[Editor’s note: This week, Alexei the most prominant member of the opposition to Vladimir Putin’s Russian government, held a closed meeting with a number of investment bankers, analysts and fund managers, estimated to control between $20 billion and $25 billion between them.One person there, Ivan Tchakarov of Renaissance Capital, had written an account of the meeting for a site we partner with, Business New Europe.
We thought, given the changing state of Russian politics, it was worth reading.]
It is 7pm and I find myself in a private business club in downtown Moscow, surrounded by around 40 other attendees. I prefer to read The Economist’s latest issue rather than to make acquaintances, but struggle to make progress. I think the rest too are not interested in making small talk. We all are in anticipation of meeting the possible future president of Russia (at least this is how one well-known western media outlet dubbed him), the Robin Hood of Mother Rus, the benevolent protector of the poor, the intrepid crusader against corruption, the unblemished hero of a new democratic Russia…well, you get the point.
He appears all of a sudden and the first impression is definitely positive. Smartly dressed, tall, imposing and easy on the eye. We are in awe (no pun intended) and fully fixated on him. He sits in front of the audience, carefully scans us and gives off an almost invisible smile. I can almost feel his steely look on me; there is this unmistakable aura of determination and decisiveness about the way he straightens up his jacket and invites his PR man to get on with it. He will talk briefly about his political views and will then open to Q&A. And if you bear with me until the end of this brief, I promise that I will even offer some grist for the mill of those that love conspiracy theories.
Where are we now in the political process?
Navalny has some written notes, but barely looks at them (he says he hates the usual PP presentations with the usual bullet points). He thinks Vladimir Putin is frantically trying to build a new political structure, which will replace the current one. Putin’s image was always built on his personal popularity, on the carefully crafted and masterfully sold impression of the national hero who came to offer and implement law and order. Navalny, therefore, does not deny that Putin is a popular man, but, unsurprisingly, argues that he was also quite lucky with the oil prices. Putin’s system was built on playing the mutually beneficial game of the federal government (in the face of Putin’s key political instrument United Russia) receiving votes from the individual regions (in the face of the submissive governors) in exchange of granting green light to accumulate personal wealth. Navalny thinks that, given all the money that was available, Putin&Co could have ‘bought’ any possible reform that one could think of. However, the money was not meant for reforms, but for corruption and personal enrichment.
However, now United Russia (UR) has started to crack on the edges and Navalny makes the somewhat controversial point that it is increasingly becoming clear to many that if one wants to run for office these days, one has better chances to succeed by criticising Putin and UR as this actually brings more popularity with the electorate.
Understandably, Navalny is not exactly a fan of Putin 2.0, ie. the concept of the PM changing his spots after the March elections and re-emerging as a reformer. He offers the example of his conversation with a senior representative of “one big gas company” who told him that we at the company know exactly what needs to be done to make the company much better and more transparent. However, once we try to change a given political appointee, “he just runs to Sechin (or his political krysha, protector) and nothing happens”.
What should the opposition do?
It should definitely keep the momentum of street protests (Navalny says “we will make a huge effort here”); insist on new Parliamentary elections by Dec; and insist on new Presidential elections in the next 1.5 years.
Navalny is adamant that these goals are very realistic and not just wishful thinking. Intriguingly, he actually thinks that Putin would be interested in such a scenario himself if one guarantees him political survival and preservation of his wealth. According to Navalny, Putin is still a popular politician, so he just be the leader of his party, still participate in the political process, but he needs to open up the system. However, Navalny is convinced that this runs against the very DNA of Putin and that’s why the latter may not agree to such a scenario.
Navalny argues passionately that people should not be afraid of any sharp political developments. UR will attempt to co-opt the opposition and smear his name, but it will not resort to clamp downs. He adds calmly “nothing can seriously happen” and ‘UR is just trying to scare people’ by making a bogeyman of him. His ‘Don’t be afraid’ runs as a constant refrain through the whole conversation and gets immediately stuck in my mind.
Similarly, he is dismissive of claims that he is a nationalist extremist. His case is of course hard to square with some statements that he has allegedly made in the past, including comparing Caucasians with cockroaches and, much more alarmingly, adding that while one uses slippers to kill cockroaches, one should rather use guns for the Caucasians! Ouch!
What is Navalny’s personal ambition?
