Following Navalny’s arrest at Sheremetovo there has been a chorus of strident demands from US and European politicians for Moscow to release Navalny. Some, such as British MP Tobias Ellwood (who the Guardian finds it necessary to describe as a ‘government MP’) make statements for which they have absolutely zero evidence such as that the FSB poisoned Navalny.
This takes place in the context of a heavily skewed narrative in the West which obscures the actual facts of Navalny’s conviction and suspended sentence for fraud as well as subsequent violations of Russian laws.
They are engaging in propaganda. They have latched onto Navalny and are backing him and his associates in the upcoming parliamentary elections because they prefer his politics to Putin’s. It is the most egregious ‘meddling’ in internal Russian affairs.
Why are they backing Navalny?
This editorial in the Independent sums up the thinking of Western media and political circles on Navalny. “He is no saint, and he may not be an ideal poster boy for liberal values; yet he is all Russia has at the moment, and he represents something – an argument, an alternative, a challenge – that President Putin finds irksome”. (In fact there is a rare admission here that Navalny may have been involved in “financial irregularities”). And this is the point. They want Russia to adopt “liberal values” – which means their system – and they see Navalny as the best tool they’ve got. But imagine if Russia spent huge amounts of effort trying to get the UK to adopt a more authoritarian style of government with a more state-centric economy and conservative values. The same pundits would denounce this as “interference” and, if it was done to the extent to which they agitate for Navalny, would probably see it as a causa belli.
Here are a few points from Navalny’s political platform (taken from the English language version of his website): 
- He criticises another opposition politician (yes, they do exist in Russia contrary to the misinformation in the Western press), Sergey Glazyev, who is himself against corruption in the state apparatus but who, unlike Navalny, is critical of the intentions of the Western economies towards Russia. 
- Wealth distribution. Increase the minimum wage. Increase social security benefits. Tax national infrastructure which is in private hands. Transfer revenue from energy exports direct to the social security system. Decrease mortgage rates to make it easier to buy a house. – I don’t know if these plans have been costed.
- To reduce the state-owned sector of the economy
- To establish a new anti-corruption body.
- “The most important element of a true democracy is the return of instruments of control over the expenditures of the budget formed from the tax payments of the citizens and the businesses. Today, these funds are shamelessly privatized by the bureaucrats and the business structures linked to them.” This the plank in his platform that amuses me. Imagine if a political party in the UK made this a main aim of their programme. The political class and their invisible friends in finance, who benefit from systematic looting of the public purse, (a process typified for example by the recent expenditure of £22 billion on the failed Test and Trace system – with apparently hundreds of consultants being employed at a charge-out rate of £1000.00 per day ) would be horrified and would fight it tooth and nail.
- Switch state spending from defence and security to health and education.
- Reduce “red-tape”. (This is a key demand of the middle-class in Russia who find it hard to start businesses).
- Improve relations with the EU and US.
- Introduce more robust Visa controls on the Central Asian countries. This would have a devastating effect on the economies of these poor countries which are heavily dependent on remittances from guest-workers in Russia.
- Reduce Visa controls (abolish them?) for European citizens.
- Distribute power from the centre back to the regions. (A lot of critics of Putin’s government see it as being centrist. It isn’t hard to argue this point of view; for example under Putin’s rule regional governors can be appointed from the centre overriding local elections).
- Navalny claims that the main function of the legal system is to protect the current power elites. He proposes to take steps to make the judiciary independent.
- Lighten the punishments for crimes in the economic sphere! (Having been convicted of fraud one can sense a personal interest here by Navalny). It isn’t clear to me how this would sit with an anti-corruption drive.
- Penal system: “Apart from the personnel and structural reform of the system, this can be achieved by making the system more open to the public and keeping the convicts sentences for the first time or for a non-serious crime separate from repeated offenders and those convicted for serious crimes.” I find this a very progressive idea – one that is often talked about in Europe but which, strangely, never goes anywhere. Excellent idea.
- Shift the balance of power from the Presidency to the Parliament.
- Ban the Church from any official role in public life.
- Reduce state influence in the mass media.
- Resolve the Crimea problem by having a vote there. (It is not clear that the West would actually agree to this).
Overall Navalny’s programme seems to have a strong element of ‘liberalising the economy’ – that is reducing the size of the state sector. Politically he wants to transfer power to the regions and make democracy more meaningful. He wants to improve the independence of the judiciary. He wants to reduce spending on defence and improve relations with the EU and US in effect by accepting their demands in the foreign policy sphere it appears. He wants to decisively face Russia to Western Europe – for example proposing a Visa free regime with Europe, while reducing the inflow of labour from Central Asia (with serious economic consequences in those countries as a by-product). Some of his criticisms of abuse of state expenditures would apply equally to the UK.
One can see why the West love him. A more liberalised economy and foreign policy subservience to the West. (They know, from experience, that once you have a liberal democracy set up transferring vast amounts of wealth from the public to private hands is a cinch and this can easily be done while maintaining a poe-faced narrative about ‘public accountability’; they won’t be worried by those aspects of Navalny’s programme which talk about democratic oversight of state expenditures). One can see why Putin and the current leadership of Russia see him as a pariah.
It seems to me that Navalny is a wealthy middle-class Western leaning Moscow resident. He represents the demands of this class: liberalisation of the economy and building business connections with Europe and the US. He is happy to give up Russia’s expensive-to-maintain independent Foreign Policy and security posture to achieve this. There is an element of the programme to distribute wealth to all classes, for example by increasing the minimum wage, over a period of time. I don’t know if these policies have been costed and are economically viable. The programme seems less radical, less of a change, than, say the programme of the Communist Party – which envisages more nationalisation and much more in the way of planned social expenditure.