Saturday, 20 July 2013

Who on earth is Alexei Navalny and why should I care? (A brief appraisal)

The only middle-aged Russian that most people in the West would recognise on TV used to be Vladimir Putin, yet, thanks to the proliferation of social media, Alexei Navalny is fast superseding the Russian President's place.

"Just who is Alexei Navalny and why should I care?" - a fair question. Russian politics, a lot of the time, seems very far from our own. Defence is a constant issue in their discourse, nationalism is not treated with the same suspicion as it is here and a topless man riding a horse in a stetson and bad sunglasses is not political suicide. Yet Alexei Navalny is a name that has kept cropping up over the last two years of political protest in Russia and is a name that will surely keep cropping up with every passing controversy.

Action Man? (photo taken under creative commons from Jedimentat44)

In the eyes of Russia's new(ish) middle class Alexei Navalny is the figurehead of legitimate, pro-democratic opposition. A lot of factors have worked in his favour. He's neither a member of the aged Communist Party nor of one of the older, mustier, democratic parties like Yabloko from the days of Yeltsin. His understanding of the power of blogging and clever use of language has earned him a popularity with tech-savvy youth that no Western politician short of Obama, Tom Watson or, perhaps, David Lammy could rival.

In the eyes of the state he is a loud-mouthed, serial-tweeter with a very threatening agenda. For many political cynics his recent sentencing to 5 years in prison for embezzlement seems a little too well-timed and out of character for a man who has been looking to uproot the very same kind of self-serving abuse of power. (

Alexei Navalny (photo taken under creative commons)
I've written many times on this blog about the image problem faced by the Russian state with regard to its legal matters (1). The feeling that Pussy Riot were the first internationally recognised victims of a new series of show trials is one that has been a constant subtext of Western coverage of Navalny's trial. Yet, as always, reality is far too complex to neatly fit a familiar narrative. We should never fully denounce any court case simply because a political motive can be linked in to its proceedings. That kind of support leads to good people being prepared to make hideous denials of crimes like the controversy surrounding Assange not standing up to accusations of rape because it was assumed to be a set-up.

If all these aforementioned things are part of what defines Alexei Navalny and shapes his context in our world then I have still yet to answer why we should care.

Simply put he is a figurehead for change in a country that is once again showing its significance on the world stage. He is a man who has the potential to push Russian democracy in a new direction and to take steps to outlaw the corruption that seems to have seeped into Putin's Russia. Whether or not Alexei Navalny will make a transition to a position of power he is living proof that Russia is establishing a new class of protest citizen for the digital age, that is, at least, in Moscow where free broadband is readily available and Russians live in relative affluence.

(1) and