Western Media in Search of a Russian Hero

Western media portrays the persecution of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny as politically motivated.

western-russianYet after he was convicted of embezzlement this week, Navalny was surprisingly released from prison a day later and allowed to stand in September’s mayoral election in Moscow. If the regime is truly afraid of the man, they would surely keep him locked up? The narrative doesn’t make sense.

Despite foreign media interest in Navalny, he isn’t particularly well-known across Russia. Outside Moscow, few Russians have heard of him. Part of the reason is that except in big cities, most Russians get their information from state-controlled television.

But even in the capital, where voters can get information freely from the Web, Navalny enjoys just 4 percent support, according to a survey conducted by the independent pollster Levada Center. No wonder the regime is comfortable letting him run.

Navalny’s limited appeal has different reasons

For one thing, it seems a majority of Russians are not at all dissatisfied with the Putin regime. The Western press is usually only interested when young and liberal Russians take to the streets in Moscow or St. Petersburg to demand greater political freedoms or protest the erosion of civil liberties that occurs under Putin’s watch.

Their complaints are legitimate, but there is also another story — the millions of Russians who have benefited from almost uninterrupted economic growth since Putin first became president in 2000. GDP per capita has more than tripled in the last twelve years. Many Russians may be forgiven for wondering why they should vote to upset the status quo.

Another reason may be Navalny’s intolerant rhetoric which his sympathizers abroad tend to gloss over. While Putin is derided for brutally suppressing an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya, he cautioned Russians last year that if their “multiethnic society is infested by nationalism, it loses strength and durability.” Navalny, by contrast, affiliated himself with just such nationalists and described Chechen terrorists as “cockroaches” for whom he recommended the pistol — and later said he was joking.

Why should we believe Navalny was kidding and Putin was insincere?

The latter could (but won’t) easily make himself yet more popular by curtailing Muslim immigration from former Soviet satellite states in Central Asia. Instead, he seeks to draw these countries into a free trade area with Russia — to the alarm of rural and working class Russians who fear losing their jobs as a result.

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Yet the average reader of international media gets the impression that Putin is the hardliner who is busy reviving the Soviet Empire and Navalny the underdog fighting against corruption and nepotism in modern-day Russia. There is corruption and nepotism in Putin’s Russia. It doesn’t seem that it became worse under Putin, but it certainly hasn’t got better.

Navalny’s trial appears to have been politically motivated, although there’s no evidence that orders to prosecute him came from the top. Young, outward-looking Russians have plenty of grievances. Putin’s rule is far from perfect. Opposition parties are frustrated at every turn. Economic liberalization, which Putin championed in his first terms, has stalled and might soon lead to slower growth.

By focusing almost exclusively on the fragile state of political freedoms in Russia, however, many media miss  the bigger picture. As a consequence, their readers will probably be wondering how an authoritarian leader such as Putin can still be popular. The reason, of course, we’re told, is vote rigging — even if there’s been little evidence of widespread fraud and opinion polls consistently show Putin enjoys broad majority support.

Navalny isn’t the hero who is going to upset the polls. Indeed, he isn’t a hero at all. For many Russians, Putin is.

Westerner journalists may find that disconcerting. However if we fail to acknowledge it and insist on believing that everything that happens in the country is part of an omnipotent strongman’s design who has lulled his people into a fall sense of prosperity and can even be bothered to fabricate embezzlement charges against, at best, a mildly popular activist with delusions of grandeur, we’re not doing our jobs.

Nick Ottens is a historian from the Netherlands who researched Muslim revivalist movements and terrorism in nineteenth century Arabia, British India and the Sudan. He is the chief editor of the transatlantic news and opinion website Atlantic Sentinel and has been published in Asia Times Online, Elsevier and The Seoul Times. He is also a contributing analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat. Read other articles by Nick.