Alexey Navalny and His Anti-Corruption Threat to Putin

By uncovering Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s large-scale corruption practices, political activist Alexey Navalny hits the Kremlin close to home.

When President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power in Ukraine following the Euromaidan uprising in Kiev in early 2014, the Russian regime felt the need to strongly condemn the events and to reject the newly installed Poroshenko government as illegitimate, which they expressed by labelling the power transition as a coup d’état. Arguably, besides their geopolitical implications for Russia, the events in Kiev must have frightened President Vladimir Putin and his small circle of confidants personally. What had started in late 2013 as protests against Yanukovych’s sudden reluctance to sign an EU–Ukraine Association Agreement had over time turned into a large-scale anti-corruption uprising against the Ukrainian government. In Russia, alongside the general use of anti-western rhetoric, Putin has always managed to justify the illiberal political system by describing successful anti-terrorism campaigns, a flourishing economy, and heroic foreign operations in Georgia and Ukraine. Corruption, on the other hand, is not something that regimes in general attempt to justify, primarily because it cannot be justified. Rather, corruption is supposed to be covert — especially in the face of widespread poverty. Therefore, the revelations about the shocking wealth that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev acquired through corrupt money flows, as revealed in Alexey Navalny’s recent documentary, must be regarded as a serious concern for the Kremlin.

In early March, Russian political activist Alexey​ Navalny released the 50-minute long documentary ‘On vam ne Dimon’, which translates into ‘He is not Dimon to you’, referring to Medvedev’s cuddly nickname. The documentary, which is based on years of investigative operations by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), uncovers how Medvedev indirectly possesses three enormous residences in Western Russia, two yachts, and 200 hectares of vineyards in Russia and Italy. The PM’s empire is financed through constructions that involve charity foundations run by some of his acquaintances. Altogether, Medvedev is estimated to have obscured 1.2 billion dollars. As this article is being written, the documentary has reached over 19 million views on YouTube.

As a follow-up to the documentary, Navalny called for street protests against Medvedev and corruption in general on March 26. The turnout on the day is hard to determine given the variety of figures being disseminated. In Moscow, the authorities’ estimates are no higher than 8,000 protesters, whereas the FBK itself states that there were at least 20,000. Nevertheless, it seems that Navalny managed to mobilise at least 150,000 people across Russian cities to take part in the protests, which makes them comparable to the protests that followed the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Given that Russia has a population of around 145 million, it is tempting to downplay the significance of the anti-corruption protests. Arguably, they do not pose an imminent threat to the Kremlin. The Russian police and National Guard are capable of effectively cracking down on street protests and the number of arrests — estimates vary from 500 to over 1,000 for Moscow alone — is probably high enough to deter the lesser daredevils among Navalny’s likeminded. Numbers aside, however, it is the nature of the protests that threatens the regime the most. Large-scale corruption is omnipresent in Russian politics, and people are generally aware of it, but it has never been laid bare domestically as cogently as by Navalny. By capturing Medvedev’s estates with drone cameras, revealing their costs, and tracing the money flows, the activist has literally shown Russians what luxuries their prime minister is enjoying as a result of corruption. This is the same prime minister who, less than a year ago, told Crimeans that there was no money to index their pensions.

It would appear that at this point, Prime Minister Medvedev has become a millstone around Putin’s neck. Immediate action from the president is unlikely, since giving in to the protests would only empower Navalny as well as opposition in general, and inspire new anti-corruption investigations and protests. With presidential elections just one year away, an opportunity for Putin to get rid of Medvedev has already presented itself, since the prime minister is appointed by the president in Russia. In the meantime, Putin faces some important dilemmas. Will he impose new restraints on domestic opposition? Will he allow Navalny to run for president next year? Much may depend on the next round of protests that the latter has scheduled for June 12, which is also Russia’s national holiday. For the time being, Putin will probably not rest completely assured. This kind of public unrest was exactly what he feared when he labelled the Ukrainian power transition in 2014 a coup d’état. There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin will win the Russian presidential elections next year, but anti-corruption sentiments might prove hard to suppress structurally.

Jelle Baartmans is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by red line highway