As we noted in our daily news roundup today, blogger and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny was a co-organizer of an annual nationalist rally in Moscow this weekend.

Navalny seems like a really smart guy. He has done what other would-be reformers could not do: not only chronicle, and sometimes thwart, corruption but also make ordinary people his partners in the fight. He can dissect a complicated and multi-layered oil transport contract and then turn it into a popular cause.

So I’ve been interested in reading liberal critiques of his alliance with Russian nationalists (surely he knows what he’s doing) and his responses. Navalny’s nationalism seems to be based on a few issues about which he feels strongly. First, he argues that the Caucasus has become a black hole into which Russia pours billions of rubles each year. That money goes to fund the buildup of a “sharia army” in Chechnya and ski resorts in Dagestan that Russia doesn’t need, or just to line the right pockets. Second, Navalny advocates the introduction of visas for Central Asians to travel to Russia. Seizing on what is an open secret – that authorities really have no idea how many Central Asians are in Russia – he argues that visas are a way of keeping track of a population that he recently blamed for an uptick in the heroin trade.

Still, he’s not interested in demonizing, he insists. He just wants to discuss it all. It is a lack of discussion that has helped the fringe nationalists grab the banner from their more moderate counterparts, he says.

In a lengthy and tough interview with lenta.ru, time and again Navalny distances himself from the uglier slogans of the movement. “There are some teenagers or 15-year-olds who run around and shout ‘Sieg Heil!’ – They’re there, of course” he says. “[B]ut they cannot articulate anything. But these are children, they need to put in a corner. …”

I come to this ready to argue against Navalny, but I can’t condemn everything he says. For one thing, he makes a pretty wan nationalist. He sidesteps the question of whether he believes, as other march organizers do, that Russians are not “masters in their own land.” Instead, he talks about dividing up the country’s resources more equitably. And he says that to argue that Russians who were expelled or fled from Chechnya should get compensation is not to foment ethnic conflict.

Well, who doesn’t think that the Caucasian republics are a shade darker than many of Russia’s fiscal black holes? (As for Central Asian drug mules, there are existing law-enforcement tools to deal with them.)

So, OK, let’s discuss it. I just hope Navalny hears what people are saying back to him. Like the thousands who attended this weekend’s rally, which was not exactly a gathering of like-minded reformers.

“Slogans such as ‘Russia for Russians’ and ‘[Expletive] the Caucasus’ sparked far more enthusiasm than Navalny’s anti-Kremlin rage during Friday’s much-hyped nationalist gathering in the southeastern suburb of Lyublino,” the Moscow Times reported.

And, if the Times reporting is accurate, it was more than a few 15-year-olds raising their right arms in the air. “The crowd spontaneously erupted into politically incorrect slogans throughout the event, and plenty of enthusiasts demonstrated Nazi salutes — the so-called ‘ziga zaga,’ named after the Nazi greeting ‘sieg heil,’ “ reporter Alexander Bratersky writes.

These are the mental giants with whom Navalny has allied himself. Apparently when asked about the contradiction between being a Russian patriot and self-proclaimed fascist, one participant told Bratersky, “our grandfathers were fighting [German] national-socialists, while fascists were based in Italy and Spain, and there was nothing wrong with them.”

At Novaya Gazeta, a publication as eager to see the back of Putin as Navalny could ever be, writer Elena Milashina wonders if there are things not dreamt of in the reformer/nationalist’s philosophy. Navalny is of an age to have fought in Chechnya, she points out, but didn’t. Instead, he was getting a top-flight education. Chechnya wasn’t always a black hole, Milashina writes, and if it is one now, what made it that way?

In 2000, when the special forces police from St. Petersburg (older than Navalny and I by a generation) wiped out at least 56 Chechen elderly, women, and children in the Chechen village of Novye Aldy, I was already working at Novaya Gazeta. Anna Politkovskaya was in the other room at the time writing an article about what happened at Aldy. She had just returned from Grozny, a capital that had been levelled to the ground for the second time.

Incidentally, Grozny at one time was a beautiful city, built by my father’s generation, with a massive, very modern and expensive oil-refinery complex, which provided loads of high-quality oil products for the Soviet Union thanks to the quality of the oil. Consequently, the oil was denoted only for export. Put this all together and Chechnya in general was always profitable, and it would be now if Rosneft wouldn’t be sucking up 90 percent of the region’s oil into its own pockets. Should Navalny know this? He is the financial expert, not me.

Navalny does have people’s ear, even if his message didn’t catch fire at the nationalist rally. He’s in a unique position, potentially able to get a hearing from nationalists and liberal reformers alike. So it matters what groups he lends his credibility to. So far, it looks as if he’s squandering it by being part of such a gathering.

Navalny doesn’t agree, of course. He argues that, given the chance to develop legally, “any but the smallest of the nationalist groups in Russia” would produce leaders who look no nuttier than “any right-wing politicians in Europe,” and that by showing up he was helping to seed that movement.

A few of the people at the march said similar reassuring things to the Times’ Bratersky, but that was not his reading of the event.

“But that time seems far off,” he wrote, “judging by the unruly and militant mob that dominated the event both on and off the stage — many wearing balaclavas and toting ‘imperial’ black-yellow-white flags.”

In the lenta interview, Navalny acknowledges that blame for the legal and fiscal abuses in the Caucasus lie with the Kremlin as well as with the region’s bei-like leaders. It’s a pity, then, that he has chosen to use as a vehicle for his activism a movement that is more intent on dividing victimized groups into different categories than uniting them against the power that he professes to be fighting.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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