Even from the back of a paddy wagon – arrested as the leader of breakthrough protests in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule – or when he’s being paraded in handcuffs by Russian police, Alexey Navalny wears the smile of someone who feels like he’s winning.
He just might be. The 35-year-old nationalist and anti-corruption crusader, who instigated the troubles now facing Mr. Putin and his United Russia party by labelling them the “party of crooks and thieves,” will be behind bars on Saturday. He will be serving a 15-day sentence for refusing to obey police orders when tens of thousands of angry middle-class Russians are expected to gather near the Kremlin walls for the biggest protest of Mr. Putin’s 12 years in power.
But the moment is very much of Mr. Navalny’s making. His is the face and voice of Russia’s opposition which was suddenly invigorated this week after parliamentary elections last Sunday.
Official figures gave Mr. Putin’s party a narrow win, but a flood of video footage shot by ordinary Russians and posted on the Internet appear to show ballot-stuffing and other widespread manipulation.
Smouldering resentment caught fire, largely through social media. The ensuing protests that have left Russia’s leadership scrambling. Earlier this week. Mr. Putin blamed the United States for inciting the massive public push for his ouster – demonstrations that have led to a major martial presence on the Moscow streets not seen since the early 1990s.
If Saturday’s crowd is as large as expected (and more than 35,000 have added their names to a Facebook page saying they plan to attend) it will mark the latest evolution of a movement Mr. Navalny launched by calling his supporters into the streets.
With a 140-character invitation on his Twitter account, Mr. Navalny transformed a Monday rally against election fraud from a gathering of the usual suspects – the few hundred people who have been bravely demonstrating against Mr. Putin’s rule for years – into a moment of mass political awakening that saw as many as 10,000 Muscovites roused by the slogan “Russia without Putin!” Others shouted “Navalny for president!”
Mr. Navalny’s next “tweet,” a photograph he took with his mobile phone from inside the police truck, surrounded by supporters and fellow prisoners who nonetheless are clearly laughing at their captors, only helped his legend grow.
The tall, blond lawyer, who married his university girlfriend, Yulia, and has no children, has become Russia’s first street-protest hero since a renegade Communist apparatchik named Boris Yeltsin climbed on top of a tank to face down a coup by Soviet hard-liners 20 years ago.
But Mr. Navalny, whom allies say has long held political ambitions (though he has refused overtures to run for president against Mr. Putin in March), has a dark side. He took part in the ultranationalist “Russky March” last month in Moscow, an angry rally at which many took up his “party of crooks and thieves” rhetoric, freely mixing it with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim slurs, as well as cries of “Russia for the Russians!”
Though Mr. Navalny distanced himself from some of the worst hate speech, he also seems to see political advantage in associating himself with the swelling number of Russians who blame outsiders for the country’s economic struggles.
His political skills, for now, seem more important to the anti-Putin opposition than his politics. “He’s handsome and he’s very articulate. He also has a very good intuition of what to talk about,” said Oleg Kozlovsky, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement that is the backbone of Saturday’s planned protest.
A key moment in Russia’s sudden politicization, he said, came during the election campaign when Mr. Navalny branded Mr. Putin’s United Russia party as the “party of crooks and thieves” – a name that stuck among a population fed up with widespread official corruption.
“It may sound like a very banal and primitive slogan, and maybe a couple of years ago it wouldn’t have made sense to use it. But when [Mr. Navalny]said it, it became popular,” Mr. Kozlovsky said.
It was a phrase that helped redefine a party that had been expected to cruise to an easy victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election, and one that played a large role in helping galvanize voters into casting their ballots for anybody but United Russia. The party still won the election with just under 50 per cent of the vote, according to the official results. However, some exit polls suggest the total was inflated by fraud, and that United Russia’s real support level was closer to 30 per cent, or less than half of what it received four years ago.
A hint of how much Mr. Navalny bothers the Kremlin came via the Twitter account of President Dmitry Medvedev, who retweeted, and then quickly deleted, a posting referring to the “crooks and thieves” remark and suggesting the author – Mr. Navalny – was a sheep with unlikely sexual habits. While the Kremlin denied that Mr. Medvedev was behind the off-colour posting – instead blaming an unnamed subordinate – it was left clear that Mr. Navalny concerns those at the very top of the Russian power structure.
Mr. Navalny first gained notoriety last year when he used his position as a minority shareholder in the state-owned pipeline giant Transneft to acquire, and then post on his blog, documents that suggested the company was involved in a multibillion-dollar fraud. He followed that up by establishing a crowd-sourced anti-corruption website (rospil.info) that purports to have saved the Russian government many millions of rubles by exposing skimming and waste. He handily won an online poll conducted by the Kommersant newspaper last fall that asked Muscovites who they thought should be the city’s next mayor.
But until this week, his fan base was still virtual. His arrest on Monday changed that.
“The authorities moved him from an online hero to an offline one. All of his social-networking friends now follow him offline, too. He has become a real figure,” said Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station, one of the country’s few independent media outlets. “Navalny is becoming a common leader for all. It’s a new stage for the Russian opposition.”
The veteran journalist isn’t entirely sure that’s good news. While those who have taken to the streets since Sunday’s controversial Duma election have largely been what Mr. Venediktov calls “Putin’s generation” – young people who have known no other leader, and who have become bored and frustrated with his growing authoritarianism – part of the reason Mr. Navalny poses such a genuine threat to the Kremlin is that he has also courted a darker stream in modern Russia, hard-right nationalists who see the country as threatened by a wave of immigration.
Mr. Navalny seems to tailor his message according to whom he’s speaking. In an interview with the Russian edition of Esquire magazine, a decidedly more liberal audience than the Russky March, he said his ambition for Russia was to see the country become “a big, irrational, metaphysical Canada.”
“As a politician, he’s just beginning [to define himself]” Mr. Venediktov said. “He mixes democratic slogans with liberal slogans and with nationalistic slogans. He’s a populist.”
One point Mr. Navalny remains unbending on is his willingness to take on Russia’s current power structure. In an interview earlier this year, he said his growing popularity had brought him under increasing official pressure, including a fraud investigation he says is politically motivated.
“They want to scare me. For them, the best outcome would be if I emigrate. But I will not give them that pleasure,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I choose to stay and face the risks.”
-There may soon be a symbol to the protests: white ribbons. A group of activists sent up a website urging people to wear them in support of Saturday's demonstrations. They're not yet visible on Moscow's streets but some opposition leaders and even TV presenters are wearing them in their lapels.
- The opposition is also vulnerable to attacks on the websites and social media that have nourished the protests. This week, an official of Vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, reported pressure from the FSB, the KGB's main successor, to block access to opposition groups, but said his company refused. On election day, the websites of a main independent radio station and the country's only independent election-monitoring group fell victim to denial-of-service hacker attacks. In a possible attempt at intimidation, a top Interior Ministry official proposed this week that all social media users be required to register their legal names and addresses.
- The Associated Press