Ilya Matveev, a researcher and lecturer in political economy based in St. Petersburg and co-author of the Political Diary podcast
At first, Navalny’s decision to return to Russia was bewildering. What did he expect to happen? The state had clearly decided to put him behind bars, disregarding international pressure (in any case, after the highly publicized assassination attempt, the reputation of the Russian authorities could hardly get any worse). In prison, Navalny could claim the moral high ground, but he could not be an effective communicator of anti-corruption investigations and political campaigns (his most important activity). Navalny’s decision seemed almost irrational, a stubborn show of defiance. However, very soon it became clear that there was an element of political calculation to this. Once Navalny was arrested, his team released a new investigative video. It was one of a kind – Navalny’s first big investigation targeting Putin directly. The video was destined to attract a huge audience. Navalny’s calculation was to provoke an immediate and severe political crisis – both with his own arrest and with the new explosive investigation. This crisis would have a street dimension – on Saturday 23 January, Russian cities will witness unsanctioned rallies – and an electoral dimension.
2021 is in fact the year of parliamentary elections in Russia. Russia has a mixed electoral system – one half of the parliament is elected on proportional basis, another half in single-member districts. While elections are tightly controlled and falsifications have reached an unprecedented level during the vote on constitutional amendments in 2020, parliamentary elections could still pose a problem for the regime. Party list voting faces the problem of deep unpopularity of United Russia, a ruling party. And in single-member districts, the regime faces the so-called ‘smart voting’, Navalny’s highly advanced tactical voting scheme. A political crisis triggered by Navalny’s arrest and his new anti-Putin video hits both targets – lowers the vote for United Russia even further and promotes ‘smart voting’ in SMDs. It could be a heavy blow for the regime, especially combined with street protests. In short, Navalny’s return to Russia was a calculated gamble. The ball is now in the court of the ordinary members of the opposition.
A few words on the new video itself. It does not present a lot of new facts – Putin’s personal palace first appeared in the news in 2010. Nor is it significant simply because it is a direct challenge to Putin. What is striking about the video is that it creates a consistent narrative. In this story, Putin’s defining characteristic is his absurd, comical lust for material wealth. According to Navalny, Putin has always been guided by this lust alone. He wanted things when he was a KGB agent in Germany, he wanted things in Anatoly Sobchak’s administration in St Petersburg in the 1990s, he wanted things while moving to Moscow and eventually becoming president and he still wants things, even after building a $1,5 billion palace with the seal of the Romanov dynasty at the entrance. In my opinion, this is not an accurate description of Putin’s mindset or motivation. Nor can the Russian regime be reduced to this caricature. Nevertheless, Putin’s decisions in recent years (starting with his return to the presidency in 2012 all the way to canceling term limits for himself in 2020) made such a depiction of his life and work inevitable. For this one-dimensional account of his life, Putin has no one to blame but himself.