“It is unlikely […] that Putin will leave the stage even in 2024”, wrote The Guardian a few years ago. Lately however, mainstream media has been painting a very different picture of the Head of State. No longer an impenetrable figure, the headlines even suggest that Putin’s power is on a sharp decline. A quick Google search for Vladimir Putin makes that picture even clearer. For instance, the New York Times’ headline reads, “Alexsei Navalny is Resisting Putin, and Winning”. While another one says, “ Russia Rising: Why Vladimir Putin can’t ignore Alexei Navalny’s Revolution”, and the BBC suggesting the same, “Why jailing Navalny may mean more problems for Putin”. After more than two decades in power Putin is a recognizable name, one we’re comfortable enough to draw with almost any brush strokes. At the same time we also see the name of Alexei Navalny within the same headlines with equal, if not, more prominence.
What these headlines don’t include however, may offer a better illustration of the overall sentiment in Russian public life. That is, the tens of thousands of people marching in protests in more than 100 cities and towns throughout Russia. These mainstream headlines and stories would make most believe that all the protesters are unified behind Navalny. Yet the Russian population, like most advanced and developed nations, is diverse and so are their politics. Nonetheless, in order to show the disconnect between the protesters and Navalny, a closer look at both becomes necessary.
Navalny is not a new face in Russian politics and has been a strong critic of Putin and government corruption for more than a decade. Time magazine even called him “Russia’s Erin Brockovich” for fighting state-owned corporate greed back in 2010. More recently Navalny has been propelled to the global stage as a prominent figure fighting government corruption in Russia. Reading these headlines alone one may believe that Navalny is the new face of Russian governance, a new symbol for imminent change in Russian politics that is more friendly to western values.
Like everything else in government and politics, headlines alone just provide the backdrop, when the facts are usually a lot more abstract. Contrary to mainstream headlines other prominent critics have provided a starkly different perspectives on Navalny. For example, Katya Kazbek, a Russian translator and editor in chief of Supamodu.com, had recently cautioned that Navalny’s politics are not much different than that of a fair-weather fan, an adaptable political figure, one that jumps “to whatever seems opportune”. These sentiments have been noted before. In a 2017 report, Salon had noted that Navalny is a nationalist with neo-Nazi ties, is xenophobic with extreme anti-immigrant views. More recently and as Kazbek reiterates, Navalny’s politics have changed to reflect a more democratically progressive view like his endorsement for Bernie Sanders. Navalny’s swayable and extreme politics are even more demonstrable when we revert attention to some of his past political videos:
The first video shows Navalny comparing immigrants and/or Muslims to cockroaches, pests that must be exterminated. Even as a lowbrow joke it is far from progressive and even racist. The latter video shows a top Navalny associate cooperating with a British spy for funding in order to continue work as the Russian government’s main opposition. Perhaps it’s Navalny’s ability to court all sides of the political spectrum that explains the majority of Russians’ distrust of him. This is further illustrated by an August 2020 poll on trustful political figures in Russian politics where Navalny scored a two percent.
Rather than providing an in-depth inquiry into the protesters, media corporations like AP news paint protesters with one broad stroke, they are all pro-Navalny, including over five thousand peaceful protesters who were arrested at the end January. For Kazbek, mass protests throughout Russia for the past 30 years is nothing new and goes far beyong the political plays presented by Navalny. She notes these issues include, “corruption, low life quality, restricted freedoms and undemocratic elections.” Other issues include legislation that greatly restricts peaceful protests, as well as those that are against LGBTI+ rights.
For example, in a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch had noted that while the Russian Consitution allows the right to peaceful assembly, “Russian authorities often arbitrarily refuse to give permission for public protests organized by critics of the government or the political opposition.” It further concluded that Russia does not comply with international standards for human, civil and political rights to which it is a member.
Another instance of severly restricted freedoms in Russia is that of Yulia Tsvetkova, a Russian feminist artist and LGBTI+ activist, who is on trial for the “dissemination of pornography and gay propaganda”. An Amnesty International campaign for Tsvetkova refers to the charges as “absurd” for what amounts to drawings of the female body and LGBTI+ couples and their children, fostering LGBTI+ families and rights.
Despite the very real concerns of Russian activists and protesters, one can only really speculate the reasons behind corporate media’s bias for Navalny. Certainly the protesters are far more diverse than Navalny and what his politics can encompass.
Contrarily for Putin, his complexities mainly lie in his reign over Russian politics for over twenty years. However, Putin’s complexities may be more simple than a first quick glance at the headlines. That is, he has elevated Russia’s role as a global superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union, has expanded essential personal freedoms including religion, travel and access to western social media, as well as overall quality of life. All this has resulted in some political factions in Russia even calling Putin too pro-western.
By presenting a dualistic view between Navalny and Putin the headlines often miss the plight and voice of the people and protesters alike. Moreover, the vastly differing characterizations of Navalny only serve as a bigger noise barrier for the voice of the people to get through to their government officals.While Navalny may be a path for western democracies to penetrate Russian politics as the mainstream headlines have implicitly implied, the plight of the people and protesters can only speak to Putin’s actual popularity.
While The Guardian may have been right in its position that Putin will remain as President in 2024, yet his power over the people is demonstrably changing and evidently not to his interests. Putin’s popularity with the people still greatly overshadows his political opponents however, as a recent poll shows he stands at 40 percent while second place is a distant 4 percent and Navalny at 2 percent.
Navalny may not be a real contender for the Russian presidency yet what is evident is that he is a catalyst for the people to express their dissatisfaction with Russian politics. Perhaps those who would listen to the voices of the people, like in any developed society, would gain real, tangible support and with real actions one can only imagine the greater the prominence that could be gained.