‘My Fears and Hatred’: Navalny lambasts the 1990s democrats of Russia

The jailed opposition leader slams those who rebuilt Russia’s politics and economy after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link from his penal colony during court hearings over the extremism criminal case against him at the Russia's Supreme Court in Moscow
Navalny bristled at Russian media and democrats for backing the alleged falsification of the 1996 vote [File: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP]

They “sold, drank away and wasted” a chance to transform Russia into a true democracy and abused their government jobs to line up their pockets.

That is what Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most outspoken opposition leader, posted online on August 11, a week after being sentenced to 19 years in jail for “extremism” in a trial widely seen as retribution for challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Navalny’s “they” did not refer to Putin or his coterie who have been ruling Russia for 23 years reviving authoritarian rule, carrying out political purges, falling out with the West and invading Georgia and Ukraine.

“They” were Russia’s first democratically-elected President Boris Yeltsin, his ministers and allies who rebuilt their nation’s politics and economy from scratch after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

They also allowed a handful of shadowy businessmen to privatise Soviet-era assets that included giant plants, energy resources and infrastructure, and television networks.

‘Seven bankers’

The mightiest of the oligarchs gained clout comparable to the 19th-century “robber barons” in the United States.

Known as the “seven bankers”, they pulled political strings while ailing, alcoholic Yeltsin kept reshuffling his cabinet and losing popular support.

One of these oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky, convinced Yeltsin to appoint Putin, an obscure security official, as prime minister in 1999.

Almost a quarter century after Yeltsin “stole” the millennium celebrations on December 31, 1999 by announcing his resignation, Russian liberal democrats are sidelined, silenced or exiled.

Many of them still consider Yeltsin a champion of democracy whose achievements outweigh his mistakes.

But Navalny is not among them.

“I fiercely, madly hate all those who sold, drank away, wasted the historic chance our nation had in the early 1990s,” he wrote in a statement published on his Russian-language website titled “My Fears and Hatred”.

‘Troublesome 1990s’

In the post, Navalny lambasted Yeltsin, his younger daughter Tatyana and her husband Valentin Yumashev, who were known as “Tanya and Valya”, as well as Anatoly Chubais, a key reformist who became a multimillionaire CEO and topped the list of Russia’s most-hated public figures.

“I hate Yeltsin with Tanya and Valya, Chubais and the rest of the sold-out family that propelled Putin to power,” Navalny wrote. “I hate the swindlers whom we somehow called reformists.”

He also criticised Russia’s 1993 constitution adopted after Yeltsin dissolved the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

The lawmakers impeached Yeltsin in return and barricaded inside the parliament building, and he used the army to storm it.

Navalny was a 17 years-old law student at the time.

“I hate the authors of the dumbest, authoritarian constitution that we, idiots, were duped into accepting as a democratic one [and that] gave the president the authority of a full-scale monarch,” he wrote.

Chaos, corruption and crushed hopes

His supporters point out that tens of millions of average Russians avert democracy because the 1990s reformers made the term associated with chaos, corruption and crushed hopes.

“In the 1990s, it wasn’t a democracy in power, but ‘democrats’ who reshaped the power for themselves, making [their steps] look like the reforms the country needed so badly,” said Violetta Grudina, who headed a branch of Navalny’s Fund to Fight Corruption (FBK) in the Arctic city of Murmansk near the Norwegian border.

Before fleeing Russia in 2022, she faced assaults, arrests and fines; her apartment was shot at, and her office broken into.

“For them, the political infighting of the 1990s was aimed exclusively at financial gain and personal enrichment. Initially, there was no freedom, the elites were fighting for a place in power. As a result, Russians don’t believe in democracy, as the very definition was discredited,” she told Al Jazeera.

Navalny’s statement predictably roiled key figures of the “troublesome 1990s”, including Kremlin critics who backed him.

Yeltsin’s former Deputy Prime Minister Alfred Koch, who faced official pressure in Putin’s Russia and fled for Germany in 2015, called Navalny’s post “vulgar, primitive and designed for the uncritical eye of fans”.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s formerly richest oligarch who spent 10 years in jail after falling out with Putin, called the post a “direct lie”, but refrained from more detailed criticism.

Some observers called Navalny’s statement a populist move that targeted the supporters of the Communist Party whose voices Navalny wants to use if he ever runs for office.

“[The post] continues his de facto promotion of the Communist Party for whose benefit he’s been working in the past 10 years,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera.

Led by the proverb “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, Navalny urged his supporters to back dozens of Communists who ran against the candidates of the ruling United Russia party in the 2021 parliamentary vote.

But Navalny’s efforts failed as “almost all of his Communist lawmakers turned out to be Putinists and warmongers”, Mitrokhin said.

Other observers said that Navalny was right to emphasise how some reformists rushed to accept lucrative jobs.

“They really wanted democracy, but at the same time wanted to enrich themselves,” Alisher Ilkhamov, head of Central Asia Due Diligence, a think tank in London, told Al Jazeera. “Their double standards are one of the roots of today’s problems.”

And those who witnessed the 1990s reforms accuse Navalny of underestimating Yeltsin’s achievements.

“A market economy started operating from scratch, and thanks to it the country still exists,” Sergey Bizyukin, a fugitive opposition activist from the western city of Ryazan told Al Jazeera.

Yeltsin created “a parliamentary system with free and almost honest elections”, he said referring to the 1996 presidential vote that many observers claim was in fact won by Communist hopeful Gennady Zyuganov.

But the West turned a blind eye to the alleged falsifications to prevent the return of Communists to the Kremlin.

‘Fateful mistakes’

Yeltsin, of course, made “fateful mistakes” – started and lost the first Chechen war and refused to ban former Communists and KGB agents from government jobs, Bizyukin said.

“But even considering [these mistakes], what’s been done by Yeltsin seems almost impossible,” he said. “Tectonic shifts. Though absolutely underappreciated.”

Navalny bristled at Russian media and democrats for backing the alleged falsification of the 1996 vote.

“I hate the ‘independent mass media’ and the ‘democratic public’ that fully supported one of the most dramatic turning points of our recent history,” he wrote.

He admitted that back in 1996, he “did everything not to notice” the alleged falsification.

But it became post-Soviet Russia’s original sin that would ricochet years later, when election monitors, opposition and the Western would accuse Putin’s Kremlin of habitual vote rigging.

“Now, we’re paying for thinking in 1996 that faking vote results isn’t always bad,” Navalny wrote.

To his followers, the statement offers a clean slate for reforms in post-Putin Russia.

“Politicians and spin doctors of the 1990s laid the technological foundation of the authoritarianism that engulfed Russia now,” Aleksander Zykov, who headed a Fund to Fight Corruption branch in the western city of Kostroma before fleeing for the Netherlands, told Al Jazeera.

In June, a Russian court sentenced him in absentia to five years in jail for “spreading fakes about the Russian army”.

“The main ideological narrative that juxtaposes Alexey [Navalny] and his supporters from the ‘1990s people’ is that power is but a function. It’s not a way to wealth or a sacred, God-given pillar,” Zykov said.

Source: Al Jazeera