The Navalny Case : What Does It Say About the Russian Political Regime and Its Alternative

La condamnation d’Alexeï Navalny montre comment fonctionne le régime Poutine. L’attitude de l’avocat-blogueur ne dit rien sur l’avenir de l’oppositoin en Russie, explique la politologue Lilia Shevtsova, dans un commentaire pour Carnegie Endowment for Peace. 

 Navalny’s conviction demonstrates how Putin’s post-2012 political regime works. Yes, indeed : the leader and the ruling team are the same as before, but the mechanism of rule is different. The previous soft authoritarianism based on imitation of and cooperation with the West has been gradually replaced by a regime structured on repression and containment of the West. This regime is not yet fully assembled—it is moving there. Putin’s new rule is established on the principle of total, absolute loyalty, and cannot accommodate, as it did before, criticism or plurality of views. There are all signs that the new regime’s resilience and adaptability to the new challenges are being exhausted and it has been forced (contrary to the wishes of some of its members, apparently) to switch to harsher instruments of rule.

Navalny’s conviction is to serve as a message for the thinking minority and opposition, “Don’t you dare !” As the history of the rise and fall of global civilizations demonstrates, Putin’s regime is entering its decay. True, this decay can take a long time and the jury is out on how it will end.

But Navalny was released, you would say. Is it not a sign of softening of the regime ? Is it the Kremlin’s response to the society’s indignation and the Western leaders’ criticism ? Indeed, the Kremlin has to take into account the mood within Russia and abroad. But for the time being other factors brought about this weird situation. We can see that some members of the ruling elite, represented by the official contender for the Moscow mayoral job, Sergei Sobyanin, have decided to use Navalny to legitimize the mayoral elections. Does this signify a change in the administration’s repressive logic ? Definitely not ! Sobyanin just borrowed Navalny to achieve his agenda. After playing the role of Sobyanin’s sparring partner, Navalny will be sent to the labor colony as planned. There is not even the slightest chance that his appeal will be successful. The Kremlin cannot afford to demonstrate weakness.

Will Navalny successfully use his chance to ride the tide ? As of now, he is a courageous and charismatic blogger who has used a new medium to expose corruption within ruling circles. However, he is still a “systemic” person, that is, he is trying to make the system of personal rule honest—he wants to replace the authorities, not to change the system. At least he never showed that he has a transformative strategy. He pursues the old model of the Leader Savior, which is the personalized leadership that cannot change the Russian matrix. 

Will his fame and inevitable imprisonment help him turn into a new type of leader with an exit strategy ? It is not clear yet. We see at the moment the birth of the Navalny Myth. It may later acquire logic of its own, and even Navalny may become its hostage. With Navalny’s current agenda the Navalny Myth cannot become a systemic alternative to the one man rule. But this is the beginning, and we may yet see that the courageous blogger has broader potential. Let us be patient.