From, Feb. 22, 2024, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – The death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny at the Polar Wolf prison colony, where he was serving a long term for politically motivated sentences, has shaken not just his closest associates and like-minded people, but anyone who would like to live in a marvelous Russia of the future – or at least simply in a normal Russia of the future. Opinions spoke with political analyst Margarita Zavadskaya, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who studies authoritarianism, about what the shift to physically eliminating political opponents says about the regime, whether Yulia Navalnaya can replace Aleksei Navalny, what his political testament was, and what to do (or not do) now.

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Question. – If we measure the consequences of Aleksei Navalny’s death for Russia and its present and future the same way we measure the magnitude of an earthquake, using the Richter scale, what number would you use?

Answer. – If the highest number is horrific devastation, then probably in this vicinity. In reality, his death is a blow even for people who didn’t notice it or believe it was justified.

Navalny’s murder is, of course, a great human disaster, a great human tragedy. Not everyone knew him personally, but many felt close to him. To achieve this in the Russian political landscape is worth a great deal. He disproved many stereotypes about how Russian politics works and, most importantly, about Russian society. He showed Russians the best they are capable of.

This is why it’s critically important not to allow what happened to demoralize society. Navalny’s murder should be cause for anger and spur us to take action. It should not be cause for apathy, resignation or dismay. The worst thing we can do right now is fall into a state of political or civic suspended animation and look for guilty parties among ourselves or in the West, i.e., look for them where they actually aren’t. We know the address of the guilty parties, and today it is important to collect as much evidence and information as possible for a future trial – I hope there will be one.

Q. – It’s hard to say what could be more demoralizing than the very fact that Navalny is no more.

A. – It’s very dangerous to give in to the temptation of thinking that everything is over, that everything is doomed. Russia is the homeland of many people who have accomplished real civic feats and become examples of civic courage and valor, and symbols of the fight for democracy and civil rights in both Russian and world history. All these words that Russia can never become a democracy, that there is a cultural code of lack of freedom – this is harmful nonsense. Russia is no worse than other countries that have made the leap to democracy at some point. Yes, there are some significant factors that inhibit this, but they are certainly not rooted in the mentality.

It was not for nothing that Navalny said in his impromptu political testament [in the 2022 documentary – Trans.] that his death would mark a moment when we are unusually strong. I don’t think these are just pretty words to cheer us up, but a correct political calculation. They kill when they’re afraid. This is a story of desperation.

Q. – That was going to be my next question: What does the transition from arresting oppositionists – or forcing them to emigrate – to physical elimination say about the state of the regime?

A. – The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that direct violence is a sign of a lack of power, of inflated authority.

It’s like a parent – although the last thing I want to do is think of Putin in terms of family, but this is just to make it clear – who beats their child instead of getting the child to do what they want using their words and authority. This is a shortage of symbolic authority, and it does not lend stability to the regime. . . .

Q. – But at the same time, phrases like “If we had wanted to poison him, we would have finished the job,” or the new version, which is now being transmitted by propaganda, that the Kremlin was not involved in Navalny’s death because his death would “bring no advantage to the Kremlin” – these phrases seem to suggest that this sort of thing can be done in general, but that it’s not always necessary because, for example, the Kremlin won’t gain any benefit from Navalny’s death.

A. – This kind of wording blurs responsibility for Navalny’s murder and partially lifts it from the regime, and this must be kept in mind when someone voices it. When such turns of phrase are used by supporters of the regime, that’s cynical. But it’s even worse when they are used by people who sympathized with Navalny and by supporters of the opposition when they say things like, “Well, what did he expect? Wasn’t he given to understand that he was asking for trouble? Didn’t he know what he was getting into?” (By bandying these phrases about – Ed.), the regime is not only absolving itself of responsibility, but it is also taking members of its own opposition as tactical allies, which cannot be allowed.

This is murder. It cannot be justified. There is no need to look for excuses for it and help the regime do so. . . .

Q. – Is it too early to talk about how events in Russia will continue to develop and about how the authorities and society will respond?

