Navalny's attack on the Russian liberals who under and with Yeltsin paved the way for Putinism was met with scepticism, sometimes derision. Some doubt if his articles are written by the prisoner himself. At the request of Raam op Rusland economist Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote the serious reply Navalny is entitled to. He partly agrees with Navalny, but criticizes his flaws and misjudgments. 'It doesn’t exactly look like a "Navalny Revolution" is at the gate.'
Boris Yeltsin gives Russia to Putin and leaves the Kremlin on 31 december 1999
The letter recently published by Russia’s most celebrated political activist, Alexei Navalny, currently serving an extra 19-year term in prison, seems to be quite important, both as a theoretical reflection on his country’s past and as an attempt to look into its future. I will try to explore both parts of the message as I understand them.
On the one hand, Navalny attacks the old Russian 'democrats' who betrayed the '1990s revolution' and missed all opportunities for democracy, rule of law and good governance that the country possessed at that time. His arguments look obvious: it’s hard to disagree that the Russian reformers were much more obsessed by their own fates than by the country’s future. I lived in Russia those days and I support Navalny’s accusations almost entirely. To my mind, the Yeltsin rule resulted at least in five grave mistakes.
First, Boris Yeltsin fooled Russia's regional leaders whom he encouraged in 1990 to 'take as much sovereign rights you can swallow', and with whom he signed the Federation Treaty in 1992. One year later Russia’s former president promulgated a new Constitution in which he incorporated a large part of this Treaty. As a result, the Russian regions lost the ability to negotiate their powers with the federal authorities, since these now could be curbed simply by amending the Constitution. Amendments had to be approved by the entire Russian people who simply didn’t care about regions’ rights.
Second, president Yeltsin committed an illegitimate political coup in September 1993, by Executive Order 1400 dismissing the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) and neglecting the ruling of the Constitutional Court that proclaimed his decree unconstitutional, ordering the military to storm the Parliament’s headquarters and forever diminishing the authority of Russian legislature.
Third, he ordered a new constitution to be drafted which provided the president with extremely wide powers, and organized a referendum on it at a time when both Parliament and the Constitutional Court were dysfunctional. Moreover, the first State Duma was elected at the very day the voting on the constitution took place, thus Parliament being composed before the law on it entered into force.
Fourth, he effectively bought his victory in the 1996 presidential elections by allowing companies run by his allies to buy the largest Russian enterprises for around $1 billion combined. This way, he secured money to disburse social benefits and pensions right before election day. His propagandists insisted there was 'no alternative' to his rule and therefore humiliated the very foundations of democratic change completely, as Vladimir Putin is doing today.
Fifth, he authorized Russia’s interference into the internal affairs of Moldova and Georgia and supported the local separatists in the Moldovan brake-away region Transnistria in the name of protecting 'the Russian-speaking compatriots' living there, just like Putin did to legitimize Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014.
In 1993 Yeltsin ordered the attack on the White House (Parliament) in Moscow
As I argued in my 2017 Journal of Democracy article all this laid a solid ground for misuse of power by president Putin whom president Yeltsin himself had chosen as his successor – and this choice, as well as the style in which it was made, was Yeltsin's final contribution to undermining Russia’s future.
So, I would reiterate Alexei Navalny is completely right insisting that almost no one who was active in Russian politics on Yeltsin’s side in the 1990s, deserves support by those who wish Russia a European future. I made exactly this point earlier this year in an article for the French Institute of Foreign Relations, suggesting that the EU leaders should limit their hopes on, and dramatically cut their financial support to, the 'old' Russian emigrant opposition which looks politically impotent and morally rotten.
Navalny is right insisting that almost no one active in Russian politics on Yeltsin’s side deserves support by those who wish Russia a European future
Important point missing
On the other hand, there is a quite important point missing from Navalny’s accusations. Insisting that Yeltsin’s team is responsible for dismembering Russia’s judicial and electoral system, rigging the 1996 elections and engaging in corruption and bribery, he keeps silent on the most important topics of the time.
To my mind, Boris Yeltsin’s most terrible decisions were those that led to the renaissance of Russia’s imperial structure, both in domestic and external projections. Internally, Yeltsin, as I mentioned earlier, incorporated the 1992 Federation Treaty into the 1993 constitution and therefore dismantled the contractual nature of the Russian Federation, consisting of 85 regions with a different legal status (national republics, provinces or districts).
From that moment on, the State Duma or a national referendum could introduce changes in the powers of the regions without their consent. To block a change, at least 1/3 of all 85 regions should oppose – but since there are only 21 'national' republics in the Russian Federation, the Russian provinces and districts will always remain in control.
