Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Power Vertical

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 Gazeta.ru 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

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
July 22, 2013 20:51
Nice post, and perhaps the Russian political ice is beginning to crack. However, the notion that one person, no matter how capable, is going to transform lead Russia into a ‘new political epoch’ might be a bit of wishful thinking. In a fairy-tale world, the righteous and noble Prince Navalny would remove the evil King Putin and everyone would live happily after. I hope I’m wrong, but I see this particular story ending on a more tragic note.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
July 22, 2013 21:07
It is all staged, like "Baron Munhauzen" himself wrote scenario,
Remind the Western World about Sakharov, to be good donkey
And move alone with Russia's play of "Russia will change, I-O",
You got again wig of democracy - like donkey with a monkey.

It never ends for condemned "strana rabov strana skotov",
Russia - a straw of hey before a nose of Western donkey.
Russian themselves need not even that, reminded to bow
Before dictator Lenin and Red Terror master Dzerzhinsky,
With military putting Putin into some military hardware bot.

Why Navalny said Putin regime would turn into a pumpkin,
If elected? Modern Russia, usurping Superpower weapons
Of former USSR is not a pumpkin, it is what Putin's witches
Or orders placed on Navalny made him appear confronting.

Not chess game, if he elected he must consider such reality
Of two Superpowers, but fighting for democracy and legality
Against Russian aggression and breeding in invaded lands.
Let Russia return everything, pay for its crimes and put end
To expand of Empire of Russ-Pruss, annulling other nations.

by: Babeouf from: Ireland
July 22, 2013 21:52
No Navalny can't win elections in Russia because he has no political base there. And almost nobody bothered to demonstrate (140,000,000 approx population of Russia) and that doesn't matter because ' the point wasn't the numbers.'. No what matters is that the Tooth Fairy has guaranteed it will all turn out for the best. Here is an alternative analysis. He was released so he could loose the election for Mayor of Moscow in spectacular style. And having discredited the whole idea of opposition by his inept performance he will then be locked up for four or five years.
In Response

by: Jack from: US
July 23, 2013 13:54
you have to agree, being locked up for four-five years in Russian jail is not as bad as being burned alive by US government in Waco, TX for daring to oppose the same government

by: Jack from: US
July 23, 2013 13:50
still waiting for "Brian Whitmore" to tell everyone when will finally evil "Putin regime" collapse... waiting and waiting .. while US government keeps winning and winning, in Afghanistan (like it won in Iraq), in Syria, in Egypt..
In Response

by: Anonymous
July 24, 2013 13:08
Still waiting for "Jack" to tell us when he will stop repeating the same things and actually show evidence of some critical thought... I won't hold my breath though.

Of course you don't like what he says. And indeed he's too much of an optimist for your taste. (And in some sense, even for mine -- I think the future of Russia is more likely to be darker than Mr Whitmore thinks.) But that you complain about him having an opinion and expressing it... that is indeed funny. Especially since the exact same comment (with reversed polarity) so wonderfully describes your own beliefs!... Ah, if only people looked in mirrors before condemning the appearance of others...

by: La Russophobe from: USA
July 23, 2013 18:17
"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 simply isn't true. Navalny invited over 50,000 to go to the streets on Facebook and 47,000 of them (no way was there more than 3,000 on the street) WERE afraid and did not show up.

It's pretty hard to see how a man who is going to spend five years in jail for a crime he did not commit is "winning" when he has such a pathetic level of popular support even in his own home town. And let's not forget that there are THREE more sets of charges coming at Navlany, which could keep him in prison as long as Khodorkovsky or longer.

I certainly agree with you that IF Navlany gets over 15% of the vote the Kremlin will have miscalculated and created a Frankenstein. But WHEN he gets less than half that, the Kremlin will have destroyed Navalny's political credibility and legitimized both the Sobyanin administration and the Navalny prosecution all at one shot.

Navalny is not winning, that is wishful thinking and cheerleading of the same kind we saw when Navalny's street demonstrations began. Some thought they would grow, but they shrank and disappeared. No political change of any kind was achieved.

The Kremlin is winning. And imagining otherwise only helps the Kremlin.
In Response

by: Asehpe from: the Netherlands
July 24, 2013 13:12
Well, I guess we'll have to wait and see WHEN the 'when' becomes now and stops being written in all caps. At that moment perhaps we'll see if you're right or wrong.

You say this about Brian, but then again, you are also a foreign analyst opining on Russia. If you happened to be wrong, you wouldn't be the first foreign analyst to be wrong about Russia...

Let's wait and see. And then we'll talk.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
July 26, 2013 21:50
No. I said, loud and clear and often, from the beginning, that the street protests were an illusion, would change nothing and would disappear. I was proved right, and those like Julia Ioffe who said otherwise were proved wrong. Where was your "talk" then?

