Democracy Lab

The Fight for the Soul of Russia’s Opposition

As nationalist fervor intensifies, Vladimir Putin's opponents face some tough choices.

Earlier this month, the Russian opposition movement celebrated a noteworthy moment. The anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny took on the Kremlin in Russia's most important city -- and won what many observers described as a "moral victory."

On Sept. 8, Muscovites went to the polls to choose a new mayor. They faced a choice between Navalny (shown above) and incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, the candidate favored by President Vladimir Putin. Under normal conditions, the actual vote would have been somewhat superfluous; in the topsy-turvy world of Russia's "managed democracy" it's Putin's stamp of approval that usually decides election results. If you're a pro-Kremlin candidate, you're virtually guaranteed oceans of free media coverage, plenty of cash from pro-government tycoons, and a helping hand from the administrators and factory bosses who tell their underlings how to vote. If your opponent is particularly pesky, he or she might even get some unwelcome attention from the police. But a vote, a farce though it may be, is still what seals the deal.

Navalny himself, indeed, was recently convicted of embezzlement in a trial dismissed by most impartial observers as a political farce -- and was then released on appeal so that he could enter the mayoral contest, presumably because the Kremlin figured he'd win just enough votes to make it look like more of a race. If so, it was a dramatic miscalculation. Campaigning with the help of legions of (mostly young) volunteers who pounded the pavement and knocked on countless doors, Navalny managed to garner 27 percent of the vote -- nearly forcing a run-off. None of this was supposed to happen. "I know that a third of Moscow voters cast their ballots in our favor, and I know that this is a victory," Navalny declared afterward in a public rally. "A large opposition, a genuine political movement has been born in Russia."

Is he right? Is this the birth of a viable counterweight to Putin's political machine? It would be great if it is. If there's one thing Russia needs, it's a serious opposition that can offer real political competition to the current authoritarian regime. But there are still plenty of problems in the way. The current anti-Putin movement remains deeply fragmented, a bewildering array of constantly shifting (and bickering) small parties with scant funding and little organization. Just a few days ago, several key figures withdrew from the opposition alliance that was formed during the big anti-Putin demonstrations last year -- effectively marking the end of the most serious coordinated challenge to the Kremlin in recent years. And despite the impressive rallies that the democrats managed to stage in several big cities, on the whole most Russians remain notably cool to liberal ideas.

But these are tactical issues. The real challenge is a strategic one: What does the opposition ultimately stand for? What sort of alternative policies does it offer?

Most Western media coverage of the Russian opposition movement tends to focus on activists who adhere to a fundamentally Western model of development, one based on genuine parliamentary democracy, civil liberties, and a market-oriented economy. But the anti-Putin movement is also home to a wide range of increasingly noisy nationalist groups who don't necessarily subscribe to such liberal views. They're tapping into a rising sense of anxiety and anger among rank-and-file Russians over racial and ethnic issues. In a word, "opposition" doesn't necessarily mean "liberal."

One problem is the flood of immigrants from impoverished parts of the old USSR (especially Central Asia). Russia now has the second-highest number of migrants in the world, right after the United States. It's estimated that around 3.65 million foreigners are in the country illegally, abetted by Russia's sketchy immigration policy and corrupt businesspeople eager to exploit a source of cheap labor. The authorities in Moscow have recently staged a series of crackdowns on migrants that spurred criticism by human rights organizations. At one point, the city government threw some 1,500 detainees into a tent camp on the city's outskirts.

The continuing violence in Russia's restive South (especially in the majority-Muslim republics of Dagestan and Chechnya) is also fueling tensions. In July, unrest broke out in the southern Russian city of Pugachev after a Chechen teenager stabbed a Russian man to death in a fight. Such incidents seem to be happening with growing frequency -- and Russian nationalist groups, eager to show up what they depict as the permissiveness of the current authorities, are increasingly intent on publicizing them.

Navalny believes that these problems offer a perfect opening for the opposition. He believes that Putin's critics should attack the government for its failure to address the immigration problem -- and he's not at all shy about doing so. During his mayoral campaign, he repeatedly blamed much of Russia's violent crime on immigrants (though there appears to be little factual basis for the claim). "For me this isn't just a number," he said in one of his speeches. "For me it means one simple thing: that the women in my building are afraid to go out on the street at night."

