He Who Must Not Be Named

For years, senior Russian officials avoided mentioning Alexey Navalny’s name on TV and in the press. It was hardly a sign of self-confidence and strength.

This last Tuesday, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s op-ed appeared in The New York Times urging Russian “democrats” to adopt the goals and  priorities he favors (thanks to Tim Newman for pointing out this article). The author never once mentions the democratic elephant (he-he) in the room, as if these protests had never happened. Navalny must be truly He Who Must Not Be Named.

Khodorkovsky also writes:

This tendency to pursue a magnanimous ruler instead of democratic institutions forces ambitious political leaders to seek public support by relying on the force of their own personality rather than on a clear political program. To win, politicians need to create an image of a “strong leader.”

This is such an obvious jab at Navalny that not mentioning his name and the anti-corruption movement associated with it borders on indecency. In Khodorkovsky’s view, the movement’s transparency and accountability agenda does not count as a political program. I guess it doesn’t if you say so, Sir.

The challenge facing democratically minded Russians therefore isn’t simply to remove Mr. Putin from power; it’s to replace the authoritarian system he personifies.

If I remember correctly, Khodorkovsky has been in favor of a parliamentary system since before his arrest in 2003. I respect this view and the consistency with which the author has held it. However, to start replacing the system, the opposition has to start winning elections – unless the author has a less peaceful route in mind, which I doubt he has. In today’s Russia, winning elections against Kremlin-approved candidates is the art of the impossible – and a necessary condition for all the good things Khodorkovsky is writing about.

…democratic institutions will not spring up across the whole of Russia’s territory at once.

The process must begin with the political transformation of European-oriented Russia and its cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, among others.

The process has begun: no point pretending it’s still waiting for the author’s blessing to get going. Khodorkovsky points out that “Russia today has tens of thousands of civic organizations defending civil rights,” and the spread of the anti-corruption movement, which he prefers to ignore, has been impressive. (No mention of last Sunday’s municipal elections, either.) To be blunt, Khodorkovsky’s message is “don’t elect Navalny or he will soon become a dictator.” Sure, there’s always this risk if the political system is over-centralized and power is concentrated in the executive. But once again, how do you decentralize it without getting in control first?


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