In 1995 the Federation Council was reformed with deputies no longer elected by direct voting. This allowed Putin to dismantle Russian federalism altogether by stripping the regions of both money and powers.
Externally, Yeltsin started the war against Chechnya, a rebel republic in Russia’s South which formally hasn’t joined Russia as it never signed the Federation Treaty. At the time the Kremlin was so obsessed with 'redeeming historic Russian territory' (Chechnya was brutally conquered by the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century, experienced a genocide in 1944 and in the early 1990s hardly had any Russian inhabitants) that it unleashed a bloody war that lasted untill the mid-2000s and in many ways elevated Vladimir Putin to power.
Russia destroyed the Chechen capital Grozny in 1995. There are many similarities to Ukraine 2022
The Chechen wars also accustomed Russians to the use of excessive force against their neighbors. Even after the Russians suffered a temporary defeat in 1996 and were forced to sign the Khasavyurt Peace Accords, the war with the Chechens was resumed in 1999 in a similar way the Russians restarted the war with Ukraine several years after the Minsk Accords were signed.
Navalny seems not to dislike Yeltsin empire-building efforts, as his potential support base these days favors a strong Russia
Although Navalny is too young to remember these events, I would rather say that he seems not to dislike the Russian empire-building efforts in the Yeltsin era. This can be explained by the fact that the Russians these days en masse favor a 'strong Russia', and Mr. Navalny has no intention of disappointing this part of his potential support base.
Vision of the future
But what does Navalny’s letter tell us about his vision of the future?
On the one hand, he perfectly understands two things. First, he understands that the weakness of the Russian opposition is caused by the fact that its most prominent figures rose to power back in the 1990s and bear much of the responsibility for what happened then. Second, he is well aware that the strong resentment of the population towards the 1990s became one of the most solid grounds for president Putin’s popular approval. Therefore Navalny combines both discrediting the current emigrant opposition and energizing the people by his 1990s-bashing. As an experienced political leader, he does everything right.
Navalny combines both discrediting the current emigrant opposition and energizing the people by his 1990s-bashing
On the other hand, Navalny implicitly believes that change in Russia may come only in the form of a popular revolt which would topple the regime (maybe, immediately after Putin’s death) and provide him with all levers needed to transform Russia’s political architecture. This hypothesis is in line with his radicalism that is evident everywhere – from his longtime unwillingness to build teams with other opposition factions to the long 'FBK lists' of people that should be subjected to Western sanctions.
But these days it doesn’t exactly look like the 'Navalny Revolution' is at the gate.
Once Alexei Navalny, here rallying against Putin in Moscow, was Russia's most promising opposition politician
Moreover, I would go even further and argue that Navalny might be placing a wrong bet in his extremely risky game. As he departs quite soon to his special 'correction facility' (labour camp) he might be silenced for years – and the last reference point his supporters will remember from him will be this critique of the 1990s and the 'democrats'.
It would have been better if Navalny and his team had refrained from assaulting many other personalities he mentioned in his address – like, for example, (Moscow mayor) Mr. Sobyanin – but to focus on their potential virtues. These people might share with him his distrust of the 1990s, his support for a 'strong Russia' and maybe even his hatred towards Putin.
As Navalny’s return to Russia in early 2021 suggests, he deliberately chose the path of Nelson Mandela. Popular support, moral leadership, and even foreign sanctions imposed on an undemocratic country – there are many similarities between Russia and South-Africa. But no one should forget that for Mandela’s triumph a president like F.W. de Klerk is needed, as Gorbachev was indispensible for Andrei Sakharov’s political rise. I believe this is something that Alexei Navalny entirely misses and something that may cost him his life.
To summarize, I would say that Navalny’s letter reflects two important points: the Russian opposition has realized that it confronts not only 'bad' Putin, but rather the entire system of governance that has been built since the early 1990s, and its task is not to get rid of Putin’s gang, but to dismantle the current Russian statehood as a whole.
At the same time the radical part of the opposition decided that those who supported Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s are inappropriate allies, discredited and corrupt. This means, frankly speaking, that Russia doesn’t possess any organized opposition movement that might challenge Putin’s regime – so the West should bet rather on an insider’s coup and intra-elite change, or simply be ready to contain Russia militarily for years to come.
The 'post-Soviet' Russia, which some naïve Western 'thinkers' believed was a 'normal country', should be forgotten. It’s a reborn Muscovite Empire which cannot be changed from the inside in a peaceful and democratic manner. If one expects some change for the better, one should wait for another Gorbachev to emerge from the Russian elite, and not for Navalny fleeing from prison, or Mikhail Khodorkovsky arriving from the United Kingdom.