He cheated death, but can Navalny ever break Putin’s grip on Russia?

Laveta Brigham

Photograph: Andrei Fateyev/AP It has been an eventful few weeks for Ksenia Fadeyeva, who runs Alexei Navalny’s operations in the Siberian city of Tomsk. In mid-August, she welcomed the Russian opposition leader to this university town in the heart of the country’s vast landmass, to make a pre-election video about […]

<span>Photograph: Andrei Fateyev/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrei Fateyev/AP

It has been an eventful few weeks for Ksenia Fadeyeva, who runs Alexei Navalny’s operations in the Siberian city of Tomsk. In mid-August, she welcomed the Russian opposition leader to this university town in the heart of the country’s vast landmass, to make a pre-election video about local corruption, as part of Fadeyeva’s bid to win election to the city council.

It was on the plane back to Moscow from Tomsk that Navalny suddenly fell ill, and ended up in a coma, fighting for his life. German doctors say he was poisoned with a novichok nerve agent, apparently in his Tomsk hotel room.

Fadeyeva had said goodbye to Navalny late the previous evening, and was scrolling through her phone that morning when she saw the news on Twitter. “It was something unbelievable. I don’t think anyone expected it,” she recalled in an interview last week at her office at Navalny’s Tomsk HQ, a modest room in a red-brick office block, with the walls painted sky-blue and adorned with a large map of Tomsk divided into electoral districts.

Shaken but not deterred, Fadeyeva continued with her election campaign. She was buoyed by the fact that almost everyone in the city had watched Navalny’s video, made before the poisoning and released after, which implicated local bigwigs in various corrupt schemes. Navalny explained how officials from United Russia, the ruling party that backs president Vladimir Putin, skimmed money from the utility payments that all Tomsk residents pay. Navalny’s team flew drones over their vast mansions outside town to illustrate the corruption for the video.

Map: Tomsk, Siberia

“Everyone understands that officials steal, but when it’s shown exactly who, how, when and how much, the effect is different,” said Fadeyeva. The election came three weeks after Navalny’s poisoning, and Fadeyeva and her colleague, Andrei Fateyev, both won seats on the town council, as did a slew of candidates backed by a tactical voting project developed by Navalny’s team. Previously, United Russia held 32 of 37 seats on the council; now it will have just 11.

A city of 550,000 inhabitants a four-hour flight from Moscow, Tomsk is known for its universities and hundreds of stunning wooden houses, built during the tsarist period when Tomsk was inhabited by exiles and adventurers. In the grand scheme of Russian politics, losing control of Tomsk city council is hardly a crushing blow to Putin. But United Russia’s dismal results in Tomsk and elsewhere hint at a broader malaise in Russian politics, which the Kremlin is trying hard to address ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

On the surface, Putin’s position seems more commanding than ever: in July, Russians approved a constitutional amendment that allows him to rule until 2036, and while his approval ratings may be far from the high point prompted by the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine, they still hover in the 60s, enviably high in comparison to most western politicians.

On the other hand, the sudden transformation of neighbouring Belarus from paragon of stability to revolutionary hotbed in recent weeks is giving policymakers in the Kremlin something to think about. Additionally, protesters in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s far east, have taken to the streets all though the summer, angry at the arrest of the popular local governor, Sergei Furgal, who defeated the Kremlin’s candidate.

Some people see the brazen attack on Navalny as a reaction to these events, noting the almost overnight transformation of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus from a political nobody to figurehead of a revolution. When the door to an alternative political reality finally eased ajar, it turned out almost everyone in Belarus wanted to walk through it.

<span class="element-image__caption">Navalny’s video explained how officials from United Russia, the party that backs Vladimir Putin (right), skimmed money from utility payments.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Sputnik/Reuters</span>
Navalny’s video explained how officials from United Russia, the party that backs Vladimir Putin (right), skimmed money from utility payments. Photograph: Sputnik/Reuters

“Belarus is telling Putin one thing: there should never be a candidate at elections who can consolidate the protest mood in society,” said Georgy Alburov, one of Navalny’s closest associates, in an interview at the HQ of his Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow. “Instead, they will try to use people who once had a reputation for opposition, but have long ago sold out.”

During Putin’s two decades in charge, there has been a tradition of these “systemic” opposition parties, which engage in politics within certain agreed boundaries, and on the whole refrain from criticism of the president. They can even get into real battles with United Russia, to give the impression of political skirmishes, but Putin should remain above the fray.

With the old systemic parties now feeling stale, the Kremlin has facilitated the creation of several new ones in recent months. Separately, a Kremlin-backed programme called Leaders of Russia is meant to train the next generation of politicians, who will be younger, more critical but ultimately remain loyal. “There is a need to refresh the political scene, to bring in some fresh air,” conceded one official in Moscow.

Navalny has always refused to play by these rules. A charismatic and dogged anti-corruption activist who repositioned himself from unsavoury nationalist to liberal darling, his danger to the system comes from the fact that he is able to persuasively and eloquently dispel the official narrative that Putin is the “good tsar” trying to sort out the unruly and crooked regional leaders.

Through well-produced videos, he explains how corruption in the regions leads directly to the Kremlin and is an integral part of Putin’s system. He’s banned from state television (though in recent weeks he has made many appearances as anchors accuse him of faking his poisoning) but racks up views online. His Tomsk video has 4 million views on YouTube.

In 2017, Navalny announced he was setting up a network of regional headquarters across Russia to back a presidential run against Putin in 2018. He was not allowed to stand, but the campaign resulted in a network of dedicated regional leaders like Fadeyeva. She formerly worked in marketing for a network of florists but had always been politically engaged, and jumped at the chance to work for Navalny.

