Staunton, Feb. 22 – Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny has been dogged throughout his career by criticism that he is almost as imperialist as the Putin regime he criticizes. He has now issued on Twitter, “15 Theses,” in an attempt to put such suggestions at rest (twitter.com/navalny/status/1627631862704136193).
Dmitry Galko, a Belarusian journalist now living in Ukraine as a political exile, says that Navalny certainly deserves credit for taking such a heroic stand against Putin’s actions in Ukraine given that the opposition figure’s words could easily become the basis for extending his incarceration (graniru.org/opinion/m.287327.html).
But he argues that Navalny has not been willing to face up to the imperialism of the Russian government and the Russian people and thus his theses offer “a cure” for what Moscow is doing in Ukraine “without a diagnosis” of why the Kremlin feels it has a right to do so and why, as polls show, a majority of Russians back the invasion.
In his theses, Galko says, Navalny talks about the need for investigating military crimes but does not specify their authors. He doesn’t say that Russian-occupied Crimea must be returned to Ukraine. And he doesn’t even say that Russia’s aggression must be defeated and Ukraine must win this war.
The Ukraine-based Belarusian commentator, in the course of his discussion of Navalny, draws attention to four earlier statements by others that provided important clues to the imperial direction Russia has pursued with ever-increasing vigor under the rule of Vladimir Putin but that were not given sufficient attention at the time.
The first was by Aleksandr Uss, the speaker of the legislative assembly in Krasnoyarsk Kray in March 2000 (ng.ru/ideas/2000-04-06/8_federation.html). Only a few months after Putin came to power, he declared that “without an empire we have no future; with an empire we will gain the present.”
The second was by economic reformer Anatoly Chubais who in 2003 called for the creation of “a liberal empire,” one in which Russian business would take the lead in reintegrating the space that Moscow lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 (pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2003/11/13/4375407/).
The third was by liberal Russian commentator Semyon Novoprudsky in 2006 in response to polls showing rising support for the slogan, “Russia for the Russians.” He called this phenomenon “proletarian imperialism” which sees those around Russia “as suppliers of territory and the people on them as trash” (gazeta.ru/column/novoprudsky/921450.shtml).
And the fourth, delivered at an international conference in 1996 by Russian historian Yevgeny Anisimov, provided the diagnosis of the problem that Navalny has not (src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/sympo/Proceed97/Anisimov.html). Specifically, the historian said: “the destruction of the Soviet Union did not lead to a full destruction of imperial thinking.”
Anisimov continues: After 1991, “there was only a strong feeling of bitterness from a huge defeat due to betrayal and thoughts about revenge.” For the moment, Russia lacked the strength to act on them but the desire to do so had not gone away, something many in Russia and elsewhere refused to recognize.
Instead, many in both places comforted themselves with the belief that there was a genuinely new Russia, that its imperial past had been forgotten and new realities accepted, and that there was no danger that Moscow would ever do more than defend the space within its own borders against challenge but not seek to recover others.
By his military actions, Putin has shown that view was and is profoundly mistaken; but his failure to address this underlying psychology, Navalny has shown that he shares more of that view than he is yet willing to admit.