It Ain’t Lonely at the Top: Navalny’s Tenuous Coalition

It’s been several months since I first addressed the nationalist views of Aleksei Navalny, whose political prominence continues to grow by leaps and bounds. As it has throughout his public life, Navalny’s nationalism still unnerves many in the liberal democratic camp, who worry that a potentially dangerous intolerance compromises his prospects as a politician.

Getting Off Easy: Navalny’s Q&A Record

Celebrated writer and dissident Boris Akunin subjected Navalny to the most recent round of public inquiry, publishing a written dialogue between the two men, which begins with questions about nationalism. Akunin’s questions, however, hardly prodded Navalny to reveal anything new. After introducing the topic of nationalism, he concluded by asking: “Should all ethnic non-Russians or half-Russians feel themselves to be second-class people in your Russia?” This hyperbole produced the expected reaction from Navalny: first he said that the question was offensive, and then he explained that he is himself descended from a Ukrainian father (a well-known fact which he repeated in an Esquire interview just last November). When Navalny eventually said that he to this day still supports every word of the 2007 NAROD manifesto, Akunin abandoned the subject altogether.

Perhaps Navalny was lucky. Maybe Akunin was satisfied with his answers. Navalny was similarly fortunate on December 26, 2011, during a two-hour interview on Ekho Moskvy with Evgenia Al’bats. When a caller phoned to ask him about the nature of whatever future party he might lead, Navalny said that he would likely end up forming a “right-center party.” Al’bats interrupted, saying: “In a European understanding, a right-wing party is always nationalist. Politically rightist, economically rightist?” Essentially asked to what degree his future politics would be nationalist, Navalny answered:

“Now, don’t continue on this any further. It’s a pointless conversation because we have no idea what’s right-wing and what’s left-wing. For us, rightists are one thing, but in Europe, they’re entirely something else. Here we need to first define the terms.”

As in the Akunin dialogue, Navalny’s host let him off the hook, dropping her question and moving onto the next caller. Two days later, Foreign Policy published another Navalny interview, this time with his Anglophone chronicler, Julia Ioffe, who pressed the nationalist issue slightly harder than Akunin or Al’bats. Answering Ioffe’s first question on the subject, Navalny stated: “I think my line on most things is sufficiently clear.” When asked again, he confessed:

“If there are still people who are made uncomfortable by my participation in the Russian March, or are scared of ‘Navalny with his nationalistic views,’ that points only to a problem of clarity. That means I wasn’t able to clearly and correctly explain my views. Because every person with whom I am able to discuss this subject in depth, they agree that my views on this are correct, reasonable, and appropriate. So I guess I’ll just have to keep explaining.”

Not a step backwards! (Or a glance over one’s shoulder?)

Navalny’s impatience with the public’s inability to understand his nationalism is palpable. (In a poll attached to Akunin’s dialogue, 43% of readers said his explanations were insufficient.) For visual evidence of Navalny’s agitation, one needs look no further than an interview he gave to Dozhd Television, just after his speech at Prospekt Sakharova on December 24, 2011. Asked to explain what he meant about the opposition’s unity, despite the obvious tensions between liberals and nationalists, Navalny’s answers were hurried and terse, and he tried to end the interview prematurely. Perhaps he wanted to return to the festivities or maybe he was simply freezing cold. Study a screen-shot of the video footage, however, and the awkwardness of Russian imperial flags over his shoulder juxtaposed against the rhetoric from the stage about democratic freedoms seems apparent.

When He Did Speak

In fairness to Navalny, he has been trying to clarify his beliefs for several years now. If one compares his June 2008 Izbrannoe interview to a November 2011 interview with Lenta’s Ilya Azar, the consistency is striking. That said, the things about Navalny’s self-explanations that distress liberals and confuse nationalists are subject to that consistency: as present in 2008 as they are today. Navalny’s shortcoming is that he endorses all the central tenets of “natsdem” Russian liberal nationalism without openly discussing the logical consequences of that philosophy. Furthermore, his efforts to build a broad coalition of “new nationalists” have led him to preserve ties to individuals with suspect loyalties and convictions.

