What does the West have so much hope in Navalny? Most people in the West seem to truly believe that Navalny will simply turn up and wave his magical wand and instantaneously transform the Russian federation. He is envisioned a genuine democratic threat to Putin. The BBC and Western media in general often introduce him as the main opposition to the incumbent president. Yet the Russian Communist party, the nationalist LDPR are streets ahead, while Yavlinsky of Yabloko, A just Russia and the communists of Russia not to mention various nationalist groups and other liberals such as Sobchak are all vying with Navalny to break above 2%.
Even the Western think tanks attest to Putin a genuine popularity that currently stands at well over 60%. Yet Navalny is an ever present in the mythical social discourse of most Western cities when conversation turns to Russia. Is this a typical case of the media distorting reality? Certainly Navalny enjoys support among a growing number of youths and has tapped into the hearts and minds of certain sectors of both the St Petersburg and Moscow educated class. He has also registered some resounding successes not least gaining 27% of the Moscow mayoral election in 2013. His popularity, or at least his online views, also dramatically increased since working together with Bellingcat after his apparent poisoning in 2020. But questions abound about the true political nature of Navalny’s cause as do the questions pertaining to Western representation of him.
First and foremost: can Navalny actually deliver? Can he instantaneously put an end to corruption in Russia? In this respect the answer is clearly no. Navalny cannot create the envisioned change that Westerners so romantically fantasise about. The reasons for this are manifold. Indeed, we have seen successive failures among all the colour revolutions in the post Soviet space to realise there are no simple fixes. Especially in the Ukraine both the Orange Revolution and the Maidan failed to produce any real inroads at all into the nation’s corruption, despite intensive support and funds being divested by the NATO powers. The judicial reforms have largely failed and the chaos wrought by the revolutions and the civil war has provided fertile ground for criminal behaviour as indeed have the land reforms.
Yet despite journalists being supposedly endowed with great investigative skills, it is enough for certain people to verbalise the correct rhetoric to obtain the affection of the vast liberal media. Here Navalny as the anti-Putin is given a free pass. with journalists seemingly wishing to buy into his pronouncements more than anything. Navalny irrespective of his march of the Russians and certain xenophobic statements on his social media platforms remains a firm favourite at the otherwise extremely PC NYT, Guardian and other “mainstream” media.
And yet what is Navalny? In truth he is the mirror image of his political foe Putin – with one significant difference. Putin essentially seeks to generate order by balancing the four main ideological strains of contemporary Russian thought. These are: the Liberals, the Eurasianists, the Neo-Traditionalists and the somewhat realist pragmatists represented by the siloviki. Putin’s intention is to make concessions to each group, therefore making them all stakeholders within the system. This roughly means an economy and constitution which is by and large liberal in origin, with elements of Keynesian or state interference in terms of monetary policy, some cultural conservative touches in recent years to the nation’s main body of laws, with some protection of the Orthodox Church. In addition to this there is Eurasianist and realist pragmatism in its renewed orientation towards Asia and within its foreign policy. Putin’s focus above all is on ensuring that the nation never reverts to the chaos of the post-Soviet years, a point made clear in his millennium manifesto in which he pledged to end the social upheavals, revolutions and radical reforms that have plagued Russia throughout its history.
Navalny likewise seeks to straddle the four components of contemporary Russian political thought. Where he differs, however, is that he seeks to recruit those disaffected at the fringes of each strain of thought and to use such disaffection to satisfy his personal gains. Naturally seeking to encourage the disaffection of the disaffected will not bring stability, and since electoral success is off the cards, revolt is the only option that currently appears on the table. Revolt by its very nature, likewise, is not conducive to order a fact corroborated throughout history.
In fact, Navalny has what can only be described as a paradoxical effect regards to corruption, then he injects no small amount of nihilism into Russian society. Furthermore, constantly underscoring that the system is corrupt only encourages corruption as it undermines faith in the political body. Navalny therefore is condemned to be an angel of chaos, something clearly seen on the streets of Moscow during his protests. All these factors are essentially detrimental to the fight against corruption than above all else corruption thrives in disorder. Here it is worth mentioning that it is precisely the condition of disorder during the Yeltsin years that propelled Putin’s political career towards the presidency, not to mention the rise of the security state as it exists today. Putin was the very antidote, and by contrast with the Yeltsin era, Russia has evolved in all spheres of domestic life, be it democracy, rule of law, corruption, standards of living: all these improved massively under Putin. Indeed, Russia today is infinitely far better off. In fact, only western sanctions managed to hold Russia back, then at the time of their imposition Russia was achieving growth at just above 7% GDP per annum, far above western levels.
It is also a fact that Putin inherited a rampantly corrupt system from his predecessor, and he showed extraordinary efficiency in ridding the state of the oligarchy that had co-opted Yeltsin’s power in order to gorge itself on the states riches. Why this has been forgotten in Western discourse is a question that perhaps needs thinking about. Putin is far from the source of all corruption in the Russian Federation.
A key moment in the battle against corruption took place in July 2000 when Putin meet with the oligarchs. Those who had taken over the true power in the country during the early 1990s. Putin told them they could keep their wealth, and that there would be no punishment for the “cash for loans” embezzlement schemes that stole vast swathes of the nation’s wealth. The oligarchs were also told not to interfere any more in the political running of the country, a part of the bargain both Khodorovsky and Berezovsky would refuse to accept. This is not to deny that major problems still exist and certainly the dual state comprising the administrative regime on the one hand and the constitutional state on the other is compromised by a murky deep state consisting of elements from the state bureaucracy, the security services and well connected criminal elements. Again, these dark forces being ever present since the fall of communism in 1991 or indeed far earlier, and irrespective of certain legal measures introduced to tackle these issues, the Machiavellian framework still survives on the back of a host of informal institutions and relationships.
Corruption takes place on two levels: one is the kormlenie or tax farming, where low paid workers exhort money from the public; and high-level corruption, business or venal corruption. The sums involved in the latter are of such epic proportions that they need to be kept in check to guard against the fragmentation of the Russian state, put another way, to prevent the state falling back into a situation reminiscent of the 1990s.
Order is after all the fundamental basis upon which the Putin-centric executive (the siloviki) derives its legitimacy. As a consequence the system places responsibilities on the “Stoligarchs” (“state oligarchs”), hence in Russia the unrefined corruption that is prevalent in other commodity based economies is not to be found. The new beneficiaries of the deep state, among them the oligarchy around Putin must provide a function to the society at large. For instance, the oil sector proves a great case study, then all profits above the $40 mark are automatically transferred into Russia’s sovereign wealth fund. This means that corrupt flows are somewhat boxed in. Money can only be syphoned off from what remains left over once all the manufacturing costs have been taken into account, once all the taxes and workers have been paid, and after profits have been given to the companies involved. We are still talking about incredibly large sums of money being diverted for personal gain, but the Putin system constrains the excesses that would otherwise prove infinitely more noxious to the country.
To remove the system therefore is to repudiate the central control mechanisms that to some degree keep the corruption in check, and since Navalny simply lacks any clout to interject into the machinations of the deep state, it is clear he cannot deliver on his promise. The boundaries of what represent tolerable misappropriation are also found among the rivalries of the MVD , FSB, the 6th service of the USB and the SEB (“Economic security services”), not to mention other security services who together effectively demark the red lines of excessive malpractice. Overstepping the boundaries will invariably land you in hot water.
In order for Navalny either to simply survive in office or to genuinely fight corruption according to his rhetoric he would need to tap into this subterranean power base. However, Navalny is denied access to these vital structures of power. He would surmise eternally ostracised from them, first on the point of the many enemies he has made therein, but secondly, also simply due to the chaos that he would bring. This contrasts with the siloviki who see themselves as the defenders of Russia, its sovereignty and the desire to maintain its strategic independence on a global level. That Navalny has collaborated with Bellincat and that his party has meet with western officials makes him suspicious to the overwhelming majority of the siloviki, who judge him as persona non grata. Without access to the security structures he is in no position to fight anything substantially.