That didn't come as much of a surprise to those who have followed Navalny's political career over the years. He's participated in events staged by a nationalist group called "Russian March" that has taken up overtly xenophobic positions -- a part of his background that has caused him to be regarded with considerable suspicion by many in the anti-Putin camp. He's also been accused of ethnic slurs. Yet he remains unapologetic about his belief that the opposition should embrace identity issues. Here he is an interview two years ago (my translation):

I believe that we shouldn't treat this topic as a taboo. The failure of our liberal democratic movement is connected with the belief that there are some topics that are too dangerous to be discussed, such as the problem of ethnic conflicts. Yet this is a real issue. We have to acknowledge that migrants, including those from the Caucasus, often come to Russia with their own peculiar values.... For example, women in Chechnya who go around without headscarves are shot at with paintball guns, and then [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov says, "Well done, guys, you're real sons of the Chechen people!" Then those Chechens come to Moscow. And I have a wife and daughter here.

For the record, I don't think that Navalny is an extreme right-winger; there are plenty of them in Russia these days. He's probably best described as a conservative populist, a stance that, coupled with his strong stance against corruption, plays well among a populace that's deeply averse to radical change. Add to that his undeniable personal charisma, and you've got someone who's uniquely well-equipped to challenge the Kremlin. (It remains to be seen, of course, just how far Putin is willing to tolerate Navalny's growing strength. And no one's expecting the government to make life easy for the rest of the opposition.)

But even if the authorities decided to cut him some slack, there are obvious risks to Navalny's approach. Lilia Shevstova, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, notes that Navalny has so far succeeded in straddling the political divides within the opposition movement: "He's the first leader of the younger generation who tries to appeal to all groups. But sooner or later he'll have to choose his ideology. He'll have to decide whether he's a liberal or a national populist. And this is the crucial choice not only for Navalny but for the whole opposition."

I think she's right. Immigration and the complexities of the multicultural society pose tough challenges even for well-established democracies. For Russia, which in many ways is still in search of a stable post-Soviet identity, the task is far harder. Navalny is right to say that liberals shouldn't shy away from these fraught questions, but his often demagogic rhetoric doesn't actually offer much in the way of genuine solutions, and tends to deepen divisions rather than heal them. A good start might be defining "Russianness" through citizenship rather than ethnic identity, and to propose clear and comprehensive immigration reform based on that distinction. To do otherwise, in a society as diverse as Russia's, is playing with fire.

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Don't Surrender Libya to the Terrorists

As we mark the anniversary of the death of Chris Stevens, there are some in Washington who'd like to turn the drones loose on Benghazi. Here's why that would be a bad idea.

The world is preparing for the possibility of U.S. military action in Syria -- or for a last-minute deal that will stave off the need for war. That's a big and important story; I get why we're all fixated on it. But it's not the only one out there. Even as the promise of the Arab Spring fades, there are still places where the countries of the West can intervene to powerful effect. Without using bombs.

We're about to mark the first anniversary of the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya. Obama's critics will once again seize upon the incident as proof of an administration cover-up. Some in the American media will look at who's to blame and whether they can be brought to justice. That's understandable -- especially considering that some of the prime suspects have been enjoying their freedom in Benghazi, where they've been giving interviews to the media. The weak central government in Tripoli has been noticeably reluctant to do anything about it -- probably because leading officials are painfully aware that they have neither the investigative resources nor the forces to challenge the hold of Benghazi's powerful local militias.

The U.S. Justice Department has indicted several suspects, including Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged ringleader of the attack, as well as several fellow members of his Ansar al-Sharia militia. Some in the U.S. intelligence community have apparently been thinking about taking the assassins out -- motivated by the failure of the Libyan authorities to move against these men. This past Sunday, a news show moderator challenged White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on the issue, pointing out that plenty of reporters have been able to find Khattala while U.S. law enforcement agents don't seem to be able to do the same: "The United States government does what it says, and we will do what we say in this instance, as we do in every other instance," McDonough replied. Not a very satisfying answer, to say the least.

