Streetwise Professor

July 23, 2013

The Navalny Riddle, Mystery, Enigma

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:04 pm

Yes, it’s cliche, but cliches become so because they capture essential truths.

So WTF does the Navalny release mean?

I have no answers, but a couple of thoughts.

My initial thought is that there is nothing deep and meaningful here: they are just f*cking with him.  What better way to torture someone by crushing his hopes, then raising them, then crushing them again?  What better way to demonstrate to him (or her) that his (or her) fate is completely at the whim of the authorities?  They are demonstrating to Navalny-and everyone-that freedom or imprisonment is not a matter of law, but purely a matter of the exercise of the will of the authorities.

The more conventional explanation, which I do not discount, is that Navalny’s surprise release is the result of a conflict among clans in Russia, specifically between the siloviki types and those more pragmatic types who believe that arbitrary authoritarianism threatens the system, and all of the goodies that the elite get.  This is plausible.

Let’s work through the implications.  If it is true, it would reflect a fundamental weakening of Putin.  His entire role is to balance the contending elites.  If he cannot keep the dogs from using Navalny as a human tug toy, he has failed in this role.  The squabbling elite will have escaped his control.

Which means that eventually, he will have to intervene.  His power derives to a large extent from the belief that he is the ultimate arbiter.  If this falls under the shadow of doubt, more conflicts will break out.  There will be a positive feedback loop with very negative consequences for Putin.

His intervention may succeed, and restore the equilibrium, or it may fail, in which case the feedback loop will begin to operate inexorably.

Putin has disclaimed any involvement.  But this is out of his control.  If it becomes widely believed that the Navalny release is a palimpsest  of some hidden conflict among the belief, his silence will be interpreted as a sign of weakness, which will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how will he intervene?  If he acts leniently, he will encourage further opposition.  If he acts brutally, he will deter it.  I think his choice is pretty obvious.

But will his choice end the inter-elite conflict?  That’s the crucial question.  The stakes are very high for him.  This is why Navalny really matters: the case is testing the stability of the system, and Putin’s ability to perform his balancing role.

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  1. My own feeling about all this is that it is choreographed entirely from start to finish, and that yes, Putin is just toying with him and appearing to be “liberal” at certain strategic junctures — and only in Russian can you appear “liberal” by sentencing someone to five years, threatening them with even more sentences of 8 years on various other charges in other court cases, and then seem to relent by…letting you go home to pack for prison and shop for warm socks.

    To be sure, it could be weeks while his sentence appeal works through the system. Or maybe not. Meanwhile, technically, he can keep campaigning in the mayor elections — and he was allowed to be in them in the first place merely as a foil or a feint or thrust or something in some caper there.

    This piece we published has speculation about manipulations regarding the mayoral elections, and also speculates about the clan warfare:

    Perhaps there really is a war between various silovoki in and around Putin’s office and elsewhere, perhaps not. Or perhaps they stage-manage this to make it appear so.

    There is an old concept in Russia that if two big powers are fighting, i.e. the KGB and the police, or the Party and the KGB, than the result of the clash of the titans is some temporary freedom for the people, as the titans turn on and off freedom like a spigot.

    But these moments are often accompanied by setting up journalists with “kompromat,” and then they take the fall. Managed democracy is managed. It’s not beyond the capacity of managed democracy to actually allow Navalny to run in the elections, knowing that he will spend treasure and talent and still lose big-time. Then Putin can gloat about how he has legitimized the elections. Perhaps that’s the plan.

    All along the way, La Russophone and others who claim to be anti-Kremlin but who actually don’t want to see the status quo disrupted will gloat, too, and say, see? The Russian people aren’t ready for democracy.

    Maybe there’s a chance, like Gorbachev’s perestroika, that this particular managed democracy episode will get out of control, but I don’t think so. All they have to do is re-start any of the other court cases or make the appeal fail or find a Xerox box filled with cash somewhere…

    Comment by Catherine Fitzpatrick — July 23, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

  2. Er, *siloviki and *La Russophobe Although maybe I should keep Russophone, I like it.

    Comment by Catherine Fitzpatrick — July 23, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

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