin; and one connected to Yakunin, which Pribylovsky calls the "Orthodox Chekists" due to their close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and promotion of "traditional values."

Ivanov's group -- including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, and Sergei Chemezov, head of the state corporation Russian Technologies -- was instrumental in getting Anatoly Serdyukov sacked as defense minister last year.

Recently, they have been actively seeking to get Medvedev sacked as prime minister and replaced with Ivanov -- which would turn him into Putin's de facto heir apparent. 

Sechin, who previously backed efforts to undermine Medvedev, has since withdrawn his support.

"Sechin is wary of Ivanov's power ambitions and cannot abide his ally Rogozin," Pribylovsky wrote.

"It seems that Sechin is [also] not too happy with the strengthened position of Bastrykin, another new ally of Ivanov's, whose Investigative Committee has become the Kremlin's chief tool of repression, having sidelined the FSB, headed by Sechin's friend Aleksandr Bortnikov, which has always been amenable to his requests."

Yakunin and his group have not really figured in this struggle so far. But citing anonymous Kremlin sources, reported that "one of the main benefactors" of Yakunin's demise would be Ivanov's ally Chemezov -- although the report does not indicate why this would be the case. 

This story is still pretty fluid and opaque, but more will undoubtedly become clear as the drama surrounding Yakunin and the splits among the siloviki unfold.

"This shows the instability at the very top of the power structure," Cherkasov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Such things happen when the system is shaking. It is shaking not due to pressure from the outside, but rather, because of trouble on the inside. Too many interests are intertwined around the Russian authorities and the authorities are doing a poor job of managing them."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on June 21 when I will discuss the issues raised in this blog post with co-hosts Mark Galeotti of New York University and Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Tags:siloviki, Kremlin clans, Vladimir Yakunin

Navalny's Game

Aleksei Navalny was front and center at the June 12 opposition rally in Moscow.

Aleksei Navalny may be on the ropes, but at the same time he’s also on something of a roll.

The on-the-ropes part was in full display in Kirov on June 18 when Judge Sergei Blinov flat-out refused to allow Navalny to call any defense witnesses in his embezzlement trial. Blinov’s move only underscored the widespread belief that the criminal case against the anticorruption blogger is completely fabricated and politically motivated. 

But the same day as Blinov’s decision, Navalny also scored a key victory when the Opposition Coordinating Council voted to support him as its single candidate in Moscow’s September 8 mayoral election.

The Coordinating Council’s decision is significant. As maligned as the council has been of late for its infighting and ineffectualness, it is still  the one opposition grouping that enjoys any popular mandate to speak of.

And its endorsement came on the heels of what has been a pretty remarkable string of news cycles for Navalny.

It started with opposition protests in Moscow on the June 12 Russia Day holiday, where he was front and center as the adoring crowd chanted, "Navalny is our mayor!"

A day later, rumors swirled in Moscow that Navalny’s arrest was imminent, forcing the authorities to release a statement insisting that this wasn’t the case.

The next day, June 14, the Party of Peoples’ Freedom (Parnas) formally nominated Navalny as its candidate for Moscow mayor. The move frees him from the need to gather 70,000 signatures from supporters to register as a candidate. He still needs to pass the so-called municipal-filter requirement and gather the signatures of 110 Moscow district council members. 

Three days after the Parnas nomination, on June 17, Navalny stole the show during his trial in Kirov, taking the stand to defiantly and eloquently pick apart the case against him, denouncing charges that he conspired to steal 16 million rubles' ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company as "absurd" and discrepant from "the actual circumstances of the case."

WATCH it here starting at the 1:09 mark:

The juxtaposition of Navalny’s ongoing show trial in Kirov and the Moscow mayoral election is one of the key ongoing narratives in Russian politics.

The intertwined stories -- if Navalny is convicted, even if he is given a suspended sentence, he will be barred from the ballot -- illustrate both the Kremlin’s methods of dealing with its foes and the asymmetrical tactics that the sharper minds in the opposition are using to fight back.

"Navalny has this ability to take what seem to be negative situations and turn them into massive PR positives," longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti of New York University said on the most recent Power Vertical Podcast

Barring an epic political miracle, Navalny won't be elected Moscow’s mayor in September regardless of how many endorsements he picks up from opposition groups of various stripes.

And despite how articulately he picks apart the charges against him on the stand,  the odds are still good that he will be convicted in Kirov if the Kremlin wants him to be.

But Navalny is nevertheless skillfully raising the price of the Kremlin's campaign against him. Given the events of the past week, a conviction in Kirov will now look even more shamelessly political.

He has also put the authorities in a difficult position in the Moscow mayor's race.

“If he is in the race he gets to talk to people he hasn't been able to talk to until now. He doesn't expect to win, but by being in the race he is a part of conversations that weren't there before. And they are conversations he is ready for," Galeotti said on last week’s podcast.

And keeping him off the ballot in Moscow gives the impression that the Kremlin is afraid of him.

Which, according to political commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev, it is.

"Free elections are not something the regime needs, and serious figures will therefore not be given access even to a simulation of such elections," Inozemtsev wrote recently in "Moskovsky komsomolets."

"Mikhail Prokhorov, with his financial and organizational potential and serious program, and Aleksei Navalny, with his noisy support, albeit without basic organizational structures, are deemed nearly equally dangerous."

Getting Prokhorov out of the picture was easy and painless. The billionaire oligarch simply has too much to lose by annoying the authorities. A clear message from the Kremlin to back off from his mayoral ambitions was, apparently, sufficient.

Getting Navalny out of the picture will also be easy -- simply make sure the Kirov court delivers the guilty verdict everybody expects. But with Navalny’s ever-rising profile, this is not going to be painless. And with each passing day, it looks like it will become more and more costly.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Aleksei Navalny

Audio Podcast: Who Won Russia Day?

Vladimir Putin addresses the Popular Front. Aleksei Navalny takes to the street. And Mikhail Prokorov takes a pass.

Both supporters and opponents of President Vladimir Putin mobilized their forces on the Russia Day national holiday this week.

One front gathered in Moscow’s ornate Manezh, just across from the Kremlin. In a tightly choreographed affair, they chanted "Russia! Russia!" and "Putin! Putin!" Another took to the streets, marching through the center of the capital chanting "Russia without Putin."

This week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast takes a look at Putin’s All-Russian Popular Front, which held its founding congress on June 12, and the 10,000-strong opposition protest that took place the same day. How did these dueling attempts by the regime and the opposition to respectively re-legitimize themselves before a weary public fare?

Joining me are co-hosts Mark Galeotti of New York University, Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, and Sean Guillory or the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies. 

Also on the podcast, we discuss oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s decision not to run for Moscow mayor -- and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny’s struggle to enter that race.


The Power Vertical Podcast: Who Won Russia Day?
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or