Monday night’s arrest of Alexei Navalny, a crusading anti-corruption blogger, might be the biggest mistake the authorities could have made, suggested Alexei Venediktov, chief editor at the Ekho Moskvy radio station. An opposition that was looking for a charismatic leader might have just found one.
Navalny, 35, was heading an unsanctioned protest over the Russian elections when he was taken into custody. It was Navalny who coined the expression “party of crooks and thieves” to describe Vladimir Putin’s United Russia — a name that is now almost universal here.
“This is our enemy and we hate him!” Navalny told the crowd of several thousand demonstrators before his arrest. “We should remember that they are nobody. And we are the power. We do not need thieves and crooks! We want another president and not a thief and crook!”
The crowd began chanting, “Putin is a thief!”
Late Tuesday afternoon, Navalny was sentenced to 15 days in jail for obstructing traffic. His arrest has been the big item on blogs and Twitter here. But it also seemed poised to catapult him out of the online world and onto a national stage. With most of Russia’s opposition leaders seen as either too compromised by proximity to the Kremlin, or too tiresome or unexciting to garner widespread national support, the opportunity for Navalny is considerable.
Navalny calls himself a “nationalist democrat.” His stands against corruption and authoritarianism, and in defense of ethnic Russians, tap a deeply popular root here among people who are mistrustful of the Western-oriented liberal old guard.
The blogger’s vision for Russia? First of all, a place worthy of his children. Secondly, as he told the Russian edition of Esquire, something like “a big, irrational, metaphysical Canada.”
Navalny’s family comes from the area near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant; it’s not unprecedented here for environmental outrage to be linked to strong nationalist feelings. One of his earliest projects had him fighting corruption in the timber business.
He declined an offer from the minor Party of People’s Freedom to nominate him for president in next March’s elections, saying that he was sure the results would be fixed.
But he believes that a revolution is inevitable, and that it won’t be something plotted out ahead of time. It will start with an incident — an arrest, maybe, or a protest — and then snowball unexpectedly and unrelentingly.
It will happen, he told Esquire, “just because most people understand that this system is wrong.”