You are nothing but hot air and moving goal posts. The longer we wait to see who Navalny really is, the stronger Putin becomes and the weaker the opposition.

by: Anonymous
July 24, 2013 16:48
Can we PLEASE get past the Western wet dream about Navalny (I mean seriously, Brian is SHOCKED that his wife is an intelligent woman. Newsflash, most men marry their equals and wouldn't you be far more surprised if Navalny, especially given his longstanding political ambitions, chose to spend his life and have children with a moron. Can the wives of the 4 podcasters not also form a sentence? Do they not also share your interests?), but I digress.

The real story here isn't Navalny, although he does expose some interesting cracks in the elite, it's Sobyanin. Sobyanin is the one who, by insisting on Navalny's inclusion is pushing for an (exceedingly rare) fair fight. Sobyanin is the one who wants a clean election so he can have a true mandate. He's in essence looking for the legitimacy that Putin lost in 2012. He will be one of the only, if not the only, Russian politician who can claim a true mandate from the people, giving him real power/legitimacy outside of Putin and his system (although he certainly has it inside the system too. That's how he got to be mayor in the first place after all.) Now I wonder what he plans to do with that power.... He's fought too hard to make this election real not to have some serious plans for it.

THAT is the story here, especially given that Russian leaders, Lenin being the big exception, overwhelmingly come from WITHIN the system, not the outside. If you were an elite casting about for an alternative to Putin, whose time has clearly past, a trusted, known pair of hands such as Sobyanin's (bearing in mind that popular consent on some level is necessary for continuing to rob the people blind) who has shown popular likeability and electability would look very attractive as the next in line...

BTW, András Tóth-Czifra also does an excellent job making this point here. http://www.noyardstick.com/?author=1 If the goal is to forecast the next leader of Russia, it makes far more sense to focus on people who have a legitimate shot at the job, vs. the no-hopers don't you think?
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
July 25, 2013 06:58
Dear "Anonymous" (interesting that somebody so opinionated is afraid to post them under his/her real name),
Nobody on the July 19 podcast -- not me, not Mark, not Kirill, not Sean -- was "shocked," as you put it, about the intelligence Ms. Navalnaya exhibited in her interview on Dozhd TV in April or the poise she showed outside the courtroom on July 18. We were simply noting that if he were incarcerated she would probably assume a higher public profile -- and the only interview with her any of us has seen indicates that she is more than capable of doing so. That's all. And none of us was "shocked" by this. Quite the contrary. So please don't distort our words to fit whatever agenda you may have.
Second, "the goal" of this blog/podcast is not to "forecast the next leader of Russia." If that is what you are interested in, I would suggest you look elsewhere. The goal is to understand the dynamics of Russian politics -- both inside the elite and in the broader society. If you don't think Navalny is relevant to that (regardless of what you may think of him), then we haven't been observing the same Russia for the past several years.
Brian Whitmore

by: Kyle from: Champaign, IL
July 26, 2013 17:57
I certainly understand the popular press's being charmed with Navalny. He is a young, brash, and outspoken Russian citizen who, as opposed to many other critics of Russia, has decided to stay within the country (well, at this point obviously less of a conscious decision...) and challenge the Putin regime from within. And there is no doubt that his story and rhetoric are inspiring and serve as a rallying point around which those already critical of the regime, but previously unwilling to do anything about it, may mobilize. This serves an important function in of itself.

However, huge questions remain about what Navalny is in fact all about. To begin with, outside of serving as a powerful symbol of resistance to the regime, is there any reason to believe that Navalny would be a positive addition to Russia's governing elite? He has almost no experience with institutionalized politics, and the experience that he has had has been within a regime in which these institutions are either or both tarnished and ignored.

Additionally, and as Mr. Whitmore and the more popular Western media organizations (NY Times, etc.) have largely failed to mention, the political following Navalny has gathered is not necessarily a group of the most liberal-minded folks. Instead, many of Navalny's followers are fairly hard-core Russian nationalists who, at the least, support policies discriminating against Central Asian migrants, and at worst participate in violence against members of these groups. Let us just be clear that his charismatic rhetoric was not honed through calls for liberal democracy--it was not until fairly recently that this came about.

Last note: does anybody else remember a relatively young, brash, and outspoken Russian man who rose from relative anonymity to popular acclaim in the last decade and a half? Two in the last 25 years if you can remember back that far. Just a thought--maybe we should stop trying to convince ourselves that "It will be different this time..."

by: Ben
August 02, 2013 12:46
Anonymous.Sobyanin`s independensy and bravery are dubious,because Navalny`s liberation after the trial is in Kremlin`s competence.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on 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