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‘Snoozefest’ And A ‘Political Loss’: Russians Break Down Navalny’s Debate With Ex-Separatist Commander

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (right) and former separatist commander Igor Girkin take part in a debate in Moscow on July 20.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (right) and former separatist commander Igor Girkin take part in a debate in Moscow on July 20.

It was the main political event for Russia’s chattering classes in a slow political season: opposition leader Aleksei Navalny taking on Igor Girkin, a notorious former commander of Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine, in a debate.

But the July 20 showdown, in which the two opponents clashed over their nationalist credentials, was greeted with widespread disappointment among Russian political players and watchers -- both over the substance of the discussion and Navalny’s decision to engage with a man whom critics call a "war criminal.”

The live-streamed debate -- in which Navalny and Girkin discussed corruption, the war in eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s relations with the West -- was derided by some as boring. The assessment echoed that of moderator Mikhail Zygar, a prominent journalist who said as the event came to a close: "It wasn’t much of a show.”

"It’s a limp debate so far. Both are discussing minutiae,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and one-time insider of President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, wrote on Twitter.

Rustem Adagamov, a well-known Russian blogger and Kremlin opponent, called it a "snoozefest.”

There were, indeed, few major revelations that emerged from the debate, and Navalny was criticized for not pressing Girkin over his role in the war between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 since April 2014.

'Pulled The Trigger Of War'

An ultranationalist and war-reenactment enthusiast known by the nom de guerre "Strelkov,” Girkin once boasted that it was he, not Putin, "who pulled the trigger of war" in eastern Ukraine. He has also said publicly that he oversaw executions of suspected looters in separatist-held areas.

Television journalist Pavel Lobkov suggested Navalny was lending legitimacy to a war criminal -- a term the opposition leader refused to endorse during the debate, saying that such a label is for a court to assign.

"Mr. Strelkov, when you eat children, do you need to hold the fork in your left and the knife in the right, or is that unnecessary?” Lobkov said in a mocking tweet.

Others ridiculed Girkin, who said he previously served in Russia’s Federal Security Service, for his reticence about who has financed the separatists and who shot down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.

Kyiv, NATO, and Western governments accuse Russia of backing the separatists, while an international investigation has said the jet was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile system that was fired from separatist-controlled territory and taken back to Russia shortly thereafter.

Girkin said his status as a retired officer prevented him from going into detail on either question, though he said the separatists did not have the weapons capable of taking down the Malaysia Airlines jet.

One debate observer imagined Girkin taking that approach while ordering chicken wings.

"‘Spicy wings or original?’ ‘As an officer, I won’t answer that, because it could rob me of my officer’s honor,’” the Twitter user wrote.

But Anton Barbashin, the managing editor of the analytical site, which is highly critical of the Kremlin, suggested Girkin’s cageyness was an implicit statement of Russian involvement in the downing of flight MH17.

Some social-media users suggested Navalny failed to sufficiently condemn Russia’s role in the war in eastern Ukraine, noting that the anticorruption crusader accused Girkin of "starting" a war that has drained Russia financially.

"Navalny: There’s no money for war, so we won’t go to war. (But if we defeat corruption, then there will be more money),” Kirill Martynov, the politics editor for the respected independent Russian daily Novaya Gazeta, quipped on Twitter.

Girkin and Navalny, who has repeatedly faced criticism from some in Russia’s liberal opposition camp for his flirtations with ultranationalist elements, also sparred at times over who was the true nationalist and patriot.

But Martynov wrote in subsequent analysis that the debate was a "political loss” for Navalny, in part because it’s unlikely that he managed to win new supporters among Girkin’s ultranationalist base. On substance, Navalny "did not appear stronger than his opponent,” Martynov added.

The prominent Russian journalist and political commentator Oleg Kashin, however, wrote that simply taking part in the debate was a powerful political statement by Navalny, who is seeking to get on the ballot for the March 2018 presidential election that is expected to hand Putin another six-year term.

"Demonstratively disregarding the values of his core supporters, he is letting them know that he’s more confident in himself than ever,” Kashin wrote of Navalny, who has been convicted three times in financial-crimes trials that he calls Kremlin-orchestrated retribution for his activism.

Russia’s Central Election Commission said last month that Navalny is not eligible to run, citing one of his convictions that the politician says was aimed at blocking his candidacy.

"He even refused to call Strelkov a war criminal -- who else among the opposition could be so bold?” Kashin added.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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