Navalny says he just tries to be a practical politician and deal with everyday practical things, even though many accuse him of being just an “office mouse” digging in minor details. Navalny is ambitious to change two stereotypes about Russia and Russians – that nothing can be done in the country without oligarchs” money and that people are not ready to give money openly for political causes.
Navalny wants to recruit 20,000 observers for the upcoming presidential elections (8,000 already signed up). He also does not think he needs to form a party at this juncture as it is more important to have a smaller group of dedicated activists.
When questioned whether he actually thinks he has any real support among people and whether he realistically thinks he can be appealing to liberally-minded Russians, he answers that he doubts that any liberal party in Russia can garner more than 10% of votes, as Russians are rather conservative by nature. What he really strives for is more political competition and more political plurality. It should not be considered dangerous to have a more radical political party and he invites the example of Hungary (oh, I don”t think foreign investors would be delighted to hear that!) as a place where nothing too extraordinary is happening with politics-its is just all part of the political process.
Navalny tries (quite unsuccessfully in my view) to present himself as just an ordinary fighter against corruption. He argues he understands that people can just get bored with him and he can fade into oblivion if, but all he cares about is that his moral compass points him in the right direction. In my view, Navalny is clearly burning with ambitions to be something more. His claim that all he does is create pressure points for the authorities, so that they “allow me and other people to run and be part of power” betrays his underlying aspirations.
Navalny also does not get easily rattled by unpleasant questions and keeps his cool, although he gets visibly more animated when questioned on whether he actually is any more popular than Zuganov and Zhirinovsky. He brushes away questions on whether he is financed by the Americans, but conveniently proffers only, “you are following my activities closely” to a questioner that suggests that some published Navalny’s emails clearly show that Uncle Sam is footing his bill. Navalny neither denies nor confirms that, but adds that with the advent of internet, financing his activities actually do not require lots of money.
What are his economic views?
Navalny is quite fuzzy on this. He says his goal is now to fight corruption and fight for wider political participation, rather than write economic programmes. He thinks that there are many good economic programs, including Gref’s 2010 and even Putin’s 2020. He acknowledges that all that is being said on the economic front is good (he also mentions yesterday’s Vedomosti article by Putin), but he simply thinks (well, he is absolutely sure) that Putin is just throwing sand in people”s eyes and is not ready to loosen the political constraints and put his coterie of corrupt underlings in prison.
Bits and pieces
He would not criticise presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, as this would run against his idea that people should now be just coalescing against Putin, but he thinks that Prokhorov is clearly a Kremlin project.
He thinks Khodorkovsky was one of those that were stealing like all other oligarchs, but adds that his second sentence was fully fabricated. He does not think Khodorkovsky will play any important political role even if he were to be released.
In conclusion, our modest assessment
I learned that Navalny can be a charismatic speaker and manage a audience quite well. He is not afraid to answer hard questions and even revels in being given the opportunity. He undoubtedly enjoys the limelight despite making efforts to conceal it.
Despite his mild protestations to the contrary, he harbours political ambitions. His political philosophy is hard to pin down and it will surely evolve, but for the sake of offering a characterization, I would loosely say he is a social conservative. He clearly understands that being pictured as such gives him the best chance to appeal to the broad electorate.
His political strategy is to create multiple pressure points for the authorities. He is ready to join forces with multi-coloured opposition at this stage, as his key intention is to emasculate Putin”s power to a manageable 35-40%. As he put it “Putin can do all he wants with 70% approval rating, but not with 35%”. Once this is done, he believes that he can power ahead alone towards his ultimate objective-to gain enough popularity now and create the requisite conditions to run for and become the President of a strong Russia after Putin.
As alluded to above, he has allegedly been on the record with some very racist remarks. He is carefully distancing himself from these statements now, professing his brotherly love for all human beings, but history has not been kind to those analysts that have discarded such statements in other notoriously famous people as immaturities and genuine slips of the tongue. I hope I am dead wrong on this one.
Overall, Navalny is strong intellectually, well-prepared, charming and engaging. His political strategy is crystalizing now and he is increasingly using PR techniques to present himself to the public as an honest and fair opposition leader. However, he is still quite elusive and hard to understand completely, so we need to watch this place. Only history will show whether he is Presidential material (he also dismisses historical parallels to Alexander Kerensky), but two things are clear: he adds an interesting flavour to the current political process and he has a very long road in front of him to ingratiate himself with the majority of Russians.
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