“Each time one of us thinks ‘I’ll just stand aside and things will happen without me and I’ll wait,’ then he is helping this disgusting feudal system that sits like a spider in the Kremlin,” said Alexei Navalny, often billed as Russia’s top opposition leader, as he sat in a courtroom in Kirov in July awaiting conviction on embezzlement charges. True enough, but Vladimir Putin is not losing any sleep over it.
The Russian president, currently hosting the G20 summit meeting in St Petersburg (5-6 September), has run the country as his private fiefdom for the past 13 years. The media obey orders, political opponents are jailed on trumped-up corruption charges, and individuals who dig too deep into the murky history of Putin’s rapid rise to power (Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Yuri Shchekochikhin) die mysteriously of bullet wounds or poison.
Navalny, a 37-year-old Moscow lawyer, rose to fame as an anti-corruption campaigner during the 2011-12 protests against Putin because of his sharp, sardonic blog about Russian politics. He was then identified by the foreign media as the great new hope of the Russian opposition because he was hip, he was cool, he was everything that Russian leaders, whether in power or in opposition, have traditionally not been.
His new political prominence promptly attracted the usual state-sponsored charges of corruption, and on 18 July Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement (by a judge who has never issued a not guilty verdict) and sentenced to five years in prison.
Navalny took it with his customary cool. He tweeted to his 373,000 followers “Oh, well. Don’t get bored without me. And most importantly, don’t be idle. Remember, the frog won’t hop off the oil pipes by itself.” (Never mind — it makes more sense in Russian.)
But then something odd happened. The state prosecutor asked that Navalny be left free pending his appeal, which could take months. Navalny is running for mayor of Moscow in the election on 8 September. If he were in jail pending his appeal — the normal situation in politically motivated trials — he would have to drop out. Why is the state suddenly being nice to him?
Because it wants him to run and lose — and it’s sure he will lose. The opinion polls give Navalny just over 10 percent of the vote, compared to more than 50 percent for the incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. Navalny’s presence on the ballot papers will lend some credibility to Sobyanin’s re-election, Navalny’s defeat will demonstrate how little popular support he actually has — and afterwards they’ll whisk him off to prison.
But why does Navalny have so little popular support? Why do Russians put up with being ruled by Putin, an autocrat who no longer steals public money himself, but whose colleagues and cronies all steal? (Putin made his secret pile back in the early 1990s, when he was a rising politician in the first post-Communist city government of St. Petersburg.)
Well, before Putin came to power in 2000 they put up with eight years of Boris Yeltsin, a boorish drunk who not only stole from the Russians (as did most of his political allies) but also embarrassed them. Before that there was a brief interlude of honesty and sanity under Mikhail Gorbachev — but he is blamed by most Russians for all the bad things that have happened since the fall of the Soviet Union.
And before that there was the Era of Stagnation, the last decades of Communist rule, when the state didn’t murder its own citizens so much any more, but everybody lived in relative poverty under a perpetual rain of brazen lies, and endured the constant insults and petty criminality of an arrogant Communist elite. Fifty years in which the politicians who ran Russia have almost all been brutal, contemptible, or both.
So the great mass of Russians have given up believing that any politician could be honest, or that anything could ever really change. Some urban sophisticates are drawn to Navalny’s post-modern style and his relentless critique of the Russian political system, but even in large parts of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and almost everywhere outside the big cities, that sort of thing has no pulling power at all.
That’s why there is an undercurrent of despair in Navalny’s tweets, with their constant exhortations to Russians not to just switch off and go back to sleep. Living standards have risen considerably on Putin’s watch, mainly due to high world prices for oil and gas, and lots of people just want to keep their heads down and get on with their lives. Besides, in the boonies most people assume that Navalny is just another crook, only slicker.
Putin’s macho style no longer wins him the old adulation either: a recent poll by the Levada Centre found that nearly half of all Russians want him to step down at the end of his current presidential term in 2018. But they’re not in any hurry about it, nor will they be unless global energy prices and Russian living standards start to fall. And Navalny won’t be out of jail in time to run in the 2018 election anyway.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.