Alexei Navalny, a major voice of Russia’s opposition, has had quite the year. After being poisoned with novichok at the hands of the FSB in August 2020, he spent five months recuperating in Germany. Upon returning to Russia in January of this year, he was arrested at the airport, triggering widespread protests across the country. This wave of protests, which has included some of the largest demonstrations Russian cities have ever seen, continued as Navalny was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment. Western governments have chosen to hold up Navalny as a persecuted liberal democrat in Putin’s Russia. A look into Navalny’s political past shows this to be a grave misconception.
Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have unanimously condemned Navalny’s persecution. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Navalny as he recovered in hospital in Berlin, acting as an unsubtle message to Moscow. The European Court of Human Rights has also demanded his immediate release. It is worth pointing out that this court is not associated with the European Union, but the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member. In February, the EU sent its foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, to Russia in an attempt to encourage Navalny’s release. The visit was far from a diplomatic success: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the opportunity to label the European Union as an ‘unreliable partner’ with whom Russia was prepared to cut ties. While Borrell was in Moscow, news emerged of the expulsion of three EU diplomats (German, Swedish, and Polish) from Russia, for attending demonstrations calling for Navalny’s release. For now, it looks like there is little the West can do to bring about the release of its chosen Russian champion, especially as the Kremlin is ramping up its efforts to crack down on any combatting dissent.
The West has had a tendency to regard Navalny as a saving grace for Russian politics. Their unconditional backing of Navalny seems to be based on the assumption that because he is anti-Putin, he must therefore be in favour of liberal democracy and all its tenets. This assumption is a flawed one, particularly when we consider minority rights. Few, in Russia or abroad, understand Navalny’s true political views beyond a deep opposition to both Vladimir Putin and the corruption that has taken hold of the apparatus of the post-Soviet Russian state. If Navalny’s unremarkable anti-corruption politics are put to one side, what lies beneath this trendy facade?
Navalny’s record of nationalism and hate speech
Looking at Navalny’s political past, an unclear picture emerges to say the least. He was once the chief of staff of the Moscow branch of Yabloko, Russia’s largest liberal party. But there is much more to Navalny’s political past. Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns have accused him of being a xenophobe who proves a threat to the multi-ethnic makeup of Russia. Without explicitly mentioning Navalny’s name, Putin himself (hypocritically) criticised what he considered to be ‘caveman nationalism’. Despite natural Western tendencies to dismiss these state narratives, the hard truth remains that Navalny has been known to openly embrace Russian ultranationalism. He has participated more than once in the ‘Russian march’, a rally staged by neo-Nazi groups that has taken place annually since 2005. In 2006, when Moscow’s then-mayor Yuri Luzhkov banned the march, Navalny (still at the time a Yabloko member) came out and called for the march to be authorised. It should be noted that this statement was made on the grounds of the constitutional right of freedom of assembly and went on to express Yabloko’s opposition to ‘any national and racial hatred and any xenophobia’. However, a year later, Navalny co-founded a nationalist movement known as Narod (The People), which allied itself with Great Russia and The Movement Against Illegal Immigration, two ultranationalist groups. The founder of this latter group, Aleksander Belov, made a statement in 2007 in which he declared that ‘Russia will be white’ and referred to non-ethnic Russians as ‘occupants’ and ‘conquerors’. Navalny’s own views can’t have been that different to those of Belov, as his links to Russian ultranationalism led to his being expelled from Yabloko in February 2007.
This same pattern of ultranationalist rhetoric continued following his removal from the party. He was a vocal supporter of Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, labelling Georgians ‘grizuni’ (rodents) in a blog post and calling for their expulsion from Russia. The Russian word for Georgians is ‘gruzini’, and ‘grizuni’, the word used by Navalny in 2008, is an ethnic slur commonly used by Russian nationalists due to the proximity of the two words. Navalny would later apologise for his use of the slur.
In 2011, he endorsed a nationalist campaign called ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’, which demanded an end to federal subsidies to Chechnya, an impoverished Muslim-majority region which has long been an area of anti-Kremlin sentiment. Navalny also expressed support for a wave of anti-immigrant riots that broke out in Moscow after an Azerbaijani migrant killed a Russian man in 2013. The protestors attacked properties owned by immigrants and chanted slogans such as ‘Russia for Russians’, a well-known mantra of those who oppose the age-old multiethnic composition of Russian society. Navalny used his blog to congratulate the rioters on taking on the ‘hordes of legal and illegal immigrants’, furthering the ultra-nationalist narrative that ethnic Russians were being discriminated against by a state which favoured migrants. In the same year, a hard anti-immigration stance aimed at migrants from Central Asia formed a central theme in Navalny’s campaign for mayor of Moscow. This clear pattern of hostility towards non-ethnic Russians, especially those from the ex-Soviet states that border Russia, is something that is rarely referenced in Western mention of Navalny. These are exactly the sorts of attitudes and statements that are commonly found on the far-right of the political spectrum in Western Europe that trigger widespread condemnation.
Many in the West have sought to defend Navalny by pointing out the time that has lapsed since these statements were made. He has since expressed support for liberal causes such as same-sex marriage and the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have credited his wife, Yulia, with softening his public and political personality. But Navalny’s disassociation with his previous extremist remarks has been shaky at best. In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2020, when asked specifically about his ties with nationalist movements, he stated that he still held ‘the same views’ that he held when he entered politics. His commitment to these ultranationalist views demonstrates a sense of Russian chauvinism, a belief in the need for ethnic-Russian hegemony over other minorities that pervades his worldview.
And what about Navalny’s foreign policy? Navalny has been a staunch critic of Russia’s policies in Ukraine, but primarily from a place of concern about Russia’s sphere of influence. In 2016, he accused Putin of undermining the ‘Russian world’ by ‘making it smaller’. He lamented the growth of anti-Russian sentiment across Ukraine and Belarus, and suggested these two states to be places where Russian soft power should reign supreme. Russian nationalists often emphasise the shared historical and cultural heritage of Russia and Ukraine as a way of dismissing Ukraine’s claims as a sovereign nation, and as a means to argue that, therefore, Ukraine somehow ‘belongs’ to Russia. To this end, when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was established in 2018, marking an end to historic Russian spiritual control of Ukrainian Christianity, Navalny once again displayed his nationalist colours when he accused Putin of destroying that which ‘took centuries to create’.
It is true that, as things stand in Russia, Navalny remains the only opposition figure to present any real alternative to Putin’s rule. He is the ‘man Vladimir Putin fears most’. For this reason, it is unsurprising that he receives such ready support from Western governments. Yet, ignoring his clear nationalistic streak is no way to proceed. The fact is that a Navalny-led government (unlikely as it may seem) would still likely clash heads with the West over a number of issues. For instance, Navalny has already said that if in power, he would not hand back Crimea to Ukraine. Rather than seeing Navalny through a black-and-white lens that venerates everything opposed to Putin, Western governments should recognise him for what he is – a populist with ultranationalistic, even racist, tendencies. To that end, while re-evaluating their understanding of Navalny, Western governments would do well to ask themselves if there is not something rather familiar in Navalny’s revanchism. How much does Navalny’s belief in the need to restore ‘the Russian world’ differ from Macron’s push to consolidate French influence in North African countries that once formed part of the French colonial empire? The enemy of Navalny is certainly the enemy of liberal democracies from Washington to Tallinn, but that does not mean Navalny’s alternative warrants our time.