Only half a year ago the opposition leader Alexei Navalny was a non-person on Russian state media, and Putin’s opulent palace built on the Black Sea was largely unheard of inside the country. Navalny had his loyal base of supporters who followed him on YouTube, and the palace had been discussed in the West for a decade. But for the overwhelming majority of Russians, both were unknown.
Today, Navalny is everywhere on the Russian media. Vladimir Putin himself may still not be willing to name ‘that man’ – which after a certain point begins to look downright strange – but the President’s loyal army of pundits, news anchors and state journalists have leapt into the fray. Navalny has been called everything from a US-funded subversive to a ‘political paedophile’ – a reference to the fact that even children have heeded his call to protest. The Russian media are no longer pretending Navalny doesn’t exist.
Likewise, after Navalny released a blockbuster exposé (so far viewed by over 61 million people in Russia) revealing the President’s blinged-out retreat, with everything from its own hookah bar to an aquadisco, ‘Putin’s palace’ is suddenly getting the full media treatment. According to state media the palace doesn’t belong to Putin. It was built as a gift for Putin but he refused it. It’s a private residence.
Recently, video bloggers posted a report claiming that the palace, contrary to the jaw-droppingly tacky renderings of the palace generated by Navalny’s team, is still in a state of construction. Then TV channel Rossiya-1 aired a segment that claimed it was just a hotel, still being built.
Yet Navalny had already said that because of shoddy construction the billion-pound building had been totally gutted for an expensive rebuild. Besides, pictures shot by construction teams inside the palace have been circulating for years, showing the gaudy décor of the original work. And what hotel is guarded by the Federal Protection Service – that also guards the Kremlin and provides Putin’s bodyguards – and is subject to a no-fly and maritime exclusion zone? Nonetheless, all this reveals that even though Navalny is languishing behind bars, it is the Kremlin that is imprisoned in his narrative.
Acknowledging that Navalny exists – in whatever slanted terms – is an acknowledgement that there can be politics outside the tired farce of the stage-managed contests between the Kremlin’s United Russia bloc and the so-called ‘systemic opposition,’ which is much more system than opposition. Navalny, after all, is not running for election. He doesn’t need people to like him – he needs people to hear him.
This is why the Kremlin has been desperate to ensure he does not stand in presidential elections or create a political party of his own.
Navalny’s threat to the Kremlin is three-fold. As a person, he is a charismatic and evidently fearless figure. As a campaigner on corruption, he has identified the Achilles’ Heel of a regime which depends on stealing from its people to pay Putin’s cronies. But perhaps most significantly of all, as an opposition figure willing genuinely to oppose the Kremlin, he is a reminder to all Russians that they still have the ability to choose.
Notwithstanding the recent poisoning of Navalny, Putin tends to be a post-modern authoritarian leader who rules more through apathy than fear. He has for years been able to convince most Russians not only that the status quo, however imperfect, is likely better than any alternative, but also that there is simply no point in trying to bring about substantive change in the system.
Many who are now marching are not doing so for Navalny. Instead he has inspired a ‘coalition of the fed up,’ who have simply been given license to express their own dissatisfactions. They think it is worth making their voices heard.
Navalny’s success in forcing the government to respond to his narrative should not be over-played: we cannot talk about the end of ‘Putinism.’ But nonetheless, it represents a rare and noteworthy victory, and one which must worry the old men in the Kremlin.