When Alexei Navalny returned to Russia in January this year he seemed to have made his peace with the danger he was in. Five months earlier the Kremlin critic had been near-fatally poisoned with a nerve agent and then flown to Berlin for treatment. Yet here he was, returning to his home country: “I’m not afraid of anything, you should not be afraid either,” he told supporters on landing back in Moscow. He was promptly arrested on dubious charges and imprisoned. In March he went on hunger strike to protest against the penal colony conditions. As the New Statesman went to press on 20 April, he was said to be “close to death”.
The doggedness of Navalny’s supporters – hundreds of thousands of whom were expected to join national protests on 21 April – and the savagery of the regime’s treatment of the man Vladimir Putin dismisses as “that blogger” does not come from any genuine prospect of power changing hands. A poll published by the Levada Centre on 16 April showed that only 29 per cent of Russians deemed his jailing unjust, compared with 48 per cent who supported it. Nor does it mark out the man himself as an exemplary liberal democrat: in the past, Navalny has associated with Russian nationalists, courted anti-migrant sentiment and made derogatory comments about north Caucasians.
But he has pioneered a form of opposition that gets under the regime’s skin – by campaigning against corruption. Navalny started by buying shares in state companies so he could take on their opaque ownership structures and accounting practices. His witty, charismatic YouTube presence has shone a spotlight on the grotesque inequalities of Putin’s Russia; a video published on 19 January of a Black Sea palace he claims (and the Kremlin denies) belongs to Putin has had more than 116 million views. Less freedom fighter than fairness fighter, he touts nothing more idealistic than anger at the obvious injustices of modern Russia.
Central to Putinism’s appeal is the tacit notion that for all the autocratic thuggery, the president is at least a patriot committed to restoring the country’s dignity abroad and stability at home. For Navalny to lecture his compatriots on democracy would do little to weaken that pact. So instead he works within its own framework of myths, exposing the fundamentally unpatriotic kleptocracy that harms ordinary people’s living standards. That resonates with many Russians, particularly younger ones, holds the powerful to account and might just enable political change in the long term (Navalny’s supporters are running a tactical voting campaign at the Duma election in September).
Western governments have threatened “consequences” should Navalny die. Yet their recent moves against Kremlin interests have been limp. EU sanctions introduced in February target as few as four individuals; British sanctions imposed last year have largely focused on junior and middling officials; new US sanctions announced by Joe Biden on 15 April amount to a “slap on the wrist” with “no real market impact”, writes Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. To what extent these would be stepped up in the event of Navalny’s death is unclear.
All of this reflects the air of impotence about today’s West. Democracy is declining in the world. China, busy cracking down in Hong Kong, is rising and with it an authoritarian form of state capitalism. US power is tempered by limited public appetite for further costly foreign entanglements; its forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan is ignominious. One-time glimmers of hope – Myanmar, Ethiopia, Brazil – have seen democratic collapse or backsliding. The mood is captured in terms such as the “age of impunity” (coined by David Miliband) and “Westlessness” (the Munich Security Conference). Trump, it turns out, was a symptom and not a cause of this malaise.
Navalny’s record – or, should the worst happen, his legacy – points a way through that gloom. The West may not be able to fight every fire, or support every freedom fighter or pro-democracy campaign. By revealing and fighting kleptocracy, even with next to no resources, Navalny shows a compelling way to expose the corruption that poisons societies and even take on the related ills: the weapons and drugs trades, the pillaging of the civic and environmental fabric, the leaching of social trust.
Imagine if Western governments were to show a shred of Navalny’s bravery; by closing loopholes facilitating money laundering, forcing offshore centres to open their books, ending anonymous ownership, pooling databases to help uncover ill-gotten gains, supporting anti-corruption campaigners with resources and advice, providing secure platforms for information to be leaked and published, and rewarding governments that embrace transparency. Imagine if Britain dammed the flow of hot money through London’s financial and property markets; if Germany halted the Kremlin-backed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; if the US implemented its dormant rule subjecting investment managers to new reporting requirements; if such countries imposed co-ordinated sanctions, with real teeth, on senior Kremlin interests in support of Navalny and his movement. Imagine, too, if the US had spent even a fraction of the $2.4trn cost (by 2017) of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on measures such as these. Can anyone seriously claim that the world would not now be a safer place?
Freedom and fairness are of course symbiotic; one necessitates the other. But you have to start somewhere. And for a West anxious to bring new order to the world, with chaos advancing seemingly from all directions, the precedent of Navalny’s courageous and down-to-earth campaign against the ur-evil of corruption would be a fine place to do so.
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical