Thursday’s conviction of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny to five years imprisonment on an embezzlement charge rekindled Western criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s supposedly authoritarian governing style, even as Navalny was released from custody a day later to await his appeal and stand in Moscow’s mayoral election in September.
Navalny’s trial may have been politically motivated but as is unfortunately usual, many media overestimate his popularity and have glossed over his intolerant tendencies.
The anti-corruption campaigner, who famously described the ruling United Russia party as one of “crooks and thieves,” does enjoy a following among the more cosmopolitan young Russians who are tired of repression and nepotism at the top but outside Moscow, few Russians — who get their news from state controlled television — have ever heard of him. A recent poll from the Levada Center put his support even in the capital at just 4 percent.
Given that Navalny is nevertheless considered a credible candidate, the government would do well to let him run in September. It could avoid criticism of rigging the election — another accusation that is often made against Putin’s regime on the basis of little evidence — while setting up a prominent opposition leader for a fall.
Much reporting, however, seems to assume Putin is determined to thwart Navalny’s political future out of sheer spite.
Although Putin does appear to have grown more conservative since he assumed the presidency for a third time in May of last year, sidelining reformers in favor of hardliners and veterans of the nation’s security and spy agencies known as the siloviki while pursing few liberal policies that could reduce the country’s dependence on oil and gas exports, it would be a mistake to think of the Russian leader as the hardened nationalist versus Navalny the reformer.
Putin has appealed to Russian tradition to shore up his support outside the big cities where opposition to his rule is concentrated. At the same time, he has distanced himself from a far right that may be a greater threat to his regime’s stability than the young and liberal protesters who typically draw the international press’ attention. Russian nationalism could prove an impediment to his vision of reuniting central Eurasia which he hopes will revive his country’s status as a continental superpower.
Steering a fine line between national pride and geopolitics, Putin praised Russian culture last year which he argued “is the glue holding together the unique fabric of this civilization” but also warned, “If a multiethnic society is infected by nationalism, it loses its strength and durability.”
The nationalist revival has come about as dissatisfaction with immigrants, many of them Muslims, from Russia’s outer provinces and former Soviet satellite states in Central Asia mounted. The phenomenon isn’t much different from anti-immigration sentiment in Western Europe where some voters also fear job losses and an Islamist assault on their culture.
Tension is especially high in the Caucasus. In Russia’s North Caucasus republics, the Slavic population is shrinking and the Muslim population expanding. Nonethnic Russians in the region continue to fight for autonomy.
Putin is often derided in the West for brutally suppressing an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya but many of his critics accept Navalny’s claim that when, in 2007, he referred to terrorist from the area as “cockroaches” for whom he recommended the pistol, he was only kidding.
This anti-Putin bias does readers a disservice. If a Western leader’s views were so distorted in Russia’s media and an opposition activist’s less savory positions virtually ignored, its journalists would be rightfully accused of picking sides and trying to influence public opinion in one side’s favor.
There is plenty to criticize about how Putin is governing his country. Corruption is still rife, the judiciary is clearly not independent, civil liberties are curtailed in the name of tradition and economic diversification has stalled. There’s no need to make things seem worse than they are — nor to make a challenger seem better than he is.