West needs to criticise Putin – but not support his rivals

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The judicial process against Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, seems fishy from start to finish. Oddly enough, that applies not just to his conviction for embezzlement, but also to the decision to release him on bail pending appeal. Such a release has no place in Russian law, and that it was called for by the prosecution as well as the defence makes it obvious that this was a political decision by the Kremlin.

One can only speculate about President Vladimir Putin’s motives, but since Mr Navalny’s release will probably allow him to stand for mayor of Moscow in September, it appears that the Kremlin wants to give the impression of a fair race and a legitimate result. This is especially necessary since Sergei Sobyanin, the existing mayor, undermined the legitimacy of these elections by suddenly bringing them forward by two years in an apparent attempt to give opponents no time to campaign properly.

Western governments, media and non-governmental organisations have quite rightly criticised Mr Navalny’s trial, which is only the latest in a series of abuses of the judicial system to target critics of the Putin administration. Such abuses are not only wrong in themselves, but also help prevent Russia’s development as a state and economy ruled – as far as possible – by the law. Western governments also have a right to criticise the Russian government because many of those targeted by Russian officialdom have been anti-corruption campaigners – and corruption is the biggest obstacle to western investment in Russia, and to Russian development in general.

However, a clear distinction should be drawn between condemning illegal moves to target Mr Navalny and other members of the Russian opposition, and support for them as politicians. It is not our business to pick sides in Russia’s political battles and, what is more, the result tends to be to discredit the opposition as western stooges, while fuelling the paranoia of the administration.

It is important to keep this in mind with regard to Russia. It is crucial with regard to China. Reasonably co-operative relations between the west and the Chinese administration are vital to the future of mankind, and such relations will be catastrophically undermined by a Chinese perception that the west is out to destroy the administration, as a prelude – in the minds of many Chinese – to the destruction of the Chinese state itself.

Western governments and NGOs should therefore not support opposition movements even if we agree with their policies. In the case of Mr Navalny and his closest associates, however, we also need to take a close look at some of their policies. For Mr Navalny is quintessentially a populist, with a rather common populist combination of anti-corruption and nationalism. In itself, this should not be condemned. A strong attachment of Russians to their state is important for the stability not just of Russia but the whole of Eurasia.

But this state identity has to be open to all Russians, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. The problem lies in the elements of Russian ethnic chauvinism in Mr Navalny’s nationalism. This manifests itself in his preference for the term Russky (with strong connotations of ethnic Russianness) over Rossianiye (implying state allegiance); in his constant appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment, often with a distinctly anti-Muslim edge, and directed against Muslim migrants from within Russia as well as outside; and in his links to the radical rightwing Movement Against Illegal Immigration. These positions bring Mr Navalny closer to Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch populist, than to the hero of some western imaginings.

Mr Putin, with all his faults, has on the whole stuck to a different Russian tradition with deep roots in Russian history, emphasising loyalty to state and dynasty (which at the moment admittedly means Mr Putin) irrespective of ethnic origin. Indeed, given Russia’s enormous size and multi-ethnic population, any other form of nationalism threatens catastrophe. That does not mean that western observers should turn a blind eye to the Kremlin’s misdeeds. It does mean that we should not allow a blind hatred of Mr Putin to lead us into a blind support for any opposition to him.

The writer is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC

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