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The Tortoise Revolution

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

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

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


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