A. – This is, without a doubt, a major turning point within the Russian regime. This is obviously the start of a new escalation of repressions, which we had admittedly already been anticipating, simply because the presidential election is right around the corner, and the human rights situation in Russia always deteriorates after a presidential election. Just look at contemporary history since 2000: There has been a progressive degradation of political institutions. Now we are once again witnessing a decline in this quality. Russia is not yet at the very bottom of various ratings and indices measuring the situation with human rights, freedom of speech and so forth. It seems like we are already there, but, although I am absolutely not an advocate for the Russian regime in its current state, I always say, don’t put Russia at the bottom yet. Unfortunately, it could be worse, and we need to be prepared for that. Navalny’s murder, his tragic death in prison, is a symbolic milestone along this path. . . .

Q. – How do you think Navalny’s murder will affect the presidential election in March? Will it follow the same scenario that the presidential administration planned or not?

A. – No. The election is already not going according to plan. Presidential elections in Russia are always boring affairs. Perhaps the only exception was the 2012 election [see Vol. 64, No. 10‑11, pp. 3‑8], following protests as part of the movement for honest elections. It was interesting to observe that election. This will probably sound crazy in the context of what has happened, but now elections will be interesting again. The presidential administration, which manages the process, clearly did not count on such a scenario. They will be nervous and play it extremely safe. There will certainly be a lot of police officers at the polling stations and on the streets, especially following the announcement of the Noon Against Putin action.1 There will probably be some arrests and provocations. Loyalists will probably also be rounded up by accident, which will not play into the hands of the regime, because, as we know from academic studies, when loyalists accidentally become witnesses to falsification or are on the receiving end [of repressions], they also start experiencing contradictory feelings and doubting the legitimacy of the procedure.

Q. – Navalny has been called the leader of the Russian opposition for many years, but many have felt since his death that there is no one to replace him. And then Yulia Navalnaya promised to continue Aleksei’s efforts. How will that work? Have there been such cases?

A. – Her decision is brave and, in general, the right thing to do politically. She has moral and symbolic authority on par with Navalny.

There have been similar cases, and not just the case of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. For example, Boris Nadezhdin recently recalled an important story from the Philippines: In the 1980s, opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was shot when he decided to return to the Philippines. His widow, Corazón, led the opposition and then became the country’s president. But the political context there was different: The Philippine regime was much less repressive [than the Russian regime] and much more dependent on international ties and the US. The Russian regime is not at this stage now.

It seems to me that Aleksei and his team created a very workable structure, considering the constant political pressure they were under, and we had the opportunity to see for ourselves that it would continue operating without him. Yes, some things didn’t go that well, but the overall structure works.

We cannot forget that over this time, other, alternative centers and assembly places for the opposition arose that had no connection whatsoever with Navalny’s structures, for example, the Feminist Antiwar Resistance. Some of them are just starting to gain momentum. We don’t know what they will grow into, but, nevertheless, there is activity. Navalny emancipated politics, and not just for those who supported him or held similar views about good and evil. It could be that people from the Anticorruption Foundation orbit are the future of the Russian opposition, or it could be someone else. What’s important is that, to use the terminology of computer games, Navalny unlocked this level, and others can now access it.

Q. – Among other things, Navalny led an entire generation out of political apathy – in fact, this includes the generation of people who have lived their entire adult lives under Putin. Being interested in politics in the broadest sense of the word, talking about politics, engaging in politics – it was thanks to him, among others, that this stopped being a matter for some “other” people and became something completely ordinary. It is people from that generation who will probably say they feel they have been orphaned more than others. What do you think will become of this generation? Do they have a place to assemble aside from around Navalny personally?

A. – I think this is more than one generation. Navalny understood politics not as a battle between individual personalities or as a chess game between big men and, less often, women. He thought of it as a history about institutions, about rules of the game. The institutionalization of politics means that it doesn’t have to end with Navalny. In this sense, no one has been orphaned, no one has been deprived of a leader. Politics as a fight for fair rules of the game – that is a possible assembly point for those who came to politics after Navalny, and anyone can do this in principle.

