Navalny – banned and Guardian reporting

Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation and political networks have been banned by court order.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation along with his political network, have been found by a court in Moscow, at the request of the prosecutor, to be violating Russia’s laws on extremism. The organisations have been banned. In a separate move a law has been passed in the State Duma which will prevent anyone who has been involved in an extremist organisation from participating in elections for a period of time. This move will prevent people who were involved in the now banned organisations from standing in the upcoming (Autumn) Parliamentary elections under a new banner. [1]

This is the Guardian’s report on the banning in Russia of Alexei Navalny’s organisations. Andrew Roth has certainly studied the argument of the defence. (Most likely he has been briefed by the defence). The argument is that the law on extremism requires that the offence be accompanied by violence or the threat of violence and in this case the prosecutor has not established that – or even, indeed, tried to.

I don’t know what exact law applied in this case. Just like in the UK, media reports in Russia sometimes omit the level of detail need to go into a topic in depth. This is the key text of Russia’s main law on Countering Extremist Activity:

насильственное изменение основ конституционного строя и (или) нарушение территориальной целостности Российской Федерации (в том числе отчуждение части территории Российской Федерации) [2]

Which translates as something like: “Violent change basis of the Constitutional order and/or violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (including alienation [cutting off] part of the territory of the Russian Federation…)” Roth uses the word “non-violent” 3 times in his article. He is attempting to bolster and represent the argument for the defence that Navalny’s organisations are not extremist because they do not call for violent overthrow of the constitution. (In general the liberal journalists of the Guardian and Independent in Moscow take it upon themselves to act as the PR arm of the Navalny organisation).

Russian state media has reported that the case of the prosecutor is that Navalny was “creating conditions for the destabilisation of the social and social-political situation and the aim was to change the constitutional order including using the scenario of a ‘colour revolution'”. [3] Part of the case was heard in secret as it relied on classified materials.

Is the ban legal and justified?

If the legal case rests on the Countering Extremism law the defence would appear to have a prima facie case. In the above statement about “destabilisation of the social and social-political situation” we don’t see a specific claim that Navalny was aiming at the violent overthrow of the Constitutional Order. His visible activities are limited to blogging claims about corruption amongst high-level state officials and calling people (including school-children) to take part in illegal street demonstrations. But let us look at the detail. The Russian word in the law on Countering Extremism is “насильственный” which translates as 1. violent or 2. forcible, forced, forceful. [4] However; if the second meaning of the word is considered the case becomes somewhat easier to establish. Navalny is a political strategist who has the overriding aim of replacing the current political settlement in Russia with a new one – presumably with himself as President. If you analyse his political position [5] it is clear that he is trying to garner all opposition to Putin/United Russia behind himself and to build up sufficient weight to achieve a political upset. His message is designed to appeal, on the one hand to nationalists, and those with anti-immigrant sentiments and, on the other hand, to those who have socialist leanings and would like to cut back the oligarchs and increasing social spending. He consciously appeals for complaints against the system and presents himself as the person who will answer all complaints. He is known in particular for encouraging a method of tactical voting which would encourage people to vote for any candidate who stood the best chance of defeating United Russia. It is a reactive platform of a political strategist whose overriding aim is to defeat the incumbent and get himself elected.

Critics of the state’s actions (and it would be naïve to believe that the Court in Moscow is politically independent) argue that the ban is a clear move to prevent Navalny’s grouping taking part in the Duma elections in the autumn. It is thus anti-democratic. In reality no one could deny that this is all to do with the upcoming elections. However; let us consider the matter from the point of view of the Kremlin. It looks like Navalny was running a clear strategy aimed at the autumn elections. The strategy was to exploit the sympathy arising from his alleged Novichok poisoning “by the FSB on behalf of Putin” and his subsequent imprisonment (arising from violation of parole for a previous embezzlement conviction), to combine this with a series of sensationalist videos about “palaces” etc. and to exploit the feelings of people experiencing a Covid-related economic hit – in order to make a breakthrough into the Duma. Street demonstrations were to play an important part in this campaign. Once in the Duma Navalny would have hoped for a snowball effect. Is this violent? Is it aiming at a “forcible” overthrow of the Constitutional Order?

Navalny’s political programme includes a complete reform of the Constitution, with a new constitution to be worked out by a special assembly. The new constitution should give the power of self-government to regions. [6] This latter idea – of more local self-government – is also a separate point in his political programme. [5] Navalny is calling for a change in the basis of the Constitutional Order which is part of what the charge against him amounts to. Is he calling for this to happen “violently” or “forcibly”? This exact point seems to be debatable. He certainly sees (or saw) street protests as part of the method. These protests if unsanctioned by the authorities (and likely they would have been) would have been illegal. Such protests can involve violence. (Of course the liberal Western press hypes alleged violence by police but certainly if you look you can find evidence of violence on the part of protesters at Navalny’s demonstrations). And even if they are not “violent” per se they do seemed aimed at forcing change. If you take this with the claims on the part of the authorities that Navalny was in touch with Western secret services you can see how from the point of view of the authorities Navalny was involved in a specific project to create conditions for a Maidan style coup in Russia. Part of the hearing was held in secret and we can assume that in this part of the hearing intelligence was produced to show connections between Navalny and Western intelligence. (Of course, if you are someone who has the default position of disbelieving everything the Russian authorities say you can of course say that this part of the hearing involved a blank piece of paper and a wink to the judge). If you consider the matter properly, rather than just writing what team Navalny feed you, it becomes possible to understand that the authorities may have a valid case. Such considerations do not as a rule appear in the pieces which appear in the Guardian and Independent which limit themselves to amplifying the position of Navalny’s organisation.

