Since Vladimir Putin’s reelection in 2012, the Russian state has undergone a transformation. Adapted under the pressure of the Post-Cold War era, Russia now has a full laundry list of democratic institutions – yet the Kremlin maintains an authoritarian grip on power and a covert suppression of the opposition.
But this kind of regime is asking for trouble: tempered in conditions of stealth authoritarianism, the political opposition is emerging deft and resilient to the state’s covert suppression. Restively anti-Kremlin in its message, this movement is lithe and adaptable in its tactics; it poses a real threat to the authoritarian regime.
Let us consider Alexei Navalny, a political activist who recently announced his intention to run for president in 2018. Navalny catalyzed his political career around the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an NGO he founded in 2011. The Foundation conducted and publicized journalistic investigations on corruption in state and federal governments. From the start, the single-issue campaign was brazen, accessible, and unwelcome by the Kremlin.
To suppress Navalny, everything goes: trumped-up charges, abuse of public assembly regulations, and restrictions on the media. Navalny fights fire with fire: he complies with fake justice subversively, hijacks the rule-of-law rhetoric, exploits repressive laws to grow his support, and circumvents media restrictions on the Internet.
Navalny’s responses to the three mechanisms of suppression – trumped-up charges, anti-protest laws, and media restrictions – showcase the acumen of the new opposition. Let us take on these responses one by one.
Responding to Trumped-Up Charges
In July of 2012, Navalny was charged with embezzling $280,000 from a state-owned timber company. The government opened three more investigations before the end of 2013. As a result, the oppositionist received several suspended jail sentences; his brother was jailed for 3.5 years.
In responding to the charges, Navalny leveraged his anti-corruption platform. Publicizing the lawsuits was to his advantage: slanderous indictments only justified his allegations on government corruption. He earnestly documented the legal proceedings on his blog, using the trials as an opportunity to expose the corrupt judiciary and grow his support base. Of course, fraudulent charges against unruly opposition did not break the news to an average Russian; but in a regime where loyal citizens are expected to outwardly conform to the state’s policy, publicizing conventional wisdom could have a powerful effect.
The opposition’s subversive compliance with the law harnessed that public attention. Although he declared the charges fabricated, Navalny responded to them as if they were legitimate. His legal team prepared for trials seriously: they gathered evidence, filed motions, and exposed inconsistencies in the indictments. It did nothing – and everything. Now under the close attention of Navalny’s supporters, the team’s earnest efforts – and the court’s unchanged verdicts – stretched the semblance of justice just beyond what would be believable.
Navalny’s initial conviction to five years of jail time was met with protests and condemnations. On appeal, the judge suspended the jail sentence but upheld the conviction, barring the oppositionist from running for elected office.
Subsequently, Navalny used the suspended sentence to his advantage. He claimed that since the Russian Constitution only prohibits detained persons from running for office, the law that barred him from partaking in elections was unconstitutional. The move killed two birds with one stone: first, Navalny claimed that what he did was not simply right but also legal, hijacking the rule-of-law rhetoric; two, the oppositionist politicized a non-political crime.
Having made the move, Navalny’s team then appealed the decision in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), claiming the charge was both unfounded and politically motivated. ECHR ruled the verdict unsound, and the Russian Supreme Court sent the case for re-trial.
The supranational court’s backing is the final piece of the puzzle. By entangling the ECHR into the legal case, Navalny tapped into a source of legitimacy exogenous to the corrupt judicial system. It is not only another blow to the state’s democratic rhetoric: having gotten involved in the case, the international community cannot ignore its further developments. At the re-trial in February of 2017, Navalny was given the same suspended sentence. The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, responsible for monitoring the enforcement of ECHR decisions, spoke out against the verdict this September.
The legal case is far from over. For the Kremlin, the contested sentence is a linchpin to barring Navalny from presidential elections in March. In turn, Navalny uses the same sentence to his advantage, ostensibly playing along with the legal masquerade.
Adapting to Public Assembly Regulations
Since 2012, the Russian Parliament has strengthened public assembly regulations. The state significantly increased financial and criminal penalties for partaking in and organizing protests unsanctioned by local authorities. The new law and its enforcement aptly discourage vocal opposition. Repeatedly, this legislation is used against Navalny. Over the last few years, he and his supporters have been fined, detained, and given several-week jail sentences over failures to coordinate protests with local authorities.
