The weekend protests against Putin offer opportunities for the Russian left, argues Dragan Plavšić
Protests were held in Russia this weekend against the jailing of Putin’s most high-profile opponent, Alexei Navalny. He was arrested at Moscow airport immediately upon his return from Germany, where he had been receiving treatment for nerve agent poisoning very likely administered by Russian state agents.
Indeed, it was surely no coincidence that Navalny was struck down in August last year just as mass demonstrations were taking place against the Lukashenko regime in neighbouring Belarus.
There is little doubt that Navalny’s attacks on the Putin regime have been increasingly hitting their target, hence his poisoning, arrest and now the detention of many demonstrators, including Navalny’s wife.
Navalny v Putin and the Russian left
Putin’s repression is another step in his goal of monopolising political life in Russia and stifling all or any alternatives, especially those offered by liberals like Navalny currently posing the greatest threat to his regime.
Just last year Putin amended Russia’s constitution to ensure he would be able to stay in power beyond 2024, when he would otherwise have been legally obliged to relinquish it. (He also took the opportunity to outlaw same sex marriage by a constitutional clause that defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.)
As a result, Russia today is for all practical purposes an elective dictatorship where democratic elections and fundamental rights are subject to state whim rather than institutional guarantee.
Navalny’s attacks on Putin’s repression and electoral fraud have certainly struck a chord, but his greatest impact has probably come from his attacks on the corruption and ostentatious consumption of the Putin elite and of Putin himself.
Shortly after his arrest, Navalny’s team released a video about Putin’s £1 billion luxury Black Sea palace, alleging it was paid for by corrupt funds. Since its release, the video has been viewed over 50 million times.
The issues Navalny has been raising have their clearly defined limits, of course.
For him, democracy means fraud-free political democracy in the conventional sense (important in itself of course), but with no thought given to the idea of workplace democracy.
His attacks on corruption, despite their implicit appeal to the latent class bitterness of a deeply divided society, rest on the moral principle of individual honesty rather than on any wider demand for the redistribution of wealth likely to rouse working class interest. After all, Navalny has backers among Russia’s super-rich too.
These limits are to be expected of a liberal like Navalny. Nevertheless, it would be an error for this reason to dismiss the current protests.
On the contrary, both Navalny’s successes and his limits represent an opportunity for those on the Russian left prepared to seize it.
Navalny’s successes with the issues of democracy and wealth provide eminently fertile soil for extended left agitation, while his limits are precisely where the left can intervene to push against the liberal boundaries of his politics. Tactically speaking, such arguments are most likely to be effective if pursued by the Russian left from within the protests rather than apart from them.
That said, just as there are real openings here for the Russian Left, there are real dangers too.
Navalny, the West and Russian nationalism
Needless to say, the protests have been welcomed by western media and tacitly by western governments longing for change in Russia that will be to their advantage. Not for the first time, they are hopeful that protests will kickstart a process that undermines Putin or even ousts him.
Navalny is merely the latest Russian oppositionist to have western hopes pinned on him.
His predecessor in that role was Boris Nemtsov, a liberal renown for the market reforms that devastated lives and livelihoods in the 1990s under Yeltsin. In 2015, he was assassinated by mercenary Chechens, very likely at the instigation of the pro-Russian regime in Chechnya.
Despite his high-profile status, Nemtsov failed to attract genuine mass support. This was due in part to his association with Yeltsin’s market reforms, but above all because of an affliction shared by many liberal politicians of his ilk: Nemtsov was pro-western. He supported Ukraine’s integration into Europe and he opposed Putin’s annexation of Crimea. This didn’t play well with many Russians.
Although Navalny has now picked up Nemtsov’s baton, he has always been inclined to take a different tack on this issue, acutely aware that pro-western sympathies were a weighty albatross around Nemtsov’s neck.
As a result, Navalny has mixed his liberal politics with a hefty dose of Russian nationalism, one that has occasionally turned abusively racist (and for which he once apologised). He supported Russia’s war with Georgia and Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and he has made much of the need to stamp down on illegal immigration. Indeed, his nationalism was too much for one liberal party, which expelled him.
The Russian left must be ready to criticise Navalny’s nationalist tendencies. It must also be ready to warn against pro-western leanings. The impact of these criticisms and warnings will only be enhanced if the left participates in the protests.
Navalny is a liberal who finds himself in circumstances where mass mobilisation is a political necessity. It is the only way in which the Putin regime is likely to be removed from power.
At the same time, there are huge reservoirs of untapped discontent in Russia.
This makes the prospect of a recurrence of the mass protests against electoral fraud in 2012-13 very real, given that Russia’s parliamentary elections are due this year. It also opens up the prospect of mass protests going in unpredictably explosive directions.
The Russian left should not stand aside from all this. It needs to be involved in the protests, despite their liberal leadership. Indeed, if it hopes to emerge from the political ghetto it currently inhabits, the left will have to take some calculated risks.
Although the left’s participation in the protests under its own banner carries risks, these are outweighed by the fact that participating means it will be much better placed to carry out the simultaneous task of opposing Navalny’s imprisonment and his politics.
As long as it keeps one eye on the opportunities and one on the risks, there is good reason to think that the left will be able to engage with a mass audience and begin to extend its political influence.
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Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).