MOSCOW -- Aleksei Navalny is widely seen as one of the Russian opposition's brightest rising stars. But his open ties to nationalists are causing many liberals to wonder whether associating with him could be a dangerous gamble.
Navalny, an attorney who made his name exposing corruption in high places on his blog, plans to take a leading role in the November 4 Russian March, an annual rally that coincides with the National Unity Day holiday. The march is expected to attract tens of thousands
of nationalists of various stripes.
His supporters say Navalny's participation in such events is part of an effort to broaden the opposition coalition to include patriotic elements and to drum up right-wing support for his campaign to get voters to refrain from casting ballots for the ruling United Russia party in elections next month.
But his attendance has nevertheless been assailed by much of the liberal opposition.
"It's an illusion that there can be a soft or a better variant of nationalism," says Sergei Mitrokhin, chairman of the opposition Yabloko party.
"If these softer nationalists create something, the main subscribers of these ideas remain just fascists. There is sadly no clear border between the soft and various levels of rigidity of nationalism. There's no border – one drags along the other."
Some liberals, however, have jumped to Navalny's defense. Writing in the online magazine "Yezhednevny zhurnal" on November 3, political analyst Yulia Latynina expressed "amazement" that Navalny's patriotism was being conflated with Nazism by his detractors. Rather than knee-jerk condemnation, liberals needed to discuss issues of nationalism rationally in order to prevent the rise of a "Hitler figure" in Russia, Latynina says.
Increased Media Atttention
The controversy over Navalny is the latest manifestation of a long-running debate over whether the liberal and nationalist strains of the Russian opposition can ever be reconciled. But the issue is particularly salient this year because nationalism is widely seen as becoming resurgent and increasingly violent.
It has also been given increased media attention due to a violent ultranationalist riot that erupted spontaneously in December 2010 on Manezh Square near the Kremlin walls. The Kremlin, which has long nurtured and clandestinely supported select nationalist groups for its own purposes, also appears increasingly alarmed.
Just two days before the march, on November 2, police in Moscow briefly detained Dmitry Dyomushkin, the former head of the banned ultranationalist Slavic Union (which goes by the acronym SS in Russian) and leader of the march. The detention was widely seen as an implicit warning to Dyomushkin, who is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation for inciting ethnic hatred and organizing mass unrest.
Writing on his blog
, Navalny decried the criminal case against of Dyomushkin, calling it "fabricated."
The November 4 march will not be the first time that Navalny has dabbled in nationalist politics. He was expelled from Yabloko after seven years in the party in 2007 when he attended that year's Russian March. And just weeks ago, on October 22, he attended a rally titled "Stop Feeding The Caucasus" protesting Kremlin subsidies to the restive North Caucasus region.
Navalny largely avoided nationalist rhetoric at that demonstration, pointing instead to endemic corruption in the North Caucasus and embezzlement of budget money from Moscow. Liberals, however, were not appeased by his cautious rhetoric.
Sergei Aleksashenko, who served as deputy finance minister under former President Boris Yeltsin, said the slogan should be "Stop Feeding The Regime," to reflect that the problem lies in the political regime in the Kremlin rather than with people from the Caucasus.
Rising Nationalist Sentiments
Navalny, meanwhile, isn't the only figure usually associated with the liberal opposition who is flirting with nationalism.
Vladimir Milov, an opposition leader who recently resigned as co-chair of the People's Party of Freedom, also spoke at the "Stop Feeding The Caucasus" protest and plans to attend the November 4 Russian March. Milov defends his attendance, saying the opposition needs to tap into rising nationalist sentiments in society and to counter allegations that the liberals are "anti-Russian."
Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, sees political opportunism in Milov's newfound nationalism.
"He just switched from Western liberalism to nationalism, apparently hoping that it would pave his way to political success," Lipman says. "But he has already compromised his principles, and it's questionable whether there is political success in store for him in Russia."
Lipman adds that she doubts that Navalny ever was a liberal, but she nevertheless described him as the "most talented" opposition leader and a "born politician."
The daily "Kommersant" on October 25 cited a poll commissioned by Moscow City Hall that found that 35 percent of the capital's residents support nationalist sentiments to one degree or another. Moreover, according to a poll in September by the independent Levada Center, 20 percent nationwide support the slogan "Russia For Russians," a record high.
As the November 4 march approached, the synergy between Navalny and nationalist groups became increasingly evident. The march's organizers, for example, have adopted the derisive slogan "The Party of Scoundrels and Thieves" -- originally popularized on Navalny's blog -- to describe United Russia.
For his part, Navalny posted a video from the Russian March website on his own blog page, which has 63,500 subscribers.
Navalny's rising profile has also drawn fire. Last week, an anonymous blogger released what he or she alleged were 1,000 pages of his personal correspondences, suggesting he was being financed by the West, although critics say the document dump was a fabrication.
Municipal authorities in Moscow have given the Russian March official permission to rally in the Lyublino district on the southeastern outskirts of the capital on November 4. Last year the event attracted an estimated 7,000 participants and organizers say they hope as many as 25,000 will show up this year.
A Certain Irony
The pro-Kremlin youth group Young Russia, meanwhile, plans to gather 1,500 demonstrators to mark National Unity Day on Puskhin Square in downtown Moscow.
According to the group's press release, their demonstration will be attended by representatives of more than 100 nationalities who will give blood to symbolize "the people's unity in out multinational state." Members of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group, too, are seeking to draw as many as 10,000 people for an "Alternative Russian March."
Lipman says there is a certain irony that the National Unity Day holiday, which was established by the authorities in 2005, "has been taken over by ugly nationalist forces. The government established this holiday and then didn't know what to do with it because there was an ideological vacuum on the government's side as to what it was we were celebrating. It was actually taken over by the nationalists and it's their holiday now."