Those who can and those who can’t
It is in this third construct of the state, the deep state, that we see a split in Russian society between those who can get away with macro-corruption within the tacit, informal parameters assumed and by the larger part of society who can’t. Effectively the post Yeltsin years saw the reigning in of corruption, the political ostracization of the oligarchy that relentlessly feed off the nations resources, by the deep state that gave far greater order and cohesion to the nation, while at the very same time these powerful “masters of order” began to take illicit privileges for themselves. While it may be morally expedient to point it out for the majority of Russians there is a clear and distinct difference between the utter chaos of the pre-Putin era and the restrained venal corruption of contemporary Russia.
Indeed, the system in recent years has at times brought down its own with the following high rank officials being deprived of their former immunity and subsequently imprisoned on various infringements relating to corruption. The list includes
Denis Sugrobov, Boris Kolesnikov, both working within the MVD Main Directorate for Economic Security and countering corruption, Denis Nikandrov, Mikhail Maksimenko, Alexander Lamonov, the governor of the Kirov oblast Nikita Belykh, the head of Sakhalin oblast Alexander Korashavin, Dimitry Zakharchenko of the FSB, the senator Rauf Arashukov (Karachai Cherkassia), Mikhail Abyzov (Open government minister and Viktor Ishaev then governor of Khabarovsk Krai) to name but a few.
To put it in perspective in 2018 thirty-five high ranking officials had been imprisoned on embezzlement charges, with over 1300 sacked, between 2001-05 only 3 high ranking officials had been sentenced. The Putin presidency also saw the notorious Tambov mafia gang broken up while high ranking mafiosi such as Zakhariy Kalashov and Andrei Kochuikov of the infamous Solntsevskaya Bratstva had been sentenced to hefty prison sentences. Altogether somewhere in the region of 4000 corruption cases pass through the courts every year.
Again, we must reiterate that there is immense corruption in the Russian federation. Merely the Western impression of the situation as indeed the impression of Navalny as a prophetic cure are nothing more than an illusion. Illusions that appeal to Western fantasies, driven in their roots by geopolitical posturing.
Certainly, the situation in Russia is complicated, the battle against corruption and its general containment is reliant on sinister, but omnipotent forces that themselves are at times partial to abusing their position for financial gain. However, as we have seen with the recent arrests of some very powerful figures the noose is slowly tightening and more and more officials are being denied impunity. While Russia remains far from a utopia in this sense, the question that demands an urgent answer, that is, whether Navalny could do a better job, is answered with a resounding no. Russia today is far from the Yeltsin days where there were regular mafia style executions on the street and where the stoligarchs had stripped the entire nation of its prized assets. If anything, the chaos Navalny inspires would only bring us closer to the mistakes of the past. Something perhaps desired by Russia’s foes.
The aim of this story was to address the general Western cliches, such as that the fight against corruption in Russia is entirely stagnant, that Russia is purely and simply a mafia state and that Navalny is the undisputed solution. Corruption in the post-Soviet space as indeed elsewhere cannot be summoned up by western oversimplifications.
It’s also important to acknowledge that the power within the deep state can only be harnessed with certain realities, realities to which Putin himself is not immune. The executive around Putin nonetheless must prove more effective in combating kormlenie, this is vital for the long-term wellbeing of Russia and to the well-being of the average citizen. Its eradication would remove the damaging day to day experiences that many citizens endure. And presents a much more realistic option than tackling the incredibly powerful actors behind venal corruption. It would also help stabilize the state from populist charlatans who campaign on an anti-corruption platform and where the rhetoric is entirely empty and nothing but self-serving.