What to do about Alexei Navalny?

If you haven’t heard, Alexei Navalny is perhaps the most prominent Putin opponent who is still alive and active inside of Russia.

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His main basis for complaint is corruption. Not small corruption. But the systemic and massive variety. And Navalny has been effective in showing people what he is talking about.  One of his latest ventures — flying drones over the extensive properties owned by Dmitry Medvedev and showing the footage on TV.  This gained international attention – embarrassing to Medvedev who claims to be Mr. Clean. An image of one of Medvedev’s properties

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BI offers more background on Navalny. 

Navalny has been warned by authorities to cut it out. He has not cut it out. He has been arrested and convicted of weird crimes. That has not dissuaded him. And despite his conviction which legally disqualifies him from running, he has declared his intention to run against Putin for the presidency in the next elections.  And he just led rather large anti-corruption rallies across Russia andy in Moscow.

This is rather inconvenient for Mr. Putin. Putin would like the world to believe that he is universally popular in Russia.  And he has friends who are ready to spread this story. The key to selling this, however, is that Putin is “one with the people”. You get a taste of this here (from the above-linked article)

In much of what he was doing, Putin responded to the paternalistic demand of the bulk of the Russian people who had not particularly succeeded in the post-Communist era. Not only did he genuinely win elections, which under his rule became a means of confirming people in power not replacing them. He also cracked the code of staying in power in a country that had rejected both his predecessors, the once widely popular Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. When faced with the choice, early on, to go with the elites – including the intelligentsia – or with the ordinary people, he chose the latter.

It sounds nice.  But any hint that this is all stage managed and it might blow up. Any hint that the “ordinary people” are getting pissed off, and Putin may start thinking of an exit strategy. And if this all blows up, it blows up the faces of all of the oligarchs who are Putin’s poodles.  yes, perhaps, even the fertilizer king himself!

Fortunately, Navalny does not yet have any appeal to the folks who matter. Neither to the oligarchs, nor (it would appear) to the “ordinary” folks who still cling to Putin as a symbol of Russian national pride.

Nevertheless, Navalny has achieved a sort of “critical mass” of youthful supporters.  The most recent protests confirm this.NYT reports

The youthfulness of the anticorruption protesters across Russia this weekend surprised even organizers, and clearly rattled the government of Vladimir V. Putin.

So while we can be sure that Putin is not amused by the protests, he is aware that it would cause a stir if Navalny suddenly was taken off the stage. But perhaps the threat posed by Navalny is not yet so large to merit that sort of action.  Perhaps he can be managed? In the short run, for example, it appears that Navalny’s conviction weakened his appeal. somewhat.

This is an interesting story that will play out over the next several years. Will Navalny grow his base of support? And if Navalny becomes popular among “ordinary” Russians, what then? No doubt, Mr. Putin is keeping a close eye on this. We should as well.

Stay tuned!

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