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The Schism Within Russia’s Pro-Democracy Movement

photo wedge division

by Gordon M. Hahn

In a recent series of statements, Russian liberal politicians, activists, and intelligentsia members have criticized the Russian democratic opposition’s most popular and effective leader Aleksei Navalnyi. Russia’s democrats again have shown themselves to have mastered an uncanny inability to unite, especially ever since Vladimir Putin took the Russian presidency in 2000. Internecine bickering and fragile egos on the background of limited ideological differences in the Russian context have typically confounded the formation of a united democratic opposition. Now, with varied mixes of traditionalism, conservatism, populism and nationalism sweeping the globe, Russia’s pro-democracy opposition elements are experiencing even greater dissolution. Moreover, the pattern of the Russian liberals’ assault on Navalnyi suggests the persistence of an even equally disturbing pattern: the Russian liberal intelligentsia’s mimicking the Western liberal-leftist elite and ignoring conservative and libertarian strains in Western democratic political thought and culture.

Reflecting Russia’s liberal split, pro-democratic leaders accuse Navalnyi of being like Putin, an authoritarian, and dismissive of liberal-leftist Russian opposition leaders and much else. Each critique offered very similar complaints about Navalnyi in what looks like, but not necessarily is a coordinated strategic communications campaign.

On June 18th, liberal poet and writer Dmitrii Bykov kicked off the spate of charges, writing that “Navalnyi has an enormous risk of becoming a second Putin, only worse.” (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/partofair/2002474-echo/).

On July 3rd the New York Times’ opinion page carried an article by pro-democracy opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, signaling the Western liberal-leftist elite’s approval of the assault on Navalny. Kashin lamented that within Russia’s democratic opposition “only Mr. Navalny persists as a leader,” having become “the sole face of the opposition,” “the most popular, and the only active opposition leader.” As a result, opposition demonstrations in Russia today “do not represent various political forces”; participants “are exclusively Mr. Navalny’s supporters.” Navalnyi “has no need for parties or coalitions. His hundreds of thousands of online followers are enough.” In Kashin’s view, Navalnyi “is…a lot like Mr. Putin.” He has “an authoritarian leadership style” and “cannot be pinned down as a leftist or rightist. His ideological statements are vague and contradictory,” and he “has consciously sought to get people to identify him with Russia itself.” Kashin does not reject entirely a charge made by some Navalnyi critics, that he might be “working for the Kremlin.” Rather, he thinks this is “probably” not true (www.nytimes.com/2017/07/03/opinion/russia-putin-aleksei-navalny.html?smid=fb-share). In the past some pro-democracy opposition leaders, such as Yabloko Party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii earlier this year, have accused Navalnyi of being a tool of Putin.

Other Russian liberal leaders concurred at about the same time in substantially similar terms. Democratic activist Ilya Ponomarev stated in a blog posted on the Ekho Moskvy radio station’s website said that “Navalnyi thinks that he no longer needs political allies,” preferring his own “network of executors.” He criticized Navalnyi for “using the resources” of the liberal Republican Party of Russia-Parnas and pushing the liberals eventually to accept “xenophobic and pro-fascist elements” into Coordinating Council of the Opposition (Koordinatsii sovet oppozitsii or KSO), adding that now that “the resources have been gathered” there is “a complete and somewhat even demonstrative lack of interest on the part of Navalnyi’s team in protests organized by other opposition leaders from Yabloko and the Russian March to the May 6 Committee and Open Russia.” Like Kashin, Ponomarev also reproaches Navalnyi for behaving like Putin and the authorities. Raising Navalnyi’s claim that the authorities deliberately refuse to mention his name, Ponomarev retorts this is “amazing” since Navalnyi “never mentions publicly any of the real or potential supporters, allies, and fellow travelers, only his subordinates from the FBK (Fund for the Struggle Against Corruption) or people who are accidentally in politics or not or in one way or another those who cannot challenge him.” He piles on by noting that Navalnyi only mentions “in passing” those who “have fallen in a tragic death or seriously suffered from the authorities’ repressive machine” and falsely criticized slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov after his death for speaking differently about the Crimean issue when in Ukraine and Russia. Ponomarev also notes, with the “image of Putin appearing before his eyes,” the similarity between Putin claiming once that he could not remember who criminal oligarch and opponent Boris Berezonvskii was with Navalnyi being unable to remember where imprisoned radical leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov is and who his wife is (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/ilya_ponomarev/2009500-echo/).