A further point about Navalny’s political programme. If you consider it as a whole taking into consideration the points about devolving power to the regions, about adjusting foreign policy to align with the wishes of the West and the point about independence of the judiciary, an objective assessment might conclude that such policies if implemented would lead to the breakup of Russia. The last point about independence of the judiciary is an awkward one to make; but my hunch is were that to be achieved it would mean local court decisions favouring local political ambitions and would contribute to the breakup of Russia. Russia is territorially very large and there is always an argument that if the authoritarian centre loosens its hold then centrifugal forces will come to the fore. “Right or wrong” these considerations provide a further reason why the authorities might have felt fully justified in curtailing Navalny’s activities.

An inherent problem in the authoritarian and centrist political model

There is one further theoretical point to make here. Russia is not a Western style ‘democracy’. It follows a more authoritarian and centrist model. Two examples; in Russia the state retains a more significant role in the economy than is typical in Western democracies. (However; if you make the comparison with the social democracies of Scandinavia the difference is much less marked). In Russia the media is more generally more openly onboard with the message from the political top. (However; as this web site never tires of pointing out the Western “free” media is much more politically centrist and conformist that it likes to appear). Nonetheless it is not unreasonable to see Russian democracy as more of the plebiscite kind; people can express critical opinions, but they should not go too far. People are consulted but they do not have quite the power to radically change the political settlement. [7] This contrasts with the system in say the UK where one can say pretty much anything one likes; including, for example, calling for the breakup of the UK through unconstitutional means, or publishing a cartoon of the Queen on a potty. Maverick politicians who want to radically change the social order – such as Farage or George Galloway may be monitored by the intelligence services but they are allowed to stand. All this is seen as “freedom”. An authoritarian and (to over simplify) semi-democratic system such as that in Russia which allows democracy but which seeks to manage it from the centre will always have the weakness that it can be outflanked by someone (such as Navalny) who doesn’t play the game and will try to use the permitted levers of democracy to achieve a radical new settlement. And, quite possibly, such actors will seek the aid of external actors. At any rate, even if they don’t, they are certainly cheered on very loudly from the side-lines. It will be very easy to portray an authoritarian system as oppressive as it takes the necessary steps to fend off such challenges. In contrast, the Western system has achieved a very serious political feat; it is flexible enough to absorb all the Farages and Galloways. It can permit itself to be subject to more or less any level of criticism. But still in reality wealth and power remain concentrated in the hands of a few!

One difference is that the current leadership in Russia retains an ideal of national political direction. In the UK (at least) this has been replaced altogether by a model of international corporatism. As an illustration of this consider that 66% of investment in the UK is foreign. [8] That is 66% of all investment in the country comes from a foreign source. In contrast FDI plays a small role in the Russian economy. (In 2021 it seems to have totalled no more than 9 billion USD. [9] World Bank figures also suggest very low levels of FDI – even negative in some recent years [10]). The UK government does not need to seek to protect a national political project because it has already accepted the diminution of national political power and dissolution into an International system.

Conclusion

From the point of view of the Russian state the ban on Navalny is rational. It is genuinely done in line with their perceived national interests. It is not part of an increasing level of suppression of democratic activity as the Guardian would like us to believe. On the contrary it is robust action in defence of the existing political order. Nothing has changed from the centre.

However, this matter does highlight a difference between the authoritarian and centrist political model of Russia with the neo-liberal political-economic model of the West. The latter is more flexible and can tolerate the appearance of more dissent and even permit a greater range of political activity. The model of authoritarian and centrist democracy relies on people playing the game. It is always vulnerable to attempts to outflank it, which then have to be fought off – giving the appearance of repression. On the other hand there is a case that the greater “freedom” of the West is simply a game, a matter of appearances. In reality, wealth and privilege are concentrated in the hands of a few and the masses are covertly manipulated by the media, which is owned and controlled by financial elites, into accepting the positions espoused by power. (The case for this analysis is not made here; simply referenced). If this analysis is correct then the Western criticism of the treatment of Navalny is not in fact based on “human rights” considerations or a real love for democracy. It is part of a game (“colour revolution scenario”) aimed at subverting the Russian national political system and drawing Russia into the “International system” – a system no more based on real democracy than the Russian one, arguably less since the lack of real democracy is disguised.

Notes

  1. https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/world/russian-president-vladimir-putin-signs-law-banning-extremists-from-running-in-elections-709417
  2. http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/bank/18939
  3. https://ria.ru/20210609/fbk-1736377673.html
  4. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%BB%D1%8C%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BD%D1%8B%D0%B9
  5. https://web.archive.org/web/20210421012209/https://2018.navalny.com/en/platform/
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20210421073256/https://navalny.com/issues/%D0%BD%D1%83%D0%B6%D0%BD%D0%BE-%D0%BB%D0%B8-%D0%BC%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%8F%D1%82%D1%8C-%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BD%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%82%D1%83%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8E-116/
  7. This characterisation of Russia is made by Peter Kenez in his excellent history of Russia A History of the Soviet Union from Beginning to its Legacy. Cambridge University Press 2016
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jun/07/foreign-investors-own-66-of-uk-listed-shares-analysis-shows
  9. https://www.cbr.ru/eng/statistics/macro_itm/svs/
  10. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/BN.KLT.DINV.CD?locations=RU

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer