One of the sources of frustration for many of the participants in popular uprisings over the last couple of years is that the same qualities that made the protests so captivating is also a source of their stagnation. They appeared organic and spontaneous, even if hindsight has made them seem overdetermined. And that spontaneity has also meant some of these protest movements are devoid of political leadership–a weakness exacerbated in many cases by the general lack of democracy around them.

In Russia, the anti-Putin protest movement has produced only one person thus far who represents a true political threat to Vladimir Putin. That would be Aleksei Navalny, the crusading anti-corruption activist and blogger who was recently found guilty on trumped-up charges of embezzlement but who is still eligible to run in the upcoming Moscow mayoral election. But Navalny represents a challenge to the anti-Putin coalition as well, and those cheering him on from the sidelines. The Putin-Navalny conflict resembles nothing so much as a street fight that keeps gathering steam and spectators. And Navalny will use any weapon he can find, overmatched as he is. As I wrote in December 2011:

But Navalny also threatens to hold back the Russian opposition with his casual association with, and his movement’s possible co-option by, the country’s vicious nationalists. Navalny’s own nationalism was the subject of his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party several years ago (though it is surely not the only reason), and he has cooperated with, marched with, and defended ultranationalist leaders. Russia’s ultranationalists are openly racist and have a troubling history with anti-Semitism as well. Navalny himself, at a recent nationalist rally, caught some flak for saying, in reference to Russian oligarchs who also happened to be Jewish, “This is our country, and we have to eradicate the crooks who suck our blood and eat our liver.” The historical weight of those terms with regard to Jewish “outsiders,” combined with the throngs of neo-Nazis cheering him on, made many wonder if Navalny’s opposition movement was taking a dark turn.

Navalny was still more or less unknown nationally at the time. As his name recognition grows, so do the questions about his character, as Robert Coalson writes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

Engelina Tareyeva, who worked with Navalny when he was a member of the liberal Yabloko party before he was expelled in 2007, has accused him of routinely using racial slurs and basing his relations with people on their ethnicity. “I consider Aleksei Navalny the most dangerous man in Russia,” Tareyeva has written. “You don’t have to be a genius to understand that the most horrific thing that could happen in our country would be the nationalists coming to power.”

Whether or not Navalny’s conscious mission is to usher the nationalists into power may be beside the point, as far as some analysts are concerned:

“If someone who is as high-profile as Aleksei Navalny has become uses ugly words to describe ethnic minorities and appears to appeal directly to some of the most fundamentalist values of ethnic Russians, then there is a real danger that extremist elements — which I’m quite sure Navalny himself would condemn — will see that as a sanction for their behavior,” [Paul] Goble says.

GlobalVoices also has a long piece on Navalny being confronted about ethnic slurs he’s made in the past, and includes speculation by some that it’s an electoral strategy aimed at cultivating the nationalist segment of the population. (During the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Navalny advocated the expulsion of Georgians from Russia.)

But part of the reason for the complexity and conflicted nature of those rooting Navalny on is that he is far from playing electoral politics. Sure, he may run for mayor of Moscow, but he doesn’t expect to (be allowed to) win. As I wrote after his guilty verdict was announced, he is far more useful to the Kremlin as a losing candidate in Moscow than in his prison cell, to which many expect him to be summarily returned after the Moscow election. As it stands, Navalny does not have to defend a political platform or a series of policy papers. That doesn’t mean he has no political opinions (he does), but they are irrelevant to his struggle.

They are not, however, irrelevant to those watching this spectacle play out. As Brian Whitmore observes, Navalny’s plan is not to win elections but “to erode, wear down, and ultimately replace [the Putin] system by patiently and efficiently chipping away at the monolith.” The Putin system is indeed a corrupt, immoral, murderous, and authoritarian enterprise. Navalny has no such blood on his hands. But it’s important for the West to remember that despite the obvious temptation to take sides, its responsibility is to advocate for principles, not individuals–no matter which combatant in the street fight seems to have the upper hand.

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