Alexey Navalny, the crusading Russian anticorruption blogger who is now recognized as the public face of Russia’s anti-Putin opposition, is once again in the news. Unfortunately it’s not because he highlighted any particularly juicy bits of official malfeasance. Navalny is on trial for embezzlement and corruption in a transparent Kremlin ploy to discredit and weaken one of its major antagonists.
While Navalny’s pending trial has not yet attracted a media circus as frenzied as that which followed the trial of the punk rock group Pussy Riot (it has been greeted with surprising degree of apathy by many Russian oppositionists), he has nonetheless appeared on the pages of a number of the major Western papers.
Among the most noteworthy items was an op-ed written for the New York Times by its former executive editor, Bill Keller. Keller’s piece can only be described as laudatory, and it closes with a barely-veiled suggestion that Navalny may one day supplant Vladimir Putin as president of Russia: “I hope Obama pays attention to the Navalny show trial. He will learn something about the man across the table, and about the man who, you never know, might someday take his place.”
Keller cited the English-language Moscow Times’ description of Navalny as the “only electable” opposition figure, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that Keller is suggesting that Navalny is already a credible threat to replace Putin—and that this could happen in the very near future.
But whether a Navalny presidency is desirable or not, is it true that his popularity is booming and that he could credibly win a presidential election free of administrative interference? Or, failing that, is Navalny popular among a smaller but steadily growing group of Russians? Fortunately the Levada Center, Russia’s most respected independent polling outfit, recently asked Russians what they think about Navalny. The results are not entirely in line with Keller’s hagiographic account.
First off, Navalny is much more widely known in 2013 than in 2011: when asked if they knew who Alexey Navalny was, just 6% of respondents in 2011 answered yes, while in 2013 this had grown to 37%. So far, this sounds in line with Keller’s interpretation. But when those who had heard about Navalny were asked a follow-up question about whether they would vote for him if he ran for president, the results were startling: in April 2011, 33 percent of respondents said either “definitely yes” or “perhaps yes”; in March 2012, 19 percent said the same; and in March 2013, just 14 percent said they would at least consider Navalny. Meanwhile, from 2011 to 2013, the percentage indicating “definitely not” went from 19 percent to 38 percent.
From 2011 to 2013, Russians’ exposure to the internet continued to grow rapidly and Russia’s problems with corruption probably got worse. So the audience that ought to have been receptive to Navalny’s criticisms expanded. But even in the most generous interpretation, Navalny’s actual popularity stagnated and probably decreased. (Before someone accuses me of cherry-picking poll numbers, the results of Levada’s polls are fully in line with polling conducted by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that Navalny was viewed in a surprisingly unflattering way by most Russians.)
The point isn’t that Navalny’s prosecution is good: it obviously isn’t. Nor is it that Navalny is a bad guy: he isn’t. Rather it’s that the standard media narrative of a rapidly rising political rock star is badly off the mark: based on polling data, the more Russians hear about Navalny, the less they like him.
I’m not sure why Westerners are always convinced that a revolution in Russia is around the corner. Perhaps the current crop of commentators were conditioned by the sweeping political changes of 1989–91 and view such upheaval as “normal” when it is clearly not, but if the past thirteen years of history tell us anything, it’s that Putin’s hold on power is pretty tight and will not be easily broken. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t do anyone any favors to pretend otherwise.