Earlier this month, Kommersant and Gazeta.ru banded together for an online “virtual election” for the next mayor of Moscow. Of course, that honor has since gone to Sergei Sobianin (who placed 7th in the online competition). There were ten candidates altogether, plus an “against all” option. The clear winner, taking more than 45% of the overall vote, was lawyer-activist and famed blogger Aleksei Naval’nyi. Next in line was “against all” at 13.6%, followed close behind by Boris Nemtsov at 12% and Aleksandr Lebedev at 10.6%.
First, a quick comment about the vote’s methodology: the top three winners (Naval’nyi, Nemtsov, and Lebedev) were selected by a different means than the other seven men on the list (who were picked by a panel of “experts”). Seeing as how this was an unscientific online vote (where readers took the initiative to participate), it should come as no surprise that people preferred their own fantasy mayors over the possibilities imagined by beard-scratching gurus.
But, still, how did Naval’nyi win so overwhelmingly? The simplest explanation is that he publicized the vote via his LiveJournal blog, which is immensely popular (with more than 18 thousand LJ subscribers and almost 150 thousand comments received in four years). This could have produced a Stephen-Colbert-style victory, similar to the controversy that surrounded the naming of the Megyeri Bridge in Hungary (where Colbert’s fans voted in numbers exceeding the nation’s population). However, Naval’nyi only first blogged about the virtual election on October 4, 2010 – when he had already received almost 21,000 votes, and was far ahead of the other candidates.
Writing on Grani.ru, Stanislav Belkovskii explained that Naval’nyi’s victory symbolizes a new generation of opposition politics. “He doesn’t scream ‘onwards to the Kremlin!’ and doesn’t call Putin a fascist,” he says of Naval’nyi. “But at the same time, he’s more an oppositionist than the overwhelming majority of enemies of the ‘bloody regime.’” Belkovskii includes him in a new category of dissident: the “civic activist” (grazhdanskii aktivist) – people who seek concessions from the establishment and espouse “ethical and aesthetic” opposition to the ruling system. According to him, this new group of activists enjoys greater popularity because it doesn’t practice political careerism and it avoids radical anti-establishment rhetoric.
Yesterday, Kommersant published an Oleg Kashin interview with Naval’nyi about his virtual elections win. (As it turns out, Kashin was clearly using Naval’nyi to test out some of his own theses about the Russian opposition, which he let fly in an op-ed on the same subject today, also in Kommersant.) In the interview, Naval’nyi dismissed the idea of a Medvedevian thaw, arguing instead that Vladimir Putin has embraced a series of concessions and compromises to the opposition because of low approval ratings. (Naval’nyi cites a 45% approval figure, though he does not name the source of this information. For comparison with published statistics: last month, Putin’s approval rating was reported to be 73%.) When asked if “apolitical protests” (by environmentalists, automobilists, and so on) have more potential in contemporary Russia, Naval’nyi seems to take offense, calling the idea a “serious delusion” (glubokoe zabluzhdenie), explaining that all successful demonstrations are political one way or another. He is also flippant when asked if the leaders of such groups (people like Doroshok and Chirikova) could ever become “real political leaders,” answering that leaders abound and don’t require labels like “real” or “political” to be effective.
Naval’nyi’s reaction to Kashin’s question about apolitical protests is interesting. On the one hand, of course he rejects the idea that demonstrations could be apolitical. Even in defining the new, non-aligned oppositionists, Belkovskii also describes this new force as “entirely and absolutely political.” The very act of influencing the authorities is, after all, inherently political.
But consider this: when given the opportunity to plug any one of the “political-apolitical” movements, Naval’nyi ignored them all. He didn’t praise FAR’s Sergei Kanaev, Spravedlivost’s Konstantin Doroshok, or even Khimki’s Evgeniia Chirikova. Instead, he celebrated the DemVybora, Vladimir Milov’s 200-member project that aims to participate in elections next year. (Milov created the group as a Solidarnost’-breakaway, when that movement’s leadership refused to become a registered political party.) The DemVybora plug is no surprise, either, as Naval’nyi apparently relies on Milov for energy industry consulting, which is presumably very valuable in building his lawsuits against energy monopolies.
The heart of Naval’nyi’s current work is advocating minority shareholders’ rights. The strategy has been to buy shares of state corporations and then demand (legally guaranteed) access to insider company information. He’s filed suits against Сургутнефтегаз, Транснефть, Роснефть, Газпромнефть, Газпром, ТНК-BP, and банк ВТБ.
