Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny understands Vladimir Putin’s fundamental weakness. Flouting the rule of law denies Russia’s president the legitimacy he claims and the strength legitimacy could provide. But it’s also what helps keep him in office. As the two engage in battle, this weakness is on full display. It will continue to plague Putin regardless of the outcome.
In a sense, Putin is trapped: Riding roughshod over civil liberties and property rights is practically part of his job description. He’d have little to offer the Kremlin elite if he didn’t allow them to seize other people’s assets and enrich themselves at public expense. He could face a real electoral challenge if law enforcement and the courts weren’t so willing to punish, jail and otherwise silence his political opponents. This same conduct undermines the president’s own stated goals for the country, preventing millions of honest, talented Russians from building a civil society and a more prosperous nation.
Navalny has sought to show how pervasive and toxic the problem is. He has investigated the improbably lavish lifestyles of top officials, including current and former prime ministers. He has forced authorities to go to great lengths — including trumping up absurd criminal charges and imprisoning his brother — to intimidate him and prevent him from participating in elections. He has led a successful strategy to elect the straw candidates (including a cleaning lady in the town of Povalikhino) enlisted to lend local elections the appearance of legitimacy. It’s as though he’s laid down a challenge: Go ahead, call off the next elections, show them what you really are.
In recent months, Navalny’s campaign to expose the nature of Russian power has been particularly successful — perhaps exceeding his own expectations. He has provoked his enemies into a bungled poisoning attempt — one that showed the world that the government can’t be trusted to safeguard its chemical weapons, and that may have revealed the Kremlin’s hand in efforts to surveil and assassinate him. At great risk, he has returned to yet another detention in Russia from the relative safety of Germany, presenting Putin with a dilemma: Publicly acknowledge Navalny as a threat by keeping him locked up (or worse), or let a potent opponent go free.
No matter what the president chooses, Navalny has done Russians and the world a great service. He’s shown that one extraordinarily brave person can focus attention on the iniquity of an entire system. There’s little chance that Putin by himself could mend it, even if he wanted to. That challenge, as Navalny has shown, is for the country as a whole to confront. — Bloomberg