At the end of August, while returning from campaigning for local elections in the Siberian city of Tomsk, Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny fell violently ill. Amongst domestic supporters and international observers foul play was immediately suspected. Now recovering in Berlin and under constant protection from the Bundespolizei, Navalny has charged the Russian government, and President Vladimir Putin directly, with responsibility for his poisoning.
Though his most severe experience yet, this is hardly new for Navalny. In 2017 alone he was twice assaulted by assailants who threw acidic green dye at him, permanently damaging vision in his right eye. He was charged with tax fraud and money laundering in 2012, a charge the European Court of Human Rights called “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable,” as well as libel this year. Like many Russian opposition leaders and dissidents, Navalny has been jailed numerous times (“I have lost count”) for organizing anti-government protests. This story, however, is not unique to Navalny. Prominent opposition figures and ex-government critics have been forced into protective exiled, extreme prison sentences, or killed, some quiet publicly.
Outside of members of the United Russia party, few would suggest the political organization of the country can be characterized as democratic. Nonetheless, Alexei Navalny’s experience is an important one for understanding the strategies of existing and would-be authoritarians in the face of highly public opposition. The experience of Navalny and those like him points to key manifestations of anti-democratic behavior that extends beyond overtly authoritarian regimes and to democratically appearing ones too.
First, we must turn our attention to what Levitsky and Ziblatt term mutual tolerance: the idea that “as long as our rivals play by the constitutional rules, we accept they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern.” The mutual toleration of opposition essentially concerns the terrain of disagreement in a polity. Thus, it is important to understand why it might be the case that the very act of public disagreement would engender such violence, as in Navalny’s case. Navalny does not view himself as what is actually feared by the Kremlin; rather, it is those masses who support his anti-regime message. He is simply a convenient tool used as a way send a message, and a brutal one at that, to his followers. It is not so much Navalny as it is the spread of fervent disagreement with the ruling party in Russia. Moreover, we should understand the role of “constitutional rules” in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s formulation of mutual tolerance. The very meaning and nature of these “rules” can be wielded by existing and would-be authoritarians to morph the very terrain of “acceptable” disagreement. Such is the case in the libel investigations currently being waged against Navalny. There are a variety of important dynamics involved in political deviation under the conditions of changing rules in favor of an aggrandizing executive and their party. Operative among these is the partisization of the judiciary. It is beyond the scope of the piece to introduce a sufficient discussion of this dynamic in the context of Navalny’s oppositional campaign, but it is worth noting that it is often through the judiciary that these “rules” of dissent are turned against dissenters.
Next is the role of non-political crimes in support of crushing opposition. Much like Mikhail Khodorovsky in 2003, Navalny was charged with electorally disqualifying financial crimes as soon as he entered politics as a public opposition figure. While Khodorkovsky initially drew the ire of the government by funding opposition parties and anti-Kremlin media, Navalny sought to work from the inside out. After collecting internal financial documents of various Russian gas companies, he sought to make the political corruption involved in these companies public. It was following this move that the charges of tax fraud and money laundering were waged on him. Such charges would forever bar Navalny from appearing on official election ballots. This tactic has been observed in a variety of other countries with differing levels of democracy, from Malawi and Turkey to Ukraine and the United States.
Lastly is the issue of surveillance. Five months before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections, a sex tape of Mikhail Kasyanov, once leader of the opposition coalition The Other Russian, was broadcast on the state-controlled NTV network. Vladimir Bukovsky, an exiled vocal critic of the Russian government, has accused the government of broad operations to plant incriminating digital material on the computers of those the ruling party views as dangerous. The deployment of the state’s capacities, often through its federal security services, to surveil oppositional figures is a powerful tool for authoritarians, and a tactic used on Navalny himself. Varol writes these sorts of executives can not only use these services effectively for blackmail, but also may construct false evidence of crimes in order to “silence or discredit [opposition figures] by revealing sensitive, and perhaps embarrassing, secrets to the public.”
Nonetheless, opposition figures like Navalny have found a powerful tool for skirting the attempts as silencing, discrediting, and poisoning – the internet. His Anti-Corruption Foundation has published dozens of documentaries detailing the corruption and violence of the United Russia party. Viewed by millions within Russia and across the world, these videos have engendered protests and discontent with the ruling party and the Kremlin. While the full use of the forces of the state can be deployed on opposition figures in eroding democratic or fully authoritarian regimes, the necessity for adaption amongst dissenters often finds ways manage effective counter-narratives.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), p. 102.
 Ozan O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review, vol. 100, p. 1710.
 Ozan O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review, vol. 100, p. 1711.
Hi Oscar, thank you for your post! This is a fascinating topic, as you can see the lengths to which Putin goes to crush opposition leaders legally and socially, to the point of threatening their lives. It seems as though Putin deals with a very thin veil of secrecy, as he never claims responsibility for physical, social, and legal attacks, even though the international community is well aware of his behavior. I also find your final point about the adaptation of dissenters and counter-narratives to be accurate; in fact, even in the case of the death of an opposition leader, new ones adapt to the country’s shifted environment and continue the work of their predecessors. Do you think that Putin’s strategies are at all effective for consolidation of power since opposition does not seem to have been fully driven out? And do you think that Russian opposition would be more fierce if the suppression of dissenters were not so widespread?