Despair reigns supreme

2013-09-09 00:00

“EACH time one of us thinks ‘I’ll just stand aside and things will happen without me and I’ll wait’, he is helping this disgusting feudal system that sits like a spider in the Kremlin,” said Alexei Navalny, often billed as Russia’s top opposition leader, as he sat in a courtroom in Kirov in July, awaiting conviction on embezzlement charges. True enough, but Vladimir Putin is not losing any sleep over it.

The Russian president, who hosted the G20 summit meeting in St Petersburg last week, has run the country as his private fiefdom for the past 13 years. The media obey orders, political opponents are jailed on trumped-up corruption charges and individuals who dig too deep into the murky history of Putin’s rapid rise to power (Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Yuri Shchekochikhin) die mysteriously of bullet wounds or poison.

Navalny (37), a Moscow lawyer, rose to fame as an anti-corruption campaigner during the 2011-12 protests against Putin because of his sardonic blog about Russian politics. He was identified by the foreign media as the new hope of the Russian opposition because he was hip, he was cool, he was everything that Russian leaders, whether in power or in opposition, have not been. His new political prominence promptly attracted the usual state-sponsored charges of corruption, and on July 18, Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement (by a judge who has never issued a not-guilty verdict) and sentenced to five years in prison. Navalny took it with his usual cool. He tweeted to his 373 000 followers: “Oh, well. Don’t get bored without me. And most importantly, don’t be idle. Remember, the frog won’t hop off the oil pipes by itself.” (It makes more sense in Russian.)

But then something odd happened. The state prosecutor asked that Navalny be left free pending his appeal, which could take months. Navalny is now running for mayor of Moscow in the election that was held yesterday. If he were in jail pending his appeal — the normal situation in politically motivated trials — he would have had to drop out. Why is the state suddenly being nice to him? Because it wanted him to run and lose — and it’s sure he will lose. The opinion polls give Navalny just over 10% of the vote, compared to more than 50% for the incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. Navalny’s presence on the ballot papers will lend some credibility to Sobyanin’s re-election, and his defeat will demonstrate how little popular support he actually has — and afterwards they’ll whisk him off to prison.

But why does Navalny have so little popular support? Why do Russians put up with being ruled by Putin, an autocrat who no longer steals public money himself, but whose colleagues and cronies all steal? (Putin made his secret pile back in the early nineties, when he was a rising politician in the first post-Communist city government of St Petersburg.)

Well, before Putin came to power in 2000, they put up with eight years of Boris Yeltsin, a boorish drunk who not only stole from the Russians (as did most of his political allies), but also embarrassed them. Before that, there was a brief interlude of honesty and sanity under Mikhail Gorbachev — but he is blamed by most Russians for all the bad things that have happened since the fall of the Soviet Union. And before that, there was the era of stagnation, the last decades of Communist rule, when the state didn’t murder its own citizens so much any more, but everyone lived in relative poverty under a perpetual rain of brazen lies, and endured the constant insults and petty criminality of an arrogant Communist elite. That’s 50 years in which the politicians who ran Russia have almost all been brutal, contemptible, or both. So most Russians have given up believing that any politician could be honest, or that anything could ever really change. Some urban sophisticates are drawn to Navalny’s post-modern style and his critique of the Russian political system, but even in large parts of Moscow and St Petersburg, and almost everywhere outside the big cities, that sort of thing has no pulling power at all.

That’s why there is an undercurrent of despair in Navalny’s tweets, with their constant exhortations to Russians not to just switch off and go back to sleep. Living standards have risen considerably on Putin’s watch, mainly due to high world prices for oil and gas, and lots of people just want to get on with their lives. Besides, in the sticks, people assume that Navalny is just another crook, just slicker.

Putin’s macho style no longer wins him adulation either: a recent poll by the Levada Centre found that nearly half of all Russians want him to step down at the end of his presidential term in 2018. But they’re not in any hurry about it, nor will they be, unless global energy prices and Russian living standards start to fall. And Navalny won’t be out of jail in time to run in the 2018 election anyway.

• Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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