Alexei Navalny is not the pleasant liberal our mainstream media paint him to be. Before extensive grooming by the West, he was a racist populist. However, he now makes a more convincing liberal standard bearer than similar proteges like Juan Guaido and to some extent has probably changed with wider experience. He most certainly is not especially popular in Russia, outside some wealthier and younger demographics, but they are voters too, and human progress would not have been great without the much despised middle classes.
I am not in the least convinced by the ludicrous narrative that Vladimir Putin and the FSB were not competent enough to successfully assassinate Alexei Navalny in Russia, including as he lay unconscious in a Russian state hospital. I regard it as a nonsense. But neither do I necessarily suspect that the whole incident was engineered by the West or Navalny (exploited is different to engineered). Incidentally, I am perfectly prepared to accept that the security service outlet Bellingcat was right about the Russian security services following Navalny. I have no doubt whatsoever that they do follow him, and have done so for many years. So what? Western security services followed me intensely when I first became a whistleblower, and on and off ever since, most notably when I have contact with Julian or Wikileaks. The British government announced in Julian’s recent bail hearing it spent £16 million of public money on surveillance of the Ecuadorean Embassy – that’s £16 million on looking at a non-moving target! Security services follow people. There are thousands of the blighters, both in the West and in Russia, and follow people is what many of them do for a living. It is in no sense evidence of assassination. Every time my heart problem puts me in hospital, I don’t imagine it was the MI5 surveillance folks (who must, incidentally, be very bored. When I was younger they did get to look at some great parties).
Anybody who genuinely believes that Putin did not personally authorise the arrest and detention of Navalny on return does not understand Russia. Putin’s purpose is simply to show that he can – that the West cannot protect its protege, which is a good lesson for the next one, and cannot harm Russian interests abroad. In power calculations, Putin is almost always correct. I am fairly sure he is also correct in calculating that swatting Navalny will play well to his popular base, who like the macho thing.
I do not address the technicalities of whether Navalny’s suspended embezzlement sentence was legitimate, and whether he breached suspension conditions, because again if you think that has anything at all to do with what is happening, you are hopelessly naive. Navalny might very well be guilty of embezzlement, but on nothing in the same universe of scale as Putin himself and his inner circle. It is about selectivity of prosecution rather than innocence or guilt. If you have political control of the prosecutor, you hold the cards. Oh sorry, I was drifting back to Scotland.
So Putin can see Navalny jailed till 2025 on the embezzlement charge with no serious consequences and a minor stabilisation of his personal authority. But at what cost? My major criticism of Putin is that he has failed to move Russia, an absolutely vital pillar of European cultural heritage, back towards the European centre after decades of isolation. That involves development away from purely autocratic government; but there remains absolutely no sign that Putin even intends to position Russia for that move once he finally relinquishes power – which he ought to have done many years ago. Allowing Navalny to continue his campaigning will not hurt Putin and will not hurt Russia. It is a fascinating and universal fact that the longer people hold power, the more paranoid they become.
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