In the presidential election due next month, Vladimir Putin will be running against a whole bunch of candidates, who have neither a chance, nor – it seems – the desire to defeat him. But outside the virtual reality of Kremlin propaganda, this campaign will be remembered as a standoff between the incumbent leader of Russia and his charismatic and super-efficient rival, Alexei Navalny.
Nothing proves it better than the fact that, despite being the only politician in Russia who really campaigned against Putin in this presidential race and, in doing so, built a formidable regional network, Navalny was explicitly banned from running, on flimsy grounds.
Despite the ban, Navalny emerges from this campaign as a winner. He has succeeded in seizing the initiative from the Kremlin and imposing his agenda on it. Instead of being proactive, like it has been for almost two decades, Vladimir Putin’s political machine had to shift into reactive mode, fighting off Navalny’s attacks, while at the same time persistently suppressing his regional network and trying to nurture a faux liberal alternative to Navalny’s movement.
Putin will definitely be elected president in March and proceed to govern Russia in the coming years, but he will have to operate in a political landscape radically altered by Navalny and his supporters.
The main change is geographic. For two decades, the anti-Putin protest movement was largely confined to what many Russians refer to as the “liberal ghettoes” of Moscow and St Petersburg. In one year, it has spread all over the country, flourishing in regions, which metropolitan democrats have long deemed hopeless, such as the mining region of Kemerovo in Siberia or the agrarian Tambov, southeast of Moscow.
Navalny has also revolutionised the demography of protest. It now, to a large extent, comprises 20-year-olds and teens, who have never seen a Russia without Putin in the entire lives and who are upset by the prospect of this status quo being preserved. This generation is out of reach for the Kremlin’s TV propaganda and the regime is struggling to rally them through their preferred mediums – social networks and video blogs.
Navalny has effectively succeeded in making thousands of people surpass a major psychological barrier and go out into the streets to exercise their constitutional right to free assembly, without asking the authorities for permission. Unauthorised protests in Moscow and St Petersburg are now too big for the authorities to quash – doing so could lead to greater protests.
But one crucial element is still missing. Even though he has broadened the narrow and often self-defeating agenda of metropolitan liberals, Navalny has so far failed to build a broad anti-Putin coalition like those that brought down communist regimes in Eastern Europe a quarter-century ago.
Ten years ago, Navalny did make an attempt at coalition-building, when he first emerged as a relentless anti-corruption campaigner. Himself a liberal with a strong libertarian streak, he first reached out to the nationalists – an often unsavoury, but crucially important constituency in all East European countries, including Russia. Alliances uniting democrats and nationalists, in which the latter often played the main mobilisation role, were crucial to the success of anti-communist revolutions all over the region. It was the same alliance that brought about both Ukrainian revolutions of 2004 and 2014.
In Russia, the nationalist agenda is largely driven by concerns about ethnic organised crime, centred on the North Caucasus, and immigration, Russia being the world’s third net recipient of foreign migrants after the US and Germany. Most of them come from predominantly Muslim countries of Central Asia.
The resulting xenophobia is obviously ugly, but these concerns are widespread and – just like in many other European countries – for millions of Russians, they easily trump some of the metropolitan liberals’ “toy issues”, such as the suppression of LGBT activists or radical artists, as in the case of the Pussy Riot punk collective.
What is peculiar about the West is that it has zero tolerance for Russian nationalism, but it was nurturing every shade of nationalism in Russia's neighbourhood.
Navalny’s flirtations with nationalists went ugly in 2007, when – influenced by the American Tea Party rhetoric – Navalny released a video, in which he compared immigrants to nasty bugs, while calling for the legalisation of firearms to defend people from that perceived threat. He lost many liberal friends and potential allies as a result of expressing such ideas and was widely branded “nationalist” in the West.
What is peculiar about the West is that it has zero tolerance for Russian nationalism, but it was nurturing every shade of nationalism in Russia’s neighbourhood as a counterweight to the “Russian threat” until it ran into problems with the monster it had created in Hungary and Poland. Once imaginary, that perceived threat eventually turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, when Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
The Western aversion to Russian nationalists is shared by Putin, who – while taking on board the irredentist and socially conservative elements of the nationalist agenda – ordered a massive crackdown on nationalist organisations in the wake of the Bolotnaya Square protests in 2012. Many Russians nationalists fled to Ukraine after the 2014 Maidan revolution and fought against Russian-backed forces on the Ukrainian side. They deemed them much closer to their nationalist ideas than the conservative values Putin propagates in Russia.
Navalny has definitely evolved over time and the far-right element of his platform has all but disappeared. As one of his allies put it to me, he is no longer an activist passionately fixated on a handful of issues he deems important, but a politician with an infinitely more holistic view on the workings of the state and society.
His presidential campaign, while it didn’t feature any major nationalist rhetoric, was instead marked by a serious shift towards the social-democratic left, which opens a gateway to another – and infinitely larger – constituency, currently divided between Putin’s United Russia and the quasi-opposition Communist Party. Ultimately, he is a 21st-century politician who operates outside the obsolete 20th-century left-right dichotomy. His allies fancy him to be a Russian version of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The main challenge Navalny is facing lies in the fact that Russians are extremely averse to the prospect of a Ukraine-styled violent revolution, which would indeed be madness in a country that stockpiles enough nuclear weapons to destroy life on Earth.
The Kremlin has so far been very successful in exploiting this very genuine fear, while simultaneously engaging in dangerous brinkmanship, both domestically and internationally. But the stonewall the regime has surrounded itself with is no longer going up. Instead, brick by brick, it is starting to fall apart. As Russian writer Korney Chukovsky famously said: “One must live long in Russia, if he wants to achieve something”. Navalny is clearly in for the long game.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly claimed that Navlny’s video on gun legalisation was released in 2011. It was, in fact, posted for the first time in 2007.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.