Youth support enables Navalny’s political rise

By Cui Heng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/12 20:33:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Russia will hold presidential elections in March, 2018. The elections will have a great impact on the evolving political pattern in Russia. In the next six years, will the political order established by President Vladimir Putin in the past 20 years continue, or will a new political structure be established? Domestic political forces have kept a watchful eye on the upcoming elections. On March 26, massive anti-government protests took place in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities, which can be seen as a prelude to the election campaigns.

The oppositions in Russia are not well-organized. They have no common leaders or common political ideologies. The anti-Putin political movements in the past have failed to form a united front. Putin and his government may feel frustrated but are not threatened by them.

The Russian oppositions do not have the political strength to shake Putin's rule. But the latest rallies enabled the oppositions to mobilize their supporters, and Alexei Navalny gained prominence as the leader of the opposition forces.

The recent demonstrations were unauthorized and illegal. According to Western media, Navalny tried to obtain legal status for the demonstrations, but was turned down by the Russian government. It took only two days to complete the organization for the event, from the planning to the rallies on the streets. The tipping point is an exposition on Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev is alleged to own several properties, plots of land, yachts and a vineyard, which came from bribes by oligarchs and bank loans obtained with the help of non-government foundations. The demonstration organized by Navalny has displayed his influence and his ability to organize rallies to bring together the Russian public and the other opposition factions.

Navalny has no political or business experience. He began writing blogs to criticize Putin and the Russian government in 2008 and gained some popularity. He attracted more attention during the 2012 presidential elections. He is a controversial figure, but that he has no political resources is an indisputable fact.

Traditionally, in Russia, an opposition leader like Navalny would not be able to expand his influence. However, the explosive development of social media has given Navalny the tools to realize his political ambition.

Through the latest demonstration, the Russian opposition has learned that the anti-Putin and anti-government groups mainly consist of young people in big cities. These people did not live through the recession and chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union and do not know the significance of Putin's contributions to their country.

Rather, they attribute the economic recession after 2008 to Putin who has been in power for most of their lives.

To put it simply, Navalny and his opposition forces are from the grassroots. Older Russians, who experienced the country's vicissitudes, all think Navalny and his followers are just speculators, while young people who indulge in social networks can easily accept their political ideas.

Navalny was arrested during the demonstrations and may lose the chance to take part in the presidential elections. Even if he has the chance, he cannot pose a threat to Putin or Putin's successor. But his personal "sacrifice" has made him a hero of anti-authoritarian regime in the eyes of the opposition forces.

Within one week after the March demonstration, two heavyweight opposition figures, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Mikhail Kasyanov, voiced support for Navalny to run for president. It is not known whether Navalny's arrest was planned or not, but it gave the opposition, which lacks suitable leadership, a potential leader to unite them. This is perhaps Navalny's biggest gain from the demonstrations.

The Russian opposition forces have started to consolidate their powers and have mobilized their supporters through organizing rallies. Next, they will initiate a series of moves to expand their influence. Although they can hardly thwart Putin's personal charisma, they should not be viewed as trivial.

In September 2018, the election for the mayor of Moscow will be held. Five years ago, Navalny, though nascent in his political life, gained 27 percent of the votes. He may just take the presidential election as a warm-up to build his political influence, and beat Putin's political allies in the Moscow mayoral election.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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