I'm not a politician, so I have the luxury of giving a somewhat different answer. If Americans want to live up to the admirable legacy of Christopher Stevens, we should do what we can to help Libyans build the kind of democracy they want -- and not do anything that might derail that process.

Libya is not Afghanistan, it's not Pakistan, and it's certainly not Syria. It's a country whose people, with a bit of help from the outside world, fought for eight bloody months to overthrow their dictator. It's a country whose people then voted in a fair and free election for a government led by secular political parties. It's a country where opinion polls show that a majority of the population -- a solid 83 percent, according to the latest survey from the National Democratic Institute, believe that democracy is the best form of government. And it's a place where people (in stark contrast to, say, Egypt) still have a largely positive attitude towards the countries of the West. All this means that Libya still has a real shot at becoming a strong and healthy democracy.

As I saw during some of my own recent reporting in the country, the biggest problem that Libyans face right now is the lack of security. Armed militias call the shots just about everywhere, and the government's power is wan by comparison. The radical Islamist militias like Ansar al-Sharia are, by every indication, deeply unpopular. After Stevens's murder, tens of thousands of angry Benghazi residents took to the streets to protest the attack, forcing Ansar al-Sharia to clear out of town. Unfortunately, though, the militias have guns; most ordinary people don't. Earlier this year, Ansar al-Sharia unrepentantly returned to Benghazi, where it has since been pushing back against its rivals elsewhere in the city. Security has dwindled accordingly. Car bombings and assassinations are unnervingly frequent.

Let's say that the U.S. launches drone attacks on Stevens's killers (as some of the recent media reports seem to suggest it might). How will Libyans react? I'm just guessing, but I think it pretty likely that the militiamen will stylize themselves as martyrs, plucky victims of the American hyperpower. They'll be sure to point out that the attack underlines the powerlessness of the government in Tripoli, and that this effectively makes Libyan citizens the playthings of arbitrary decisions made by a foreign government thousands of miles away. The public will be enraged, the terrorists will get a boost in prestige, and the elected government will be humiliated. This is exactly what a fragile democracy doesn't need. (It's hard to exaggerate how monumentally unpopular America's drone war is in other parts of the world that have been subjected to it.)

There's a better way. The murder of Stevens prompted the diplomatic missions in Libya to pull back into their shells by intensifying security and, in some cases, reducing staff. This is understandable but short-sighted. With all the problems it now faces, Libya desperately needs help if it is to succeed in its transition to democracy. This is the time for the countries that wish the country well to ramp up their assistance.

I'm not the only one who thinks this way. A group of leading Libya experts (including, I'm happy to say, FP's own Mohamed Eljarh) have just sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that advocates exactly that. In the key passage from the letter, the signatories recall that Kerry himself recently assured Libyans that "the United States will continue to stand with Libya during this difficult time of transition," and urge him to live up to that pledge by "reaffirming and increasing engagement with Libya and bolstering U.S. support for its transition to democracy."

The letter notes five areas where the U.S. can make a crucial difference -- for example, by lending expertise to the process of writing the new constitution and by supporting the current "national dialogue" among a wide range of representatives from Libyan society. Among other things, the experts recommend that Washington help the Libyans to develop their security sector (especially training for the nascent Libyan army) and reform the judicial system. That's exactly the right approach.

And it's all eminently viable. It's important to remember that the chances for success are still good. Libya has a small population and a lot of oil wealth. Helping its people won't need huge pots of cash (the price of a few Tomahawk missiles would more than suffice). Nor does Washington have to go it alone. The Europeans are eager to do their part (and have a strong interest in doing so, given the threats of illegal immigration and terrorism that will ensue if Libya is allowed to become a failed state). But it will take a renewed commitment from everyone involved. A bit more coordination probably wouldn't be a bad thing, either.

It's important to remember that this is not a situation where a relatively strong central authority is tacitly allowing terrorists and insurgents to reside on its soil. If we can help the Tripoli government to consolidate itself, we'll make it much more likely that the Libyans themselves can bring Stevens's killers to justice. Supporting such an effort would be the best possible advertisement for the rule of law -- and it would also be an apt commemoration for an ambassador who is still fondly remembered by so many in Benghazi. I doubt that drone strikes will make quite the same impression.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images