Navalny attempts to get the protests approved. In the days leading up to demonstrations, he carefully documents the negotiations on his blog. Under the current law, the authorities must provide alternative arrangements if they refuse the request, offering a different (often small or remote) venue on the same date. In practice, they usually fail to do so under various pretexts, and Navalny calls for unsanctioned demonstrations. On his blog, the decision is framed as a necessary deviation from the regulations: it is the authorities who break the law first, not Navalny.
Moreover, although he admits the injustice of the anti-protest law, Navalny’s campaign normalizes the practice of harsh infractions. His blog advises on preparatory measures before demonstrations, and his legal team provides help to those detained. After the protests in March of this year, the Anti-Corruption Foundation established a fund to help pay the fines for participating in uncoordinated demonstrations: a donation-funded protester’s insurance.
Recently, having had 1103 out 1257 attempted demonstrations rejected since September 4th, Navalny’s campaign asked its supporters to use their private property – such as stadiums, hangars, and galleries – as venues for the rallies. They already held one demonstration at a parking lot of a shopping mall, circumventing all troublesome regulations.
Again, Navalny hijacks the rule-of-law rhetoric: it is they, he says, who break the law – the opposition only responds. And when it responds, it frames the harsh punishments as unjust but necessarily bearable. This ability of the opposition to admit the injustice and adapt to it subversively is truly remarkable.
Circumventing Media Restrictions
Navalny often appears on TV Rain, a now-online TV channel catering independent news, and the only one open to political opposition. Recently, TV Rain hosted a debate between Navalny and Vladimir Posner, a Russian-American journalist and a show host at a major federal channel. During the debate, Posner admitted there was an unwritten blacklist of people, including Navalny, that he could not invite on his show. According to Posner, however, this was not censorship but an editorial policy, akin to that of Fox News or MSNBC. With such editorial policies in place, Navalny has no chance in the state-controlled TV sector.
On the other hand, the government has far fewer levers on the Internet. In addition to the blog, Navalny’s campaign maintains YouTube channels. A large portion of the content is comprised of journalistic investigations by the Anti-Corruption Foundation. The presidential campaign runs its own channel featuring “Navalny at 20.18,” a weekly live stream with campaign-related Q&A. Recently, Alexei launched a contest for the best political YouTube channel among his viewers, offering to split 1,000,000 rubles (about $17,000) between the top three.
It works well. The Anti-Corruption Foundation documentary about the alleged corruption by the Russian Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, received over 24 million views on YouTube. In 2015, the Foundation reported over $670,000 in donations, with the median donation just under $10. Navalny’s presidential campaign is also thriftily run on donations. Since its start in 2017, the campaign opened 80 regional offices across the country. Navalny is successfully challenging the claim that political opposition does not “go beyond the Garden Ring”, a ring highway around central Moscow.
Despite Kremlin’s vigorous efforts, The Internet remains the Achilles’ heel of the otherwise efficient state control over the Russian information space. From the onset, the Web catalyzed the rise of deft opposition. Whether in publicizing fraudulent charges on embezzlement, organizing demonstrations or promoting anti-corruption investigations, Navalny would not be Navalny without the Internet.
Vladimir Putin’s resumed presidency in 2012 was ensnarled by protests. These demonstrations have sparked around singular events: fraud in the 2011 legislative election and the Russian orphans law passed in retaliation to the U.S. Magnitsky Act. At the time, many key Russian NGOs were supported by the U.S. Department of State.
From the Kremlin’s standpoint, this was equivalent to election meddling. It prompted the incumbents to make Russia more robust to external influence: to crack down on U.S.-funded NGOs, push for stricter public assembly and anti-extremism regulations, and roll back direct gubernatorial elections.
This crackdown has contributed to the rise of deft opposition. Unlike the 2011 movement, Navalny does not rally around singular events; rather, he found a way to tap into a long-running frustration with economic stagnation and corruption: matters more relatable to ordinary Russians than abstract democratic freedoms. Navalny opposes the regime openly, calling out and publicizing the mechanism of stealth authoritarianism. At the same time, Navalny fights fire with fire, adapting to Kremlin’s covert suppression. This should be a model response to new authoritarian regimes: with less proactive international support and more faith in those who are oppressed by, and opposed to, a stealth authoritarian.
*On the photograph: Navalny’s campaign rally in Novosibirsk. Alexei is arguing with a representative from United Russia, the ruling party founded by Vladimir Putin. Photo by Evgeniy Feldman for a web project, This is Navalny. CC-BY-NC