Is Alexey Navalny Europe’s Favourite Fascist?
Alexey Navalny is a recently-jailed (and disappeared, now allegedly in a “concentration camp“, and facing new charges) Vladimir Putin critic. The saga of his poisoning and jailing has united the European Union (plus the United Kingdom) more than any other event in recent times and honestly, it’s just amusing to see the whole gang back together just for some quasi-Cold War posturing. But why do the Global North and its people support him, despite his track record of coddling with far-right movements in Russia? Is he Europe’s favourite fascist?
The Navalny Factor
To the Russian populace, he is, very simply, seen as a breath of fresh air amidst Moscow’s stench of corruption. His campaign promises can be boiled down to two things: One, to break up the domineering securocratic plutocracy that has clotted money up in the Kremlin. Two, to distribute the money that Putin and friends have kept to themselves. More specifically, according to his 2018 campaign website, his platform comprises of:
- Political decentralisation and federalism — No more top-down planning from the Kremlin. Each region can decide what is best for themselves.
- Wealth redistribution in the form of a decrease in entrepreneurial taxes, a minimum wage, and a pension system.
- Decreased military, police, and government official spending. This also means stopping military aggression towards Russia’s neighbours and proxy wars.
- Infrastructure investment.
How much support does Navalny really have over the Russian population? Here are some numbers.
- His viral video covering Putin’s palace has over 118 million views.
- His past 10 videos have a combined total of 41.9 million views, but it has to be noted that he hasn’t appeared in the more recently released ones so the viewership has dropped.
- Prior to his arrest, his viewership for the past 10 videos was 103 million.
For some perspective, Russia has a population of 144.4 million. In the realm of the real, over 100 Russian cities erupted in protests during his arrest proceedings. This man undeniably has a certain pull on the population.
The Uh, Hmm
According to polls by Levada Centre, basically the Russian version of the Pew Research Center:
- The level of approval has doubled from 2019 (9 to 19 per cent). But,
- Disapproval has also doubled from 2019 (25 to 56 per cent).
However, it’s important to look at the main media consumption habits of these respondents, in which there is a clear delineation in sentiment.
- 64 per cent of television viewers disapproved of his activities (vs. 56 per cent of the average disapproval)
- 45 per cent of internet users approved (vs. 19 per cent of the average approval)
In another round of polls, people were asked who they would vote for in a presidential election. Putin dominated at 39 per cent. Navalny? A measly two per cent.
This would come as no surprise because, on one hand, you have Putin, who controls the Russian mass media machine and on the other, a guy who makes Youtube videos with slightly above average production quality. Of course, barely anyone would take Navalny seriously.
The Russian media also seems to completely deny and ignore Navalny’s existence, giving him zero positive airtime. Putin himself has mentioned “Alexey Navalny” only once in 2013. Just in December 2020, Putin referred to him as “the patient from the Berlin clinic”. The reason why he does this is, presumably, to deprive Navalny’s campaign of the “oxygen of publicity“.
Simply put, even though Navalny is not a real threat to him, Putin avoids talking about him so as to avoid the Streisand Effect. This effect refers to a social phenomenon where information a party wants to be suppressed inadvertently gets more unwanted attention.
Now, on to the spicy stuff. He has done three major things I feel we should take a closer look at. One, in which I will dub the “Cockroach and Dentist Incident”. Two, where he referred to Georgians as “rodents”. And three, his involvement in the far-right Russian March.
The Cockroach and Dentist Incident
In a 2007 video about gun rights, Navalny referred to a picture of Caucus Muslim militants and commented that “if your house has cockroaches, a slipper may deem ineffective.” He then insinuates that you have to use a gun. You could say that Navalny is projecting some serious Islamophobia here by directly comparing Caucus Muslim militants to cockroaches. This is a generous interpretation. If you ask me, this is just outwardly Islamophobic.
Closer to the present, Navalny appeared in another video titled “Become a nationalist!”. The year is 2017. Vaguely cheerful music plays in the background, as Navalny is in full dentist garb, referencing Muslim migrants in Russia as tooth cavities. After which, a clip from Happy Tree Friends depicting a cavity being violently removed is spliced in. “Everything in our way should carefully but decisively be removed through deportation”, he adds.
Both of these videos are, well, not a great look. The closest thing to redemption that has come out of his campaign is a statement his spokesman made, saying that Navalny regretted making those videos. But of course, in an interview later that year, Navalny seemed unapologetic. He claimed that making those comparisons was a form of “artistic licence.”
Referring to Georgians as “rodents”, he riffed on the ineffectiveness of the United Nations Security Council after a broadcast. This was in a 2008 blog post.
“In the future, act according to the situation, but at the same time be aware that of course you really want to fire a cruise missile at the general staff of rodents, but the rodents are just waiting for this.”
For this, he has apologised in a 2020 interview, but stood his ground in saying that they should have been more aggressive in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
Russian March Involvement
Behind the Russian March is an ultranationalist movement in which neo-Nazis participate. Navalny has joined the Russian March since its inception in 2005. He attended from time to time and was even a co-organiser in 2011. A confidant of Navalny and investigative journalist, Yevgenia Albats, said that his involvement was due to her persuasion.
Despite this, Navalny still vehemently defends his position of engaging with nationalists. His reasoning is that these people are simply expressing their freedom of assembly and if one doesn’t engage with these nationalists, they will be pushed even further to the right.
Fascist or Populist?
Bottom-line, calling him a “fascist” is an exaggeration — the man is most definitely a populist.
In this case, it means that his ideology is an anti-status quo and that he carves out discourse based on a monolithic “the people” versus “the elite”. This is not to say that he is wrong. Much of Russia’s problem comes from the fact that it is just hilariously plutocratic.
So what is wrong with him being a populist?
For one, since he coddles with the far-right, panders to free-market neoliberals, while campaigning on leftist welfare policies, it’s hard to know what you should support him for if you are just a regular Russian citizen. He puts on many masks. You are left wondering who Alexey Navalny is. Can you separate the politician from his politics?
Putin the “I” in “Kremlin”
At the time of writing, Russia’s Duma has passed a bill that would allow Putin to run for two more terms, as well as a bill that effectively stifles opposition and disallows Navalny to run. Should Putin run again — and let’s be completely frank here — he will win the two elections after his term ends in 2024, meaning 36 years of his rule. Stalin’s only lasted 32.
So is Navalny a populist, fascist, liberal, or something else? We will never know.