Why has the Kremlin allowed opposition leader Aleksei Navalnyi to remain free? Navalnyi could have been imprisoned several years ago after he was convicted of abuse of office by a Russian court. Instead, he was given a suspended sentence. His conviction was therefore left in place disqualifying him from running for public office in accordance with Russian law. Although he has been frequently detained when organizing opposition demonstrations and has experienced other forms of official harassment, Navalnyi has been left free.
There is a basic structural or strategic reason and several situational or tactical reasons why the Kremlin has not imprisoned Navalnyi. Among the latter are that his presence confirms the Kremlin’s claim that opposition or at least pro-democracy activists are radical, unsavory, and socially irresponsible, In addition, his political activity helps the Kremlin divide and rule the opposition’s democratic wing. At the same time, he discredits both the democratic and nationalist wings.
The structural or strategic reason is this is how Vladimir Putin’s stealth authoritarian regime generally operates. It does not willy-nilly kill or even arrest its opponents. Arrest occurs only when absolutely necessary. Targets for such repression are few and carefully selected to have the maximum side effect on the rest of society or a target group. At the same time, the scale of repression (detention, arrest, indictment, conviction and sentencing) is carefully calibrated so as not to provoke or encourage opposition sentiment in society, which continues to give Russian President Vladimir Putin high approval ratings — with some tilt, albeit, on the playing field in his favor — which will elect him to a fourth term on March 18th without a runoff.
Tactically, Navalnyi’s opposition activities corroborate the Kremlin’s claim that opposition and pro-democracy figures are radicals, who are capable of foreign collusion and domestic violence. The average Russians’ tendency is to avert social and political instability, given the recent century of revolution, terror, and war, so they eschew revolutionaries and radicals. Navalny has relied on provocative and potentially dangerous street protests and has exhibited a leadership style that is intolerant of even fellow pro-democracy opposition leaders. Many of them have asserted that if Navalnyi was to ever become president he would be a ‘second Putin.’
Moreover, Navalnyi’s intolerance has deepened the divisions within the democratic camp. In interviews and campaign videos he has castigated the pro-democracy camp’s likely presidential candidates – Ksneniya Sobchak and Yabloko Party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii – apparently for nothing more than the fact that they are likely to be allowed to be registered and run by the Central Election Committee (i.e., the Kremlin, i.e., Putin). To be fair, Yavlinskii has said the same of Navalnyi last year. In Navalnyi’s view, perhaps driven by jealously or simple obnoxiousness, he regards those who are allowed to register to be sell outs or in the pocket of the Kremlin. All this goes to the general pettiness and lack of statesmanship within the democratic camp, which has left it badly divided for years and thus far from gaining power.
In addition, Navalnyi’s demonstrations, occasional detentions, and Internet propaganda function as a safety valve for the radical democratic wing. Its members might radicalize, make common cause with ultra-nationalists, with whom Navalnyi once cavorted, and even resort to violence should the regime imprison their charismatic leader.
Meanwhile, Navalnyi diverts some nationalist energy, as his moderate anti-immigrant positions garner some moderate nationalist support, slightly weakening Russia’s nationalist wing, which has been decimated in recent years by prosecution of some and co-optation of others through deputy prime minister Dmitrii Rogozin’s systemic Rodina Party and the war in Donbass. This has helped forestall more concerted, perhaps even violent oppositional activity by the non-systemic wing of the ultra-nationalists.
As a result of all this, Russia’s most popular opposition leader is also one who divides the Kremlin’s opposition, especially its democratic camp, and actually thwarts pro-democracy elements’ prospects of coming to power any time before the next presidential election in 2024 or at least the next Duma elections presently scheduled for 2021. By then, the Russian people may be tired of the same old face in the Kremlin, high levels of corruption, low economic growth rates, and continuing social degradation. Until then, thanks to the West’s anti-Russian policies — NATO expansion, Georgia, Ukraine, sanctions — Putin is likely to remain in the Kremlin and Navalnyi on the streets.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002); Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014).He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.
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. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.