Weekly Wrap-Up: It’s Not About Navalny

The weekly wrap-up is included in the Bear Market Brief each Friday. This week, I covered recent happenings concerning opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

It’s about Navalny, but it’s also not. Opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been in the news again: he was was sentenced this week on obviously trumped up charges, thereby rendering him ineligible to run for president, though he claims he will do so anyway. This is a marked change from the Kremlin’s 2013 approach, when he was allowed to run and lose the Moscow mayoral race in the first round. Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, but has he become a threat?

Navalny himself isn’t much of a threat, but what he represents most certainly is: the prospect of a credible populist alternative to Putin emerging. Even if he were he allowed to run in free and fair elections where he didn’t face a massive resource gap and electoral tinkering, I don’t think he would win, or even force a second round: his following is confined primarily to large cities. However, Russia, especially after several years of stagnation, is fertile ground for a populist wave given the right leadership, and knowing this, the Kremlin is maintaining a firm position of no alternatives. Prokhorov isn’t being allowed to run this time around, and worth note, all of the candidates aside from Putin (Zhirinovksy, Zyuganov, and Yavlinsky) also ran in 1996. So perhaps more accurately, its ‘us or the 90s,’ and that’s a message that resonates with Russians. Yuval Weber of HSE and Harvard notes that Navalny “is the candidate likely closest to median Russian political preferences: nationalism in support of social stability in a “normal” country.” Regardless of whether the candidate himself is viable, that message is.

In terms of populist risks, Russia is very much a part of Europe. There’s obviously little chance of a shock election result in 2018, but Moscow is not isolated from the prevailing mood on the continent, one it has been helping to fan. That’s a foreign policy that arguably fits a pattern for the Kremlin: short-term gain with the risk of long-term blowback. Or, as Dan Carlin put it in his description of Germany’s decision to send Lenin back to Russia, “spiting your neighbor by setting their apartment on fire.”

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