By early June, the number of campaign offices had reached sixty. And each visit of Navalny with his team to a city becomes the main event of that city’s life.
The only thing that the Kremlin and its infinitely loyal regional elites can offer against Navalny’s methodical march across the country is violence and power abuses.
This is why a fierce scandal accompanies the opening of a Navalny campaign office in almost every city. Police and various officials such as tax and fire safety inspectors exert pressure on landlords willing to rent space to the campaign office. They are harassed and beaten up. Campaign headquarters lose electricity or water service. There are arson attempts and demands to evacuate the premises because of a supposed bomb threat. Doors are welded or glued shut, windows broken with stones and bottles, and walls covered with offensive graffiti.
Aggressive groups of pro-government vigilantes never fail to show up at Navalny’s meetings with activists, looking for any excuse to start a fight. Visitors are pelted with eggs, paint, and offensive substances. Navalny was personally attacked at least three times this spring and sustained a serious injury to his eye.
Russian law-enforcement agencies have sent out orders to local railway, airport, and post office administrators all across Russia, directing them to seize under any pretext campaign materials – newspapers and flyers – that Navalny’s local headquarters receive from Moscow.
However, even if all those offices are destroyed, even if the signatures are never collected and the nomination never happens, the infrastructure of Navalny’s movement will never go away.
Twice, Navalny tried to register an official party in early 2014 and was denied. Now he is creating a functional structure without a formal license but with advantages that matter far more—namely, large-scale participation, broad geographic scale, and the real enthusiasm of the participants.
If he succeeds, this structure will be the only oppositional organization of such a scale and compass in Russia. And Navalny will end up with a unique political resource in his hands, one whose value will endure regardless of the 2018 election results.
This enormous work demands remarkable cool-headedness, courage, and an extremely well-finessed and methodical organizational effort on the part of Navalny and his supporters. There likely isn’t a single person left at the Anti-Corruption Fund who hasn’t been interrogated in connection with some absurd, often unstipulated charge, who has not experienced a search or detention; staff have had their offices trashed, their private email hacked, and their laptops and phones confiscated. Navalny himself has been behind bars twice this spring alone.
As the only opposition leader able to achieve real success, Navalny builds relationships with his colleagues in the opposition camp in a pragmatic way. He insists on being the leader. And when he needs to make decisions on his own, even though it means presenting his natural allies with a fait accompli, he does so again and again, earning rebukes for a perceived unwillingness or inability to collaborate.
Commentators increasingly explain this tough managerial style by claiming that Navalny leans toward political authoritarianism. It has become somewhat fashionable to draw similarities between Navalny’s and Putin’s dictatorial manner and to discuss their inner political affinity and even the closeness of their worldviews.
However, just the opposite is true. Indignation over corruption alone won’t help draw universal attention and support. Day after day, Navalny has to hold increasingly more complex conversations with his supporters and undecided voters. He has to search for new stories and topics and reconsider and clarify his own positions. This is all becoming a prerequisite for the further development of his cause.
Navalny is above all a growing politician, one who keeps searching for his true cause and his natural style. He is developing quickly and evolving with ease, learning new things and abandoning ideas that have outlived their usefulness. A couple of years ago it was fashionable to search for and find in him a tendency to flirt with Russian nationalists. Where are those chastisers now?
What distinguishes Alexei Navalny today is that he is alive and awake. He has a keen intuition and is passionately involved in what is happening around him. He has already sacrificed a lot and is ready to sacrifice even more for the right to play what could be a decisive role in this adventure.
In today’s Russian political reality he is like Viktor Shklovsky’s “live silver fox in a fur store” — on the edge of losing his freedom as a person while working tirelessly to construct an oppositional organization that can thrive without him.
Sergei Parkhomenko is Russian journalist and publisher. This article was originally published by the Kennan Institute.
The views and opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.