Alexei Navalny and Russia's Future

To kill Alexei Navalny would be not just a crime, but a mistake. 

It is wrong to poison political opponents.  It is wrong to imprison them for no reason.  And it is wrong to deny them medical treatment in prison.  All of this has happened to Alexei Navalny, the leading oppositionist in Russia, in the last eight months. 

Last August Navalny was poisoned by his own government with the chemical agent Novichok.  After recovery in Germany, he chose in January to return to Russia.  Upon arrival he was arrested and imprisoned on an Orwellian charge: of having violated the terms of a suspended sentence (for a bogus crime) by not reporting to prison after he had been poisoned.  He was then sentenced to two and a half years in a brutal penal colony.  He is ill.  Denied medical care, he is on a hunger strike.  He could very well die.

Navalny is a courageous man.  He has been attacked and jailed a number of times.  If he dies, we will read in obituaries that he sought to address Russia's two major problems: fake elections, and corruption at the top of the state.  Again and again, he found ingenious ways to work within or around the system to bring its failings to light.  Over and over, he revealed spectacular abuses of power by Russian rulers.  He even managed to talk his way by telephone into the FSB, the state security that poisoned him, to elicit the unknowing confession of one of the men involved in his murder.  It is hard for me to think of anyone else who could pull off something like that.

The striking thing about his conversation with the secret police was, for lack of a better word, just how Russian Navalny is.  His range in the Russian language is extraordinary.  He knows how to talk to people, even awful people.  Even though he is speaking to someone who took part in an effort to murder him, he is perfectly calm, and remarkably good in his impersonation.  He effortlessly takes charge. 

Navalny knows how his country works, and even so he wants to take responsibility for it.  That is the remarkable thing.  He is the furthest thing from a naive dissident or a political intellectual.  He is a tough practitioner of politics who happens to love his country and to have ideals.

It is not for me or any outsider to say what Russia needs.  That is a matter for Russians to decide.  If Navalny dies, that choice will be denied them.  Russia's main problem is that no one knows who will succeed Vladimir Putin at the top of the state.  Russia's next problem is that no one knows how this succession will proceed.  In other words, Russia lacks a future and a way to get there. 

As it ages, the Putin regime is making the classic mistakes of tyranny: staying on too long, believing its own stories, ignoring outside information, misunderstanding the coming generations, repeating tricks.  Its worst mistake is to undermine principles of succession in the name of personal power -- which always comes to an end anyway.  What will matter in the history of Russia is not so much the names of the leaders, but the capacity to shift from one to the next. 

Russia needs a successor to Putin.  Even the Putin administration (although Putin seems not to see this) needs a successor to Putin.  Without some kind of orderly transition, ideally a democratic one, Putin's presidency will be remembered for the chaos at its end.  That is the way of things: people remember the final act. 

A Russia led by Navalny would be no automatic ally for Europe or the United States.  It could be a Russia, however, where clean elections are established as the means to political succession.  It could be a Russia whose foreign policy is not driven by the need to cover up domestic corruption. 

It is is a tragedy for any nation when its current leader confuses unrivalled personal power with the good of the country.  Killing Alexei Navalny is not just a crime, but a mistake.  It denies Russia a possible future, and a better one.