In July 1st comments on Facebook published on Ekho Moskvy’s site on July 5th, pro-democracy economic analyst Vyacheslav Inozemtsev wrote that Ponomarev’s Navalnyi critique is very similar to what he had been considering writing for several weeks. Inozemtsev like the others equates Navalnyi with Putin, stating explicitly that in the “unlikely event” of Navalnyi’s coming to power Russia “will get the very same kind of leader it got in 1999.” He implies Navalnyi is like Putin a demagogue and calls him a capable “populist,” echoing the Western liberal-leftist circle’s least offensive label for US President Donald Trump’s politics, a trend they see endangering the ‘liberal order’ across the West (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/v_inozemcev/2012930-echo/ and http://www.facebook.com/vladislavl.inozemtsev/posts/1241141379329751).

Also in July, radical leftists from Russia’s ‘Left Front’ party headed by imprisoned Sergei Udaltsov accused Navalnyi of appearing to be “more and more like a Russian version of Donald Trump.” They conclude that “if Russia has its own Donald Trump,” there might emerge a Russian Bernie Sanders, proposing as “the obvious candidate” Udaltsov, who will be released next month after five years in prison (https://jacobinmag.com/2017/07/alexey-navalny-putin-opposition-movement-trump).

There is no doubt that at least some of the criticism the liberal-leftists have leveled against Navalnyi is probably valid. The point here is not that either side is right or wrong, more or less tolerant of the other, but rather it is that Russia’s pro-democracy opposition is bitterly divided, perhaps more than ever with the additional schism. This schism reduces the pressure the opposition can muster against the regime, which being a soft authoritarian regime has been willing at times to compromise in the face of resistance; recall winter 2011-12, the successful opposition to construction of a large GazProm skyscraper in the center of St. Petersburg, or the recent government compromise in the face of public opposition to housing changes in Moscow, among many other cases.

Navalnyi’s critics are each in their own way closer to the politics of a typical Western liberal or leftist, while Navalnyi’s politics are closer to those of an American or European conservative with elements of Russian traditionalism, nationalism, and patriotism thrown in. Thus, Russia’s intra-liberal dispute between is to a considerable degree a case of more liberal democratic actors attacking a more ‘conservative’ democratic actors or what some have called ‘Natsdems’ or national-democrats. Natsdem politics, which eschew liberals’ and leftists’ traditional non- or even anti-patriotic stance, have been successful in the post-Soviet space in mobilizing nationalism against pro-Russian administrations in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and in other ways in Central Asia and Azerbaijan as it was in mobilizing such against Moscow during the perestroika era, leading to the collapse of the USSR. Natsdems demonstrate a generally strong support for democratic government and the defense of civil and human rights. However, they are more supportive of the ethnic majority or plurality and suspect assertive minority ethnic identity politics and nationalism, sometimes — but far from as often as liberals and leftist often claim — to the point of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia. They also are inclined more than liberals and leftists are to support assertive foreign policies and robust defense spending.

Navalnyi seeks to co-opt Russian traditionalism through populism and nationalism to found a new Russian conservative brand that can compete with Putin’s statist centrism and moderate nationalism, on the one hand, and the nationalist and ultra-nationalist opposition, n the other hand. Thus, he refuses to condemn Putin’s reunification of Crimea with Russia or the brutality associated with Russia’s counter-terrorist and counter-jihadi operations in the North Caucasus and seeks to block illegal immigration and restrict legal immigration from Central Asia. An example of Navalnyi’s effort to marry elements of Russian traditionalism with the pro-democracy movement is the planned debate between he and Igor Girkin-Strelkov, one of the initial leaders of the anti-Maidan Donbass resistance in Ukraine, on which of two is more patriotic.

