There are going to be the main topics of discussion in the debate next week, which may be hosted by Echo of Moscow:
- How can Navalny beat corruption, if he’s President?
- His position on Russia’s Western partners?
- What is he going to do about Crimea and the Donbass?
This has been met with general surprise from all quarters.
The former commander of the LDNR militias is as much an object of hatred for Russian liberals – Navalny’s core constituency – as he is an idol for Russian nationalists.
Famous Sputnik i Pogrom designed banner from 2014 that still adorns many pro-Novorossiya sites.
As such, many Russian liberals and Ukrainian nationalists (but I repeat myself) are already squealing and kvetching about Navalny agreeing to appear with the “war criminal” Girkin.
One need only read some of the top responses to Navalny’s Facebook post announcing the debate to get a flavor of their fury:
- Pavel Khmelnytskyi: You guys are so cool in Russia… a debate between a Presidential candidate and an international terrorist. On the right path!
- Denis Zatsepin: Alexey, I’m a strong supporter of yours, but in this case I consider it a mistake to appear in the same frame as a bandit and killer. Debates with him are only possible in the form of interrogations about his war mongering, murders, illegal arms transfers, mercenary work.
- Alexey Karpov: A great opportunity to publicly disavow your phrase that “Crimea is not a sandwich” [i.e., as an object to be haggled over]. And if you fail to do this, I will consider the ensuing crash of your political career to be perfectly justified.
That said, there is a logic to Navalny appearing with Strelkov.
The only half-way conceivable way in which the Putin government could be overthrown would be through an overarching alliance between liberals and nationalists, as in the Ukraine itself in 2014, or in Serbia in 2000.
Navalny could either comfortably occupy the “liberal niche” that constitutes no more than 10% of the Russian electorate – the one that Prokhorov filled in 2012 – or he could try to convince the patriotic-nationalist crowd to sign up with him, which would cut into Putin’s own support base.
The price of his gamble is the risk of alienating his diehard liberal supporters, and consequently fading away into the limelight. Then again, as pro-Donbass blogger El Murid points out, there is, in any case, only so much fuel left in Navalny’s anti-corruption engine; the engine on which he rose to prominence. After the film about Medvedev, one can hardly generate any political excitement over exposing the corrupt machinations of one more CEO of a state firm or regional governor; everybody is waiting for the “Big Film” starring “The Main Hero.” Anything else would be a let-down. After the failure of the June 12 protests, one can make a good case that Navalny needs to do something bold and unexpected to turn around a negative trend in publicity and get people talking about him again – and going head to head against Strelkov is perhaps not the worst idea.
However, this is going to be an opportunity for the patriotic/nationalist crowd to make their mark as well.
Navalny, at least, enjoys access to Gazprom-funded Echo of Moscow and TV Rain. Since returning from the Donbass, Strelkov has been blacklisted from appearing on federal MSM – a not atypical fate for repatriated war heroes with harsh words for the leaders who “abandoned” their cause. Shorn of media resources – no radio or TV mass media to speak of, their main website blocked, and reliant on blogs and social networks to spread their messages – this will be a good opportunity for nationalists to remind Russians that there are choices beyond Putin and Navalny.
The main danger for them is that Strelkov performs poorly. Although he has a poor grasp of issues beyond his pet theme of corruption, as demonstrated in his recent interview with Sobchak, Navalny more than makes up for it as a demagogue. And whereas Strelkov might be an inspirational battlefield commander, his sartorial style and rhetorical skills… leave much to be desired.
Another interesting question is to what extent this debate has been cleared with the Kremlin.
The ideal outcome for Kremlin Inc. would be for Navalny to destroy Strelkov, a minor nuisance for them, while affirming his pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian positions on Crimea and the Donbass (that is, a second referendum in the former, and withdrawal of support from the latter). This would also close off any lingering prospects for a liberal-nationalist alliance against Putin.
In this scenario, it is even feasible that Navalny would be allowed to run in the Presidential elections. Without any significant support from the patriotic-nationalist camp, Navalny would be more or less safely bounded at a maximum of 10-15% of the vote, while the fact of his participation in the electoral process – as the most prominent figure in the non-systemic opposition – would serve to “legitimize” Putin’s inevitable victory in the West.
Best of all, there is probably nothing quite as good for burnishing one’s questionable credentials as a Russian nationalist or even patriot for the domestic audience as running against an outright Ukrainian nationalist and Western representative.