BERLIN – No wonder it’s so difficult to imagine Russia without President Vladimir Putin: Even his most vehement opponents can’t seem to offer an alternative vision for the country.
Last week, two prominent opposition figures engaged in a debate. On the liberal side was Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who has announced his candidacy in the 2018 presidential election even though he has little chance of actually being allowed to run against Putin. Against all odds, Navalny is trying to act as if Russia were a normal democracy: He has opened local campaign offices (where activists are regularly harassed and detained) and broadcasts commentary on current events from his own TV studio (where the debate took place).
On the ultra-nationalist side was Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, the retired nationalist officer who, acting in an unofficial capacity, started the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 — a conflict that has since claimed some 10,000 lives. After leading a successful military campaign with covert Russian help and serving as the defense minister and top commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, he was pushed out of his role by Kremlin emissaries who wanted more control over the pro-Russian rebels. Regarded by Ukraine as a terrorist and a war criminal, he lives and works in Moscow, where he receives a military pension. He says he has no political ambitions, but he’s an iconic figure among Russia right-wingers, who feel as underrepresented as liberals in Putin’s regime.
It was Strelkov’s idea to challenge Navalny, who seized the opportunity to court a broader electorate than his young, often pro-Western core. In a different country, this could have been Emmanuel Macron vs. Marine Le Pen, Vince Cable vs. Nigel Farage or Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump. In Russia, it was just two middle-aged men without any power and with dubious political futures, moderated by the former editor of a liberal TV channel. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands tuned in live, and some 1.5 million had watched online as of this writing. There’s a hunger in Russia for real discussion and political competition, even if it’s a cheap, hopeful re-enactment of the real thing — and Navalny and Strelkov are articulate debaters.
The actual debate, though, revealed more similarities than differences. Those who expected Navalny to push for a more modern Russia while Strelkov, an avowed monarchist, waxed nostalgic for the imperial past were disappointed. Both appeared intent to play with the cards Putin has dealt Russia.
Their greatest disagreement was about the nature of the enemy. For Navalny, it’s Russia’s homegrown crony capitalism, which flourished under both Yeltsin and Putin. He wants to punish illegal enrichment and clean up Russia’s vast government procurement system, which accounts for 37 percent of the economy. For Strelkov the enemy is the West, which in his view carved up the Soviet Union according to borders drawn by the Bolsheviks and killed off all Russian industries except those extracting raw materials. He sees presidents Boris Yeltsin and Putin as Western puppets ensuring the flow of crude oil and natural gas to Europe. He wants to reunite “the great Russian nation” — Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians — in one country.
Both men’s goals are somewhat utopian, given neighboring countries’ reluctance to reunite and Russia’s dependence on raw materials exports, which naturally engenders corruption-friendly monopolization and centralization. Anyone attempting to overcome such obstacles would probably be as frustrated as Trump in his first six months in office.
More striking was the extent to which the two were the same wavelength on some fundamental subjects. Both said they considered the Yeltsin and Putin administrations to be parts of the same regime. Both agreed that Russians were “the biggest divided people in Europe.” Navalny suggested that he considered the 2014 annexation of Crimea — in which Strelkov took part — as irreversible, and said his issue with the war was its cost rather than the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Asked whether he considered Strelkov a war criminal, he said he’d leave it to the courts to decide.
Each accused the other of being “like Putin,” and both were right in a sense. They shared Putin’s understanding of the country’s national interests, of Russia as the uniter of a people divided by cataclysm. The rest, from a Western point of view, was a matter of nuance rather than substance, with Navalny believing in a less corruption-dominated economy and Strelkov in a darker, more militarized vision. As Kirill Martynov remarked in Novaya Gazeta, “It’s impossible to argue with fascist ideologies while hinting that you, too, are a bit of a nationalist.”
In the 1990s, Yeltsin — now universally maligned — had a much more liberal vision of a European Russia free of imperial hangups. This vision lingered on even after he abandoned it due to political pressure and ill health, but Putin has now rendered it completely unmarketable. It’s a testament to Putin’s victory that even Navalny, despite his indomitable fighting spirit, isn’t pushing for a more European future. At the same time, it’s no concession to the reactionary Strelkov, whose goals are too unrealistic for most Russians.
No Russian political leader is offering a vision ambitious and inspiring enough to compete with Putin. Perhaps that’s why he finds it so easy to suppress dissent and hold on to power.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.