Before becoming a “grazhdanskii aktivist,” Naval’nyi was a leading member of the Yabloko Party, organizing various public outreach programs on the side that attempted to bridge the political divide between Russia’s various factions. (He even got Maksim Kononenko and Yulia Latynina in one room!) In 2007, he and Masha Gaidar – under the banner of their “Движение Демократическая Альтернатива!” (aka, “DA!”) – held a debate in a Moscow bar that turned ugly. After a drunken group of United Russia youths disrupted the event, Naval’nyi confronted the instigators outside on the street. When the thugs refused to leave, Naval’nyi shot their idiot leader twice with an air-pistol and ended up wrestling him on the ground. (Read here for Ilya Yashin’s heroic retelling of how, with great masculinity, he intervened to rescue Naval’nyi.) In the end, nobody pressed charges. A month later, Yabloko booted Naval’nyi out of the party for “causing it political damage.” Since then, he has acted as a consultant to Nikita Belykh, a former longtime member of SPS, who is now despised in liberal circles after he abandoned the party and the Solidarity movement to become the Governor of Kirov in late 2008. (Masha Gaidar, incidentally, followed him there.)
Belkovskii directly compares Naval’nyi to Chirikova. “Everything I’ve said about him goes for her, too,” he concludes his op-ed. This seems like a mischaracterization. Naval’nyi’s primary oppositionist work is essentially non-partisan, but it would be a mistake to conflate his activism with that of Chirikova and others like her. Naval’nyi’s activity is relevant because he investigates the authorities’ bread and butter: the financial webs that grease the gears of power. He goes after the money, and nothing is more dangerous than that. Chirikova, however, represents something that Naval’nyi isn’t even interested in recognizing: the “political-apolitical” protest. Even if everything is political, groups dedicated to the Khimki Forest and Motorists’ rights aren’t the same as DemVybora or Solidarnost’. They don’t target systemic abuses of power: instead they focus on special cases of excess. (A road here. A driving permit there.) That their chief organizers limit their rhetoric and personal ambitions also makes it less risky for the state to compromise with such groups. Chirikova infamously refused to say she wouldn’t rule out voting for United Russia in the future. She’s also said, “Тhe problem is the people, not Putin.” This is a far cry from folks like Nemtsov, who has taken to ranting exclusively about repression, tyranny, and how the lack of free elections necessitates ‘takin’ it to the streets.’
Oleg Kashin’s appealing, very sarcastic interpretation of Russian protesting culture is that it’s become “fashionable” to attend demonstrations. People show up to be seen, and they often make sure to be seen with ironic banners or in “hipster” attire. This is an aestheticization of politics that results in de-politicization. (I imagine that Belkovskii wouldn’t agree, as he seems to view “aesthetic opposition” as un-ironic.) When Kashin talks about fashion coming to dominate protests, he is referring mainly to the demonstrations organized by the old guard opposition (a group that includes both liberal democrats and leftists). The real change-instigating groups are the same civic activist movements that lack “real leaders” – which is to say, they lack people with ambitions for elected office. In the end, tomorrow’s “leading seats in the democratic movement” are occupied by today’s enemies of the same movement. With professional oppositionists too consumed by in-fighting and appearances (and “civic activists” too uninterested in wielding power), the protesters snooze and lose, and the nation’s deck chairs are rearranged to appease the less radical demands of the “political-apolitical” instigators. Khimki road construction is halted, but not in time to spare the forest; Baikal pollution is banned, but allowed to resume once the fuss has died down; and Boos is dismissed, but not without being replaced by Tsukanov, someone equally committed to United Russia, and presumably just as ready to fall on the next grenade for the Party.
I’m not sure what’s in store for someone like Naval’nyi. He has friends in the establishment (like Belykh), friends outside (like Milov), and his lawsuits against energy giants would seem to make him an enemy of Russia’s most important and powerful individuals. Perhaps some ambitious future vlasti will put his work to use in a purge of political enemies, not unlike the way the Лужков Итоги papers were employed against the former Moscow mayor last month. Or maybe the courts will simply continue to stonewall him, and the impact of “going after the money” will be small. In any event, Naval’nyi clearly has a massive following among the people who read Kommersant and Gazeta.ru. Perhaps the fact that it’s so hard to place him into any single faction of the opposition explains how he rallied almost thirty thousand people to elect him the virtual mayor of Moscow.