Navalnyi goes into the breach

What follows is a rough English translation of a piece published with the BBC Russian Service earlier today. You can find the Russian original here.

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“I want to be your voice” – those were the words Alexey Navalnyi used just recently to launch his presidential campaign. They don’t differ all that much from the words used by a very different presidential candidate in Ohio this summer. Donald Trump, however, eschewed caution and simply declared, “I am your voice.”

This summer, it was still possible to joke about that. Trump’s chances of ending up in the White House seemed only slightly greater than Navalnyi’s prospects of winning the Kremlin at the ballot box. Come winter, alas, and Americans are consoling themselves with different jokes. I wonder what jokes they’re telling on Staraya Ploshchad’?

The Russian establishment obviously holds a greater monopoly over public politics than its American counterpart. There’s no way Navalnyi or any other candidate could use television to divide the country into competing ideational and ideological camps. And there are no loopholes of constitutional federalism that would allow him to win for losing.

But the current occupants of the Kremlin, most likely, will have noticed that the phenomenon that led to the victory of Trump (and, earlier, to the victory of Brexit) is essentially a Russian one. And the crux of the matter isn’t in post-truth. Quite the opposite, actually.

A recent poll in the US showed that 81% of Americans understand that Trump will be guided as president by his own business interests. Unsurprisingly, 73% of Democrats think this is a bad thing. But at the same time, 73% of Republicans think this is fine, and perhaps even good.

Seeing that helps explain why people who voted for a man who promised to “Make America great again” and to “drain the swamp” sit calmly while the president-elect Tweets at late-night actors and appoints billionaires and retired politicians and generals to help run the country. These voters have long ceased to believe in the material usefulness of politicians, and so they expected nothing more (or less) from Trump. At least he says what they’re thinking. And he’s certainly not boring.

Russians have long looked on with amusement at Americans who continue to expect good things from their politicians, as though they were children expecting gifts from Santa Claus. That’s part of the reason, evidently, why Barack Obama rejected a CIA proposal to publish documents linking Vladimir Putin to the Russian oligarchs – no one in Russia would have been the slightest bit surprised. According to Levada-Center data, some 70% of Russians know that inequality in the country has grown under Putin’s rule, and only 15% believe he governs in the interests of common citizens – but 86% approve of his performance as president. That’s only possible if your expectations are low.

The task facing Putin ahead of the Russian presidential elections is to ensure that this “detached” approach to politics remains in place. Convincing the majority of Russian citizens that politics is mostly symbolic, and that Putin is a pretty good symbol, isn’t hard. But as the September parliamentary elections showed, convincing them to come out and actually vote isn’t easy. Putin, of course, evokes more positive emotions than his United Russia party, but even he can’t be too confident in his mobilizational powers.

In that context, Navalnyi would seem a fortuitous opponent for Putin. For some people, of course, Navalnyi is a hero. But for the majority of Russian citizens, if Navalnyi is associated with anything at all, it’s with the ‘Bolotnaya’ opposition movement of 2011-12, which, thanks to ‘Surkovian propaganda’ is linked in most Russians’ minds to the meddling of the US State Department and the European Union. It should be fairly easy to convince Russian voters that Navalnyi is dangerous.

But the trap for the Kremlin is that Hillary Clinton thought the same thing. Unable to convince many Americans of her political promise or to charm them emotionally, Clinton in the end turned to the negative aspects of her opponent. For most Americans, after all, Trump is a clown, a fraud, a racist, a misogynist and for many a puppet of Moscow. Now, of course, for all Americans he is president-elect.

Oddly enough, the choice now facing Navalnyi is whether “to be or not to be” Trump. Given even a fleeting chance of running for president, he must decide what offer to make to the Russian electorate and, thus, what legacy to leave in the political history of his country.

“To be” Trump is the easier option. If Navalnyi goes in that direction, he won’t have to convince Russians to become more demanding of their political leaders. He will simply have to show them that the pleasure they receive from Putin comes at a very high cost, and that there are cheaper, fresher and better pleasures available. That’s no guarantee of victory, of course. The entire machine of the Russian state will be set against him. But at least he won’t have to swim against the tide of 25 years of post-Soviet experience.

By the same token, “not to be” Trump is harder. If Navalnyi goes in this direction, he will have to get people to change their relationship to power, to demand from the president policies that are in the interests of ordinary people, to achieve a decrease in inequality, to insist on accountability. Creating that kind of relationship to power – and to themselves as citizens – will take more than one presidential campaign. It may even take more than one generation. But the result will be not just a new president, but an altogether different country.

Navalnyi’s platform contains hints in both directions. There are concrete proposals to fight corruption and restore economic justice, alongside purely emotional appeals to believe that life with Navalnyi will simply be better. As with any politician, the decision about which way to go will be made with difficulty, over an extended period of time and not without doubts, looking closely both at the resistance he faces and the support he receives.

Whatever American chooses to challenge Trump in four years’ time will face the same choice. The decisions made by Navalnyi and his future American comrade-in-arms will determine not only how long Putin and Trump continue to rule, but also something much more fundamental. In the crux of their choice lies the difference between the victory of a democrat, and the victory of democracy.

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