ANYONE surveying the scene in Russia today has one name to commit to memory: Alexey Navalny. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that this 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger was responsible for turning out a 50,000-strong protest against a rigged parliamentary election – the largest pro-democracy movement Russia has seen since the collapse of communism. Yet Navalny, arrested at a rally last week and sentenced to 15 days in jail, has given voice to a long suppressed revulsion at the excesses of Putinism, and helped instigate the ongoing protests.
Navalny figured out that the best way to expose Putinism was not to call attention to human rights violations, but to show Russians how they were being robbed and cheated by the state. By President Dmitry Medvedev’s own calculation, some $33bn a year goes “missing” from Russian government contracts, equivalent to 3 per cent of the nation’s GDP. Last year, Navalny decided to start a website, RosPil, aimed at accounting for how that money vanished by encouraging online users to analyse lucrative state contracts. Navalny and other cyber-activists found that these contracts always seem to be awarded not to the highest bidder or most expert contractor, but to members of Putin’s ruling United Russia party, and even relatives and friends of them.
Navalny’s coinage for United Russia – “the party of crooks and thieves” – is now a near-universal epithet that captures the weariness and frustration that ordinary Russians feel towards the regime’s euphemistically-defined “managed democracy”. Because Russian television is also state-controlled and most people got their “news” from TV, it used to be difficult to expose state corruption, much less mobilise mass action against it. Yet the government’s relative inability to control the internet has made LiveJournal blogs, Facebook and Twitter the new samizdat; Navalny can reach over 150,000 followers with the click of a mouse.
Shortly before last week’s election, Navalny tweeted for evidence of electoral fraud. Scores of mobile phone videos were taken last Sunday showing election officials filling in blank ballots, ballot boxes arriving a third full and voter carousels – buses transporting people around from polling station to polling station to cast multiple ballots. Golos, the country’s only independent election monitor, was cyber-attacked and its head detained for 12 hours at a Moscow airport.
The criticisms are beginning to sting. Even former Putin loyalists are going over to the other side. Ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who resigned after Putin announced his plan to return to the presidency in March, said in September that he’ll attempt to head a new liberal party; rumours of his own presidential run are rife. Just this week, billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov has also announced his candidacy for president. It may be too soon to predict the end of authoritarian rule in Russia, but an opportunity has been seized to channel popular discontent into civic action. Navalny himself is an avowed nationalist and he’s spoken at rallies with far right audiences. But thanks to his intervention, in a country stifled by authoritarianism, the more liberal voice of Russia’s fed-up generation will also be heard.
Michael Weiss is acting research director of the Henry Jackson Society. Julia Pettengill, a research fellow, also contributed to this article.