BY: ANDY LAUB
In the past week, Vladimir Putin secured the nomination of his United Russia Party to run for a fourth term. Putin with minimal opposition is virtually guaranteed to win the March 18th election that would see him preside for another six years at the top of the Kremlin. During his last term in office, a resurgent Russia invaded Ukraine and conquered Crimea bringing relations with the United States and Europe to Cold War-like tensions, leading to a robust sanctions regime against Russia and its expulsion from the G-8. Putin has also cracked down on journalism and freedom of speech tightening his grip on political power. Opposition to Putin remains fragmented and weak, but one person in particular stands out. Alexei Navalny, a self-described anti-corruption and social justice activist has consistently spoken out against Putin, specifically on issues of corruption that exist in the Kremlin and economic inequality that has left many Russians in poverty. The young and charismatic forty-one-year-old has developed a large following with over one hundred thousand volunteers throughout Russia. Even though he has been banned from appearing on Russian television, he has circumvented that with his own YouTube channel that has over a million followers.
Navalny has been arrested seven times for holding illegal rallies and has even been attacked in public getting doused in green paint. When he ran for Mayor of Moscow in 2013 in a tightly controlled Kremlin election, he received a surprisingly 27% of votes coming in second place. He was recently nominated to stand for the March 2018 Presidential elections against Putin but was disqualified by the Central Election Commission on account of his arrests, a move Navalny says was politically motivated. He has also called on his supporters to boycott the March elections, which the Kremlin has countered vehemently stating that the boycott will in no way affect the legitimacy of the election. The European Union raised red flags around Navalny not being allowed to run citing that it “casts serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia and on the prospects for democratic elections in the country…politically-motivated charges should not be used against political participation.” As Dmitry Trennin, Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, notes: “There’s a problem that he has, I think. And the problem is forging his own positive message — telling his supporters and others, what is it that he favors? Not [what] he is against.” Many of Navalny’s supporters are deeply anti-immigrant promoting a sort of “Russia First” image. He also been associated and marched with many ultra-right wing groups that align with fascist ideology, which he has since distanced himself from. But has also made regrettably racist statements.
From the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 during the Russian revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union, hopes for Russia democratizing have always seem to be short-lived. The future of Russian democracy cannot be seriously considered without taking into account the last Soviet leader: Mikhail Gorbachev. It would be hard pressed to find Russians on the streets of Moscow who have anything nice to say about the 1990 Noble Peace Prize winner. While many in the West revere him, Russians today mostly blame him for the break-up of their country and see Putin as the one restoring them to greatness. When he came into power in 1985, he knew the system needed to change if it was going to survive in the long-run, hence his glastnost and perestroikia reforms that called for more openness. While he slowly opened up the Soviet economy to more privatization, he also gave more rights to civil society and journalists when it came to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He negotiated a historic nuclear arms agreement with then-U.S President Ronald Regan, to reduce each side’s nuclear stockpile. He pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in their long bogged down war and allowed Soviet satellite states such as Poland to democratize. This of course had the unintended consequences of the entire Soviet system collapsing, the Berlin Wall coming down, Germany re-unifying and the Soviet Union ceasing to exist. The Democracy Gorbachev hoped Russia would become instead gave way to corruption and crony capitalism controlled by oligarchs leaving behind a starving population. Now that Vladimir Putin has established himself as the antithesis of a democratic leader, Russia’s military interventions in Syria and Ukraine persist and democracies throughout the world continue to be undermined with Russia’s alleged interference in multiple elections. At the same time, the Russian economy remains in tatters and is smaller than Italy’s. Gorbachev, now 86, still sees the need for change, and criticizes Putin by pointing out that “living standards in Russia are declining and poverty and corruption are rampant. Education, health care and science systems are all worsening and Putin’s pledges to fix these problems are empty; they cannot be solved without a change in the system of government.”
“I am convinced that Russia can succeed only through democracy,” he wrote. “Russia is ready for political competition, a real multiparty system, fair elections and regular rotation of government. This should define the role and responsibility of the President.”
Putin is going to continue to head the Kremlin for the foreseeable future and there are unlikely to be any major changes in Russian politics. For Russians, Putin personifies their country and represents strength and stability by restoring some semblance of greatness enjoyed by the former Soviet Union. Democracy is not something that has ever really taken hold in Russia. Achieving any kind of political transition in a country like Russia that is resistant to change will be very difficult. Navalny is clearly not following in Gorbachev’s footsteps since he lacks the depth of a democratic message needed to counter Putin. However, he is Putin’s fiercest opponent right now. Since he is carrying the largest banner for democracy in Russia, he could very well set the blueprint for what Democratic Russia looks like in the future.
Andy Laub is a Masters student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He also serves as the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
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