What do I mean when I claim that Navalny is guilty of half-steps in his nationalist pronouncements? To understand what he is leaving out, it’s necessary first to understand the internal debates now occurring among Russian nationalists. A useful primer (short and written with a nationalist-democratic bias) is Aleksei Shiropaev’s July 2011 article on the “two vectors of Russian nationalism.” He attacks “old” nationalism in the following way:

“‘Russians need their own Kadyrov’ [is the] logical consequence of old Russian nationalism’s development: reactionary ideology, oriented on authoritarianism, [and] a closed and archaic society of medieval moral values. Old Russian nationalism openly declares its contempt for democracy, civil rights, and its dislike for ‘persons of a certain nationality’ in accordance with the black-hundreds’ cliches of the 19th century. The vector of old Russian nationalism is Eurasian, Ordyn-imperial, and anti-Western.”

In 2008, Navalny described a very similar challenge to liberal nationalism:

“[Russians] cannot rely on any political force because nationalists in Russia are either ‘Soviet’ patriots or some kind of skinhead, fascist hoods. We are convinced that new nationalists must emerge, and they will clearly chart a course between the pro-Kremlin pseudo-patriots and the radical groups of those [skinhead] lowlifes.”

In 2011, he said roughly the same thing:

“The ‘Russkii Marsh’ emerged as a result of the evolution of the nationalist movement in Russia. I consider the course of this evolution to be absolutely warranted and positive because, until recently, when we talked about nationalists, we remembered the kind of people with whom Yeltsin fought at the dawn of the 1990s. They were not in fact nationalists, but more often different kinds of Soviet patriots.”

The Difficult Dialogue

Mr. Dugin in all his imperial and beardly glory.

There is a context to what Navalny and Shiropaev are saying: this is an ongoing polemic with “old” nationalists, otherwise known as Eurasianists, often associated with mastermind Aleksandr Dugin, whose nostalgia for the Soviet Empire is outweighed only by the heft of his Orthodox beard. Journalists and scholars have been studying Dugin for years, but suffice it to say that his views (however zany) enjoy an alarming popularity among Russia’s military brass and defense-oriented figures. After the collapse of liberalism’s reputation, many have noted that Vladimir Putin’s assertive domestic and foreign policies appear to find inspiration (or at least utilization) in Dugin’s theory of geopolitics.

Consider how nationalist democrat Konstantin Krylov described the emergence of “modern Russian nationalism” in a 2008 article:

“The Russian nationalist movement separated from general protest ‘patriotic’ movement in the middle of the 2000s. Before then, Russian nationalism in its pure form was yet to be seen. In the 1980s and 90s, what is now considered ‘early Russian nationalism’ was a mixture of sentimental populism in the spirit of ‘Village Prose‘ writers, Russian Orthodox fundamentalism, conspiracy theories (about Russia and the West), acute nostalgia for the USSR, the cult of the strong state, various myths, and a general discontent with the status quo. People then believed the strangest things and didn’t understand what was happening in reality.”

Ideas about the state’s ideal strength and the necessity or evil of empire, as well as conspiracies and faith regarding democracy, shape the contours of the nationalist-Eurasianist debate. Today these issues collide foremost in discussions about the future of the North Caucasus. This clash is on display nowhere better than in the Khvatit Kormit’ Kavkaz movement.

The Khvatit cause has become so central to the liberal nationalists that many have incorporated it into their self-definition. Shiropaev, for instance, describes “new Russian nationalism” as:

“Western and Euro-Atlantic. […] Moreover, new Russian nationalism […] strongly and consistently advocates the Russian Federation’s separation from the North Caucasus. This flows logically from [its] anti-Putin, democratic position, inasmuch as the Kadyrov regime is a vitally important element of Putin’s political system. Today’s fight to separate the North Caucasus from the RF is the forefront of the fight against Putinism.”

Shiropaev’s explanation is amusing, insofar as it justifies the jettisoning of the North Caucasus in entirely non-ethnic terms. He is not the only Russian nationalist to do so. In an article published last November, Aleksandr Khramov, another natsdem, also defends the Khvatit campaign with arguments that are initially based only on sound fiscal policy and concerns about corruption and regional subsidies inequalities. Responding to the criticisms of liberal democrats (specifically Andrei Piontkovsky), Khramov lays out a rebuttal that is meant to affirm the new nationalists’ commitment to both democracy and the struggle against Putin.