Soon after starting the job, someone slashed her car tyres, and the door of her apartment was sealed closed to stop her leaving. Since then, she’s had her computer seized and not returned, and has spent 25 days in prison in two stints. It’s standard fare for Navalny’s regional acolytes, who deal with a constant stream of attacks that are one part trolling, several parts sinister. Just this week, Andrey Borovikov, coordinator of Navalny’s office in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, was subjected to a police search and told he would be charged with distributing pornography, apparently due to a music video he shared on social media six years ago.

<span class="element-image__caption">Sergei Furgal, the popular former governor of Khabarovsk, was arrested in July, having beaten the Kremlin’s candidate in 2018.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Tass</span>
Sergei Furgal, the popular former governor of Khabarovsk, was arrested in July, having beaten the Kremlin’s candidate in 2018. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Tass

Fadeyeva said this had not shaken her determination to continue her work but conceded that the poisoning changes the equation. “Actually trying to kill someone, it’s pretty scary. There were always people throwing eggs or paint at him, but this is a new level,” she said.

The night before he left Tomsk, Navalny held an informal meeting with 15 volunteers. One posed a question he gets asked frequently: why haven’t they killed you yet? Fadeyeva recalled Navalny’s response: “He joked sarcastically about this being his favourite question. Then he said he guessed the Kremlin had decided it was better to paralyse him with court cases, jail sentences and police searches rather than kill him and make a hero of him.”

After the meeting, a small group went to take a late dip in the river Tom, which flows through the town, and then Fadeyeva drove Navalny back to the Xander hotel and they said their goodbyes. Less than 12 hours later, his plane made an emergency landing in Omsk with the politician on the brink of death.

Navalny appears to be well on the road to recovery now and says he plans to return to Russia. He still has relatively low political ratings, though approval of his activities has risen from 9% to 20% over the past year, according to a poll last week, though he is seen as enough of a threat to be kept off the ballot by authorities, and even subjected to a poison attack, despite them simultaneously denigrating him as irrelevant.

While isolated candidates like Fadeyeva are sometimes allowed to stand, Navalny’s party has been denied registration, and it appears authorities may try to prevent him from returning to Russia after he has recovered in Germany.

Aside from novichok, perhaps the biggest problem for any politician in Russia now is apathy, and the feeling that sociologists call “learned helplessness” – a decision based on experience that attempts to change things are pointless.

“For years, people have thought that whatever you do, it can’t change anything, so when you knock on doors there are a lot of people who just aren’t interested, even if they want change,” said Fadeyeva, recounting her visits to the city’s Soviet-era apartment blocks to drum up support. Most people she tried to speak to simply told her they did not think politics could change anything, though this also worked in her favour. With turnout in the vote at under 20%, it took only a few thousand votes to flip the Tomsk council.

She said she believed Navalny can eventually take advantage of a deep-seated desire for change that lurks below this widespread apathy. “He’s the only person in Russia who’s really doing politics. He’s built this network, and I think people can see he’s willing to risk everything to bring change, including his life, it turns out.”

The presidential administration is instead focusing on the newer, more agreeable opposition forces to provide this sense of change without rocking the boat. “The final goal is to have a pool of candidates who would be chosen by the Kremlin and could participate in state Duma elections next year to create a feeling of rotation,” said political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya.

In Tomsk, New People, a newly minted party led by businessman Alexei Nechayev, took second place in the vote, despite only existing for a few months and featuring bland slogans about change and renewal.

New People’s candidate against Fadeyeva was Yulia Mustafina, a 34-year-old businesswoman who ran on a platform of improved services for pregnant women and mothers. She described herself as opposition-minded, and against Putin, but didn’t like Navalny’s radicalism and was against public protest. “We are not revolutionaries, we’re peaceful, we are not even really politicians. We just want to make things better through dialogue,” she said.

Still, with so little political oxygen in the regions, even fake opposition parties can find themselves gasping for air. Last Monday, Mustafina organised a protest outside a maternity clinic which the city authorities plan to turn into a Covid hospital as Russia grapples with the disease.

“They called me from the administration and said, ‘Have you gone mad? Organising protests? Do you know what you’re getting into?’ ” On Thursday, officials from Russia’s health watchdog visited a gym owned by Mustafina and uncovered a range of supposed safety violations that could result in huge fines.

For now, this fits the Kremlin’s strategy of having opposition forces that challenge local authorities while remaining ultimately loyal to Putin. But it’s a potentially risky strategy. “You may want to create one thing but you don’t know what the result will be. Perhaps Dr Frankenstein wants to make a beautiful lady but you can’t guarantee that that’s what’s going to happen,” said Alexei Shcherbinin, a political science professor at Tomsk State University.

The most remarkable story from the recent elections came from the village of Povalikhino, about 300 miles from Moscow. The local United Russia chief asked Marina Udgodskaya, a cleaner working in the building, to run against him. She was meant to be a token candidate, to give the race an air of competition, and did not campaign. She won 62% of the vote and will now take up office.

So far, the Kremlin’s problems are all similarly localised: a few isolated victories for Navalny supporters, some surprise wins for dark horses, protests over specific regional issues in Khabarovsk and elsewhere. Russia is perhaps too vast, and too diverse, for a Tikhanovskaya figure to emerge and consolidate opposition to Putin, or for a sustained, nationwide season of street protest. The Kremlin may be able to continue is careful political management for years to come. Equally, there could be a sudden, unexpected turn of events.

“There’s declining trust for every political institution and leader. We have a huge political capital vacuum, and it has not yet been invested in Navalny, who is gaining in visibility but not significantly gaining in popularity,” said Moscow-based political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann. “There are great expectations and no one to project them on to. Such a figure may arise, and it may well be quite an accidental target.”

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