Contrary to the view of some, the use of ‘nationalism’ across a country’s entire ideological spectrum is not unique to “Putin’s Russia” (www.ponarseurasia.org/sites/default/files/policy-memos-pdf/pepm_223_Laruelle_Sept2012.pdf). One need only recall occasions when America’s Democratic Party’s for purely instrumental purposes has posed patriotic and nationalistic against the Republican Party, most recently in its jingoistic campaign exaggerating, if not fully manufacturing Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. One could add Democrats’ constant use of minority nationalism, ultra-nationalism and other forms of identity politics. However, in an American context some polarization between two such positions on what is a more centered political spectrum can be expected, but in the Russian context where pro-democratic groups are weak and isolated from the center of the political spectrum – one which is dominated by the soft authoritarian, state oligarchic clans that back Putin buttressed by semi-allied communists, socialists and populist nationalists – these two groups cannot afford to be disunited no less antagonistic to each other.

Nor is the rise of populism or nationalism within a phenomenon restricted to Russian liberal circles. Navalnyi’s quest to fashion a more conservative, patriotic, ‘populist,’ or ‘nationalist,’ if you will, pro-democracy movement is part of a larger, pan-Western political debate. This can be seen from movements and electoral successes of similar orientations in numerous Western and non-Western democracies, including Belgium, France, Great Britain, Hungary, India, the Netherlands, Turkey and most recently the United States.

Navalnyi appears to be the only leader from among the democrats able to rally large protests and garner significant votes, as he did when he won 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race. His anti-corruption institute and website has been successful in mobilizing opposition forces, as demonstrated most recently by his investigative video exposing Russian Prime Minister and former president Dmitrii Medvedev’s curious and apparently rather massive holdings. This video was widely viewed on the Russian Internet and became the spark for a series of large anti-corruption demonstrations held across the country in late March and April.

Thus, the only successful politician of nationwide stature from the democratic wing of Russia’s political spectrum has become a pariah in other democratic leaders’ eyes. There was some hope in the wake of the murder of democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov that the democratic wing of Russia’s political spectrum might finally put aside their differences and unite or at least cooperate and coordinate more closely for elections and protests. This hope is now dashed for the short- to mid-term with presidential elections due next year.


Thus, yet again Russia’s pro-democracy and most pro-Western camp is proving itself utterly incapable of uniting. This is an old story that has rendered that camp taken together incapable of mustering even a mere 20 percent of the vote nationally and usually winning much less. In the 1990s Aleksandr Lukin, son of former Russian ambassador to the US, wrote an interesting study on post-Soviet Russian political culture, including that of Russia’s democratic movement. It concluded that the uncompromising, conflictive, divisive, and even authoritarian strains in the pro-democracy movement’s political culture were little weaker than that of the Soviet nomenklatura and post-Soviet Russian elite [a revised version can be found in see A.V. Lukin and P.V. Lukin, Umom Rossiyu ponimat’: Postsovetskaya politicheskaya kul’tura i otecehestvennay istoriya (Moscow: Ves mir, 2015), chapters 3and 4]. Things have not improved much since then. 

The pro-democracy opposition leaders’ inability to unite in their effort to defeat Putin on the background of relatively limited ideological differences among them further underscores the futility and counterproductive nature of U.S. and other Western countries’ democracy-promotion efforts and color revolution policies. Divisions within the opposition in general and within the pro-democratic opposition in particular are key resources underpinning Putin’s power and the relative meta-stability of his soft authoritarian regime. Putting aside the wisdom of risking dangerously destabilizing a country with the largest stockpiles of CBRN weapons and material, Western revolutionism makes little sense. It has little to no chance of bringing democrats to power and in fact only helps to further discredit these feuding groups in the eyes of Russian voters and other potential supporters, including sympathetic elites inside and outside the state apparatus. For it is only through a split in the regime that opposition forces can ever hope of coming to power, whether through the ballot box or otherwise. For now, the only significant splits shaping Russian politics exist within society and the opposition not within the state or the the regime’s ruling group. 


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.), http://www.cetis.org; and an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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