Khramov’s (initially) non-ethnic arguments can be divided into three essential points:

  1. The Khvatit movement is not a “slave’s battle cry.” Piontkovsky claimed that nationalists are targeting a symptoms of Putinism (the failed North Caucasus), rather than the cause (Putin himself). Echoing Stanislav Belkovsky (who coined the term “the Popular Rear Guard” in response to Putin’s “All-Russia People’s Front”), Khramov compares the Khvatit campaign to an attack on the authorities’ vulnerability: “The Caucasus is the regime’s rear flank, the Kremlin’s pressure point, and it’s here that we must apply pressure.” He argues that frontal assaults, like the past “Putin v ostavku” online petition, have proved ineffective.
  2. The North Caucasus is the Kremlin’s most crucial asset: “And if the Vertical of Power gives way here, at its anchor point, in Russia’s most volatile region, it won’t remain standing across the rest of Russia.”
  3. Finally, Khramov describes the Khvatit movement as a “tactic,” not a “strategy.” In other words, it’s less a public policy platform than an important anti-regime maneuver. The implication here seems to be that nationalists would march against any other over-subsidized region, if it presented the same opportunities for undermining the authorities.

Historian Valery Solovei, whose writing often appears on (the same outfit that published Khramov’s piece), recently penned a public endorsement of Navalny. That appeal emphasized democratic principles and downplayed the issue of ethnicity, where Solovei’s most overtly nationalist statement is: “Personally, I haven’t any doubt in Navalny’s sincere readiness to defend the interests of the Russian people.” Like Khramov’s (initial) justification of the Khvatit campaign, Solovei’s support for Navalny is based largely on oppositionist abstractions like freedom and anti-corruption. Solovei does include an indelicate attack on “the liberal crowd,” but the message is aimed primarily at Yeltsin-era functionaries, whose reputation has eroded among the very liberal democrats considered to be their current base.

Ethnic-Nationalism On Display

So despite various discomforts about cooperating with democrats formerly connected to Boris Yeltsin, nationalists like Khramov and Solovei (or indeed Navalny) are clearly interested in playing up their commitment to democracy, in order to facilitate a nationalist-democrat coalition. This is why the Khvatit campaign is frequently described as a fiscal responsibility issue and it’s why some nationalist intellectuals frame their support for Navalny in the language of democracy, only winking at readers about his relationship to ethnic nationalism.

What then are these people saying when they aren’t winking? Returning to the Khvatit movement, Khramov in that same November 2011 piece follows his non-ethnic reasons for the campaign with at least four deeply ethnic-based rationales:

  1. In addition to hosting wasteful local governments, the North Caucasian regions have “another important distinction” that renders subsidization a bad policy: they are “non-Russian regions that actively export their foreign model of behavior to the rest of Russia. This distinction is key from the perspective of the battle for an ethnic Russian democratic state, built on the principles of national community […].”
  2. In an interesting effort to use democrats’ anti-imperial rhetoric against them, Khramov accuses “certain liberals” of supporting a version of empire, arguing that ethnic Russians are denied the right to national determination, which they willingly grant to “little peoples” like the Poles, Slovaks, and Estonians. Khramov implies that the modern-day Russian Federation treats Russians like a “collector-people” (narod-sobiratel’), depriving them of all the rights titular nationalities enjoy elsewhere.
  3. Khramov rejects the idea that Russia with its current boundaries can be expected to enjoy the same level of national solidarity that exists today in Italy or Germany. They can find a consensus to finance their different regions, he argues, because ‘Milan and Naples’ or ‘East and West Germany’ are parts of the same ethnic nation, “built on [shared] ethno-cultural standards.” Russians can agree that resources must flow to Kamchatka, he says, “but how do you convince them to ‘feed’ Ingushetia, where Russians are just a fraction [of the population]?”
  4. The icing on the cake is a final rebuttal to Piontkovsky, who criticized nationalists for pursuing a “fatal contradiction”: “empire, but without black assholes.” Khramov’s response is short and sweet: “there’s no contradiction.”

