Russian officials pursue the strategy of sidelining Navalny from electoral politics and stripping off his credibility. While Navalny was named by Time magazine as one of the 30 most influential people on the internet, alongside President Barack Obama, back in Russia his name is rarely mentioned. His political candidacy has been discredited nationwide and nearly removed from television, the most popular source of news for the majority of Russians.
Navalny is absent on mainstream media unless referring to convictions for embezzlement and fraud that have led to suspended prison sentences. Avoiding saying the last name “Navalny” completely is, perhaps, the most extreme strategy of all possible and yet it is deftly utilized by Vladimir Putin.
Putin is a master of playing political chess. His strategy of sidelining Navalny is much more complex than it actually seems. While he has allegedly said Navalny’s name only once, surprisingly, it was not recorded by any devices. Russia’s President Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov labeled allegations of the unofficial ban as “absurd”, therefore, he added that Putin’s public support is unchallengeable and uttering Navalny’s name would mean sharing popularity with him. The interview was later removed from Russia’s major news portals.
For Putin it is important to keep Russia’s politics balanced by avoiding removing Navalny from the scene completely and sustaining his presence, in case he needs it someday. The loss of Navalny would turn the opposition into a reckless crowd of protesters ravaging across major Russia’s cities.
Corruption is now a larger concern for Russians than the war in Ukraine. This could largely be attributed to Navalny’s team. His recent film “Chaika” was viewed by more than 4 million people on YouTube and disclosed a massive chain of organized corruption inside the entire Russia’s institution of judicial authority. The film linked Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika’s sons to the leaders of the infamous “Tsapok Gang”, who slaughtered a family of 12 people, including four children. However, it led to zero mass firings or public investigations and was labeled by the Russian authorities as a vicious attempt to discredit the Prosecutor General’s public image.
Disclosing large scale corruption is a dangerous path in Russia. The country’s gap between the rich and the poor is one of the largest in the world and many officials are aware of the dangerous consequences of more Russians finding out egregious facts of alleged corruption, similar to Dmitriy Peskov’s hand watch approximate price of 7000 of Russia’s minimum pensions.
Navalny represents the hope for a political change for many people in Russia. Interestingly enough, he has never published a political program and his major slogans represent a combination of labeling the ruling United Russia party as the “Party of crooks and thieves” and calling for “nationalistic democracy”. His political popularity comes as a symbol, as a man who thinks differently from the mainstream politicians and is not afraid to challenge them.
Navalny never called for violent protests and is one of the few opposition leaders whose political struggle obeys legal frameworks. He is sometimes perceived as naïve and idealistic by many opposition leaders, who think that current Russian officials are incapable of negotiating and, henceforth, force is the only tool of political struggle. The red flag that the Kremlin should notice if it wants to successfully engage the Russian opposition in the future.
The deteriorating economic situation in the country may push more people into questioning the ruling party’s policy. As Russia is getting deeper into recession and poverty levels rise dramatically, growing distrust and hate towards the extraordinary wealth of “people’s servants” will accumulate.
It is very important for Putin to start engaging with Navalny now before it gets too late. Giving credibility to Navalny may add more balance to the Russia’s politics and restore political dialogue between opponents on both sides.
It is difficult to predict who will replace Navalny as the leader of the opposition if things get uglier in Russia. Nobody wants to see thousands of his former supporters running across Moscow and fighting police officers while the country economic and social systems are already on the verge of collapsing. The best way to avoid risks is to start using Navalny’s last name, and Vladimir Putin should be the first one to do it.
If given credibility, Navalny would ensure that political struggle remains within legal frames and never turns into violence. He might be a great choice for Kremlin, considering that 2016 and 2017 are set to be a tough couple of years on the Russian people and will inevitably shift some fractions of the public opinion away from the pro-government agenda.
*The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not represent those of The Political Analysis.