People don’t need a new leader. They need a charismatic figure who can not only put words into sentences correctly and convey them to the right people, but can also establish an almost personal connection between a potential voter and their political platform. Yulia looks like just such a person.

Q.—Should all this germinate and grow in Russia or outside of Russia? Or does it matter?

A. – Let me put on my boring academic political analyst hat and say that, of course, the opposition grows within the country. It is extremely rare that something happens from the outside. In other words, Lenin arriving by train at Finland Station is a mythology that the Russian special services apparently believe in. And attempts to persecute and poison activists abroad are, of course, real scare tactics, but, to tell you the truth, we shouldn’t be looking for new sprouts there. If something is going to germinate, it is going to germinate in Russia. . . .

Q. – What topic or agenda do you think could become as important and unifying for the opposition as Navalny’s anticorruption agenda and the fight for fair elections in 2011-2012?

A. – I think it’s important to start by agreeing on the terms and rules of the game. The first platform people could unite around is the shared desire to create generally democratic rules of the game. This is no small task, because, like borscht, there are many recipes for democracy. Do we need a strong presidency or a weak one? What kind of election system we will have? There are many such questions. For example, Navalny and his team had a specific project that was the topic of serious discussion just recently – the parliamentarization of Russia and so forth. And the question of the kind of bright future that awaits Russia – be it libertarian, conservative or social democratic – is the next question, because first there needs to be agreement on the rules they will follow to fight for votes.

Aside from the rules of the game, maximum assistance for political prisoners could also be an important agenda item to unite around. Political prisoners are in mortal danger, and it is up to the opposition to fight for them and not forget about them.

Q. – And does Navalny have his own political testament? In addition to the memorandum you mentioned before, he had, for example, a long platform as a presidential candidate in 2018.

A. – I think so, yes. Navalny’s team developed a constitutional design, a structural frame for an alternative political system. The details have to be discussed, but this future building has a foundation. And Navalny’s team wasn’t the only one working on institutional design. There are other Russian (and not only Russian) political analysts, for example, Grigory Golosov, the author of “Democracy in Russia: Assembly Instructions.” I think other authors, including those who are now in exile, will propose their alternatives.

Q. – Hasn’t that book gone out of date since the start of the war [in Ukraine]?

A. – Not completely, but there are gaps that formed simply because it was written before the war. In my opinion, the main amendments the book clearly requires because of the war are the future of the annexed territories [of Ukraine; see Vol. 74, No. 39, pp. 3‑6 – Trans.] (many recall Navalny’s old 2015 phrase about the Crimea not being a sandwich,2 but after that he spoke very clearly about Ukraine’s 1991 borders, i.e., he basically admitted that the territories would have to be returned, the question was how). Something also needs to be added about transitional justice – should there be lustration or not, and if so, then who and how.

Q. – Perhaps, in conclusion, I should ask you a question that I think has been the main question over these days and that we’ve all been asking each other. Everyone has already rewatched that fragment from the film “Navalny,” where Aleksei Navalny answers “You’re not allowed to give up” in response to the question of what to do if he is killed. What does that mean, “not give up”? What are we supposed to do?

A. – Not remain silent. Not allow ourselves to be drawn into discussions along the line of “What did he think was going to happen, it was his own fault, he knew what he was doing.” Stop these discussions. They sow discord and apathy where there should only be a healthy, unifying anger. Call things by their names, because words are important, the narrative is important. Navalny left step-by-step instructions about what to do at polling stations. Remember that Navalny’s team is [made up of] highly qualified specialists who have already worked without Aleksei and who are able to come up with effective, excellent things. These are professionals. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. That’s definitely better than droning on about how nothing will ever work out with someone else.

1[As part of this action, which Navalny supported before his death, voters will come out on the last day of the presidential election and vote against Putin or spoil their ballots – Trans.]

2[When asked whether he would return the Crimea to Ukraine if he was ever elected president of Russia, Navalny replied: “What, is the Crimea a ham sandwich or something that you can take and give back?” – Trans.]