If cutting loose the North Caucasus lies at the center of the “new” nationalists’ agenda, what is Navalny’s position on the issue? Before getting into that, let’s first look again at some of Solovei’s comments on the subject. In a June 2010 interview, he had this to say when asked about “imperial relics” like the North Caucasus:

“It’s unlikely that it will remain a part of Russia in the long-run of history. Sooner or later, the possibility of its detachment or secession will become a reality. And I’m sure that this will occur within our lifetime. Many people currently think this, but are reluctant to say so aloud. It’s perfectly obvious that we spend a colossal amount of resources on [the North Caucasus] and get nothing in return. We send the resources of Russians and of Russia. The Caucasus produces nothing but hatred and conflicts, which they then export back to Mainland Russia. The Caucasus uses all the advantages of existing in the Russian space, without giving anything back in return. It’s not fair play.”

When the interviewer asked about restoring a nation-wide civil identity — something like”rossiian” instead of “russkii” — Solovei was pessimistic. The regime, he said, has stunted civil identity by cracking down on demonstrations and public associations. “All the talk about [non-ethnic] Russian identity is a mantra of emptiness,” he concludes grimly.

Winning Russia’s Soul

Nationalist democrats are caught in the unenviable position of having to defend themselves against both liberal and Eurasianist criticisms. In this two-front war, they lobby the former to abandon their apprehensions and join forces, and clash with the latter over the ‘fate of the Russian people.’ A perfect example of the Eurasianist position on the North Caucasus question is Denis Tukmakov‘s July 2011 article in Zavtra, titled “Russia Without the Caucasus?”

After a long and mocking retelling of the Khvatit movement’s raison d’etre, Tukmakov explains that retreating from the North Caucasus would have dire consequences for Russia. Here are three of his worst-case scenarios:

  1. “A Second Khasavyurt.” The Caucasus would return to the lawlessness of the interwar era, “becoming a second Somalia, […] without industry, but with an enormous arsenal of weapons.” Another war to end the chaos would be inevitable, except it would be bigger this time because Russia would be fighting the entire North Caucasus and not just Chechen separatists.
  2. “A New Georgia.” Russia would lose its legal sovereignty over the territory, inviting American interference similar to what Russia confronted in the 2008 war.
  3. “A Bottomless Pit.” Appealing to concerns about budgetary waste, Tukmakov argues that (a) policing the border and (b) the inevitable war would both cost astronomically more than what is now ‘lost’ subsidizing the region.

Tukmakov then moves to the perennial “who is to blame?” and “what is to be done?” questions, answering the latter in these words:

“What’s happening in the country today isn’t the fault of the Caucasians, but of the socio-economic ways that have arisen in [post-Soviet] Russia. At the hands of compradors and the corrupt, you and I have suffered far more than from any Muslim holiday celebrations [ot peniia muedzinov]. Empty the pockets of the corrupt and the coins you collect could feed all of Russia’s regions.”

Though corruption is the main culprit, Tukmakov and the Eurasianists have in mind something very different from what motivates the lawyers on staff at RosPil. He goes on to warn that “Perestroika 2” (a phrase Belkovsky has used to describe the latest wave of Russian oppositionist politics) threatens Russia most of all — not only with the loss of the North Caucasus, but with a color revolution at the heart of Moscow that would “open a black hole,” destroying the entire country.

It’s in this way that Eurasianists like Tukmakov, Dugin, and others attack the nationalist democrats: as a hazard to territorial integrity and international sovereignty. That, indeed, is the context needed to understand what people like Khramov, Solovei, Navalny, or Krylov mean when they criticize imperialism or beseech the Russian people to follow the path of history.

Having seen Tukmakov’s use of geopolitics and the threat of war, consider the following passage from the Krylov text mentioned above (written years earlier, but just as relevant now as then):

“Russia was never an empire in the traditional Western sense of the word. If it was indeed a prison for anyone, it was for the Russians, who gained nothing from exploiting the colonies because Russia had no colonies — it had peripheries, to which it gave more than it took. One can understand for what and why these borderlands were necessary: fundamentally the logic was based on military-political considerations. Russia is literally caught at the world’s crosswinds, at the heart of Eurasia, protected from enemies by neither mountains nor seas. Some territories — indeed the Caucasus — became necessary acquisitions only because they at the time were the only means to ending the constant incursions and halting the aggression. But the peripheries were not subjected to systematic exploitation — the Russian tsars had not learned this European science. Alas, it was the Russian people who carried all the burdens and obligations of nation-building. If anyone was enslaved — in the direct meaning of the word — it was the Russians.”

Here the tension between the “new” and “old” nationalisms is clear: imperial self-defense versus the prison of empire. With that context in mind, let’s turn to Navalny’s interview with Ilya Azar, where he was probably as open about his nationalist views as ever.

Getting Down to It

In his Lenta interview, Navalny explained the Khvatit Kormit’ Kavkaz campaign like this: “We propose not allocating money [to the Caucasus] until some kind of rules are established for how these funds are spent. We propose controlling the expenditure of these funds.” When Azar asked what he actually intended to do with the North Caucasus, after Russia stopped ‘feeding’ it, Navalny backtracked:

“What do you mean ‘stop feeding it’? All budgetary resources should be distributed evenly. And the Caucasian republics should receive budgetary funds on the basis of real needs and ability to utilize the resources somehow. First and foremost, one needs to observe the law.”

Was Navalny reversing his pledge to cut off all funding, or had Azar initially led him to misspeak? Another moment of waffling seemed to be when Navalny declared that Chechnya is no longer de facto a part of the Russian Federation. When Azar asked him if he then supported Chechnya’s secession, Navalny feigned surprise and accused Azar of offering false alternatives, before ultimately returning to the claim that Chechnya has already seceded:

“I don’t know where you get that subject. What, are there only two alternatives: either one just pours money into the region and enriches these local chiefs indefinitely, or Russia separates from them immediately? No, this alternative doesn’t exist. With the North Caucasian republics, it seems necessary (especially if the situation deteriorates into civil war) to introduce additional controls, some of which already exist. […] So at the administrative border let there be controls on the movement of people and cargo, in order to regulate all these things. The Caucasus exists at any rate as something disconnected. It’s already not a part of the country. Let’s call a spade a spade: it’s not a part of the country.”

It seems to me that Navalny does want to endorse Russia’s separation from Chechnya, though he can’t quite manage it: proposing an end to subsidies, but also not an end — claiming that it’s beyond Russian authority and calling for a militarized border, but refusing to call this “separation.” In spite of his adamance about straight talk, he seems to get cold feet when it comes to this core nationalist issue.

Why So Insecure?

Aleksei Navalny is many things, but he is by no stretch of the imagination a coward — and neither is he a fool. In that case, how can we explain his serial reluctance to take liberal nationalist ideology to the logical conclusions that his comrades regularly reach?

On the one hand, Navalny is clearly concerned with maintaining his appeal among liberal democrats. In this capacity, he and other nationalist democrats recycle the non-ethnic talking points (discussed above) that underpin the Khvatit campaign. But it’s also important for Navalny to build solidarity among nationalists, and evading hard questions about what he would do as the nation’s leader possibly helps avoid unwanted splintering.

Consider Navalny’s continued defense of Aleksandr Belov, former leader of the now banned Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI):

“I’ve talked with Belov a million times. As many times as we’ve talked, he’s said absolutely correct things. I’ve heard his speeches on Ekho Moskvy, at rallies, and so on. Different people at different times of their lives say something stupid. I, too, have also said stupid things. Belov and I organized the ‘New Political Nationalism’ conference [in 2008]. There, we adopted a political declaration that included things I consider to be entirely correct and acceptable, and I think you or any other normal person would also find perfectly acceptable.”

Navalny and Belov.

Navalny has also defended Dmitri Demushkin, another DPNI member who like Belov has a history of criminal convictions for inciting ethnic hatred. In the summer of 2011, both Demushkin and Belov accepted a controversial invitation to Chechnya from none other than Ramzan Kadyrov. Upon returning to Moscow, Belov and Demushkin shocked many by loudly praising Kadyrov’s effective management. “In Chechnya, there are no traces of war, and that’s cool,” Belov told Svobodnaia Pressa in June, going on to explain that the Chechen wars were a genocide for Russians and Chechens alike, that the Chechens’ suffering was actually better documented, and the importance of remembering that the federal government and Russian state companies also extract resources from Chechnya.

In other words, Belov and Demushkin refuted all the major arguments of the “new” nationalists — the group in which they ostensibly play a leading role. Their trip prompted Stanislav Belkovsky to accuse Kadyrov of personally controlling up to one-third of all Russian nationalist organizations. However, when Ilya Azar questioned Navalny about why Belov and Demushkin were so taken with Kadyrov’s regime, he merely answered: “Ask them yourself. I happen not to like it over there.” Navalny then changed the subject to Dagestan.

When Belov isn’t organizing opposition rallies, he likes to attend Kremlin banquets. Pictured here at a 2006 ‘Police Day’ function.

What drove Belov and Demushkin to make this strange trip and speak so warmly afterwards about nationalism’s archenemy? Possible explanations lie in Belov’s curious relationship with the authorities. Despite regular brushes with the law, Belov has a history of close ties to powerful people. In a November 2006 Izvestia article following his appearance at a Kremlin banquet in honor of ‘Police Day,’ the paper wrote:

“Yes and rumors about the special ties between DPNI and the Russian special services cannot be discounted, in the end, as Belov himself talks openly about his contacts among senior counterintelligence officers.”

The article went on to speculate about the role of Dmitri Rogozin (who at the time was dealing with Rodina’s demise and planning future work in Andrei Savel’ev’s “Great Russia” political party). Izvestia believed that Rogozin might have provided DPNI’s principle funding throughout the mid-2000s.

Demushkin, on the other hand, spent his late adolescence as a foot solider in Alexander Barkashov‘s “Russian National Unity,” a group with a record that includes everything from paramilitarism to anti-semitism. Demushkin’s personal history includes behavior as repulsive as mailing death threats to human rights activists Andrei Yurov and Liudmila Alekseeva in 2004. In short: he is an extremist without aversions to anti-liberal rhetoric or imperial restoration.

Some (Very Brief) Conclusions

None of this information is in any way a revelation. Navalny knows who these people are, as do most politically conscious Russians. Indeed, Navalny’s rising popularity continuously narrows the field of knowledge that might be considered arcane or unknown. As his support grows, he is challenged with sustaining an increasingly diverse, sometimes contradictory following. It’s in that context that I suspect we are best situated to understand Navalny’s position on nationalism.

“Liberal nationalism” remains one of Navalny’s most interesting distinctions as an oppositionist political figure. Combined with his anti-corruption activism (which makes him a “doer” not just a “talker”), nationalism has helped make Navalny who he is today. That wider audience is won at a cost, however, and the questionable allies he’s compelled to keep will raise eyebrows today, tomorrow, and for a long while to come.


  1. Pingback: SU (@pol_ikon) (@pol_ikon)

  2. Great job, once again, Kevin!

    My conclusions are slightly different from yours though. When I read Navalny’s answers to Akunin, i didn’t get the feeling he was as much blurry on purpose as that he simply doesn’t yet grasp the implications of many of the ideas he claims to adher to. Look also at his answer about the memory of Stalin and repressions. There was no need to be as blunt as he did. But that is his character. He has a nack for controversial soundbites, but doesn’t really understand the matter. The same was through with the debate about procurement laws that we both covered. Navalny didn’t understand what was being proposed by MER etc .. He did understand that he could score points suggesting the plan would only increase corruption.

    Of course it remains the question whether a potential leader should understand everything. Putin clearly doesn’t undertsand everything either 😉

    Moreover Navalny can learn to understand things. His flipflopping on the Caucasus may very well be part of that process; realizing that to shout secession can score points, but to actually take political responsibilty for such an act would most likely proof to be very disastrous.

    Somewhat ironically, it may also turn out that when he begins to assume more clariefied positions on such matters, the mythical proportions of his enigma will dissapear. Would we still tak about him?

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