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What Does Russia's Top Blogger Think About Crimea?

Alexey Navalny speaks from confinement. An artist's depiction.

Alexey Navalny speaks from confinement. An artist's depiction.

Before Alexey Navalny's LiveJournal blog was blocked [Global Voices report] in Russia late last week, ostensibly for breaking the terms of his house arrest, he published a long opinion piece [ru] on the situation in Crimea. So, what does the putative leader of the opposition and popular blogger think?

The piece was a direct response to Navalny's critics and allies, who were wondering why he is staying silent on the issue — after all Navalny is an outspoken Russian nationalist, with a strong anti-migrant position. Unfortunately, there is no easy position to take. As a leader in the opposition he should criticize Putin's intervention, but as a nationalist that would leave him open to attacks of hypocrisy. Navalny himself described the conundrum:

Тут мне передали, что в комментах ко всем постам оставляют “а что же Навальный по Крыму не выскажется? Боится, значит? Хочет на двух стульях усидеть!”. На двух стульях я, конечно, усидеть хочу (кто же не хочет) [...]

Someone told me that everybody is writing me comments “why doesn't Navalny speak out on Crimea? Is he afraid? He is trying to sit on both chairs [have it both ways]!” Of course I want to have it both ways (who doesn't) [...]

Did Navalny succeed in “sitting on both chairs”? First he picked the chair that comes most naturally to him — talking about the corrupt Russian government. In this view, Putin's Crimean escapade is a way to punish the Ukrainians for rebelling against their own corrupt government. By making an example out them, Putin will make sure that a similar revolt will be less likely in Russia.

Navalny also tried to score nationalist points, however. He wrote about the importance of maintaining friendly relations with Ukraine, because of a “pan-Slavic” brotherhood that he says any Russian feels towards Ukrainians and Belorussians but does not feel towards, say, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz. He also questioned the fact that Russians in Ukraine are being persecuted in any way, by claiming that ethnic Russian populations in Central Asia and Chechnya have it worse.

Navalny also feels that Crimea “unfairly” belongs to Ukraine, and any “normal” Russian would feel the same. At the same time, he is against annexing the region, even if its citizens vote for this in a legitimate referendum. Why? Because:

Для нас самих вопрос территориальной целостности – болезненный. В интересах России – всегда заминать эту тему и всегда выступать против, как это делает Китай.

For us the question of territorial integrity is a painful one. It is in the interests of Russia to always sweep [any talk of changing borders] under the rug, and to always speak out against it, like China does.

Any such referendum supported by Russia sets a precedent, says Navalny — a precedent for the dissolution of Russia in the future, when regions with strong non-Russian ethnic minorities and majorities, like Dagestan or Chechnya, decide to break away from the country. While his other points might or not be valid, Navalny's reasoning for not supporting a referendum is the oddest, especially viewed through the lens of his ideology. After all, did Navalny not support the slogan “Stop feeding Chechnya” in the past? Nationalist blogger Egor Prosvirnin pounced on this disconnect, sarcastically writing [ru] that any sane nationalist would willingly trade the hostile Chechnya for the ethnically Russian Crimea:

Совершенно верно, Алексей Анатольевич Навальный пугает русских, что если русские поддержат референдум в Крыму, то от России может уйти… Чечня. Обменять Крым на Чечню, что может быть ужаснее? Это же какой-то ночной кошмар каждого русского, поменять Севастополь на Грозный.

That's right, Alexey Anatolyevich Navalny is scaring Russians that if they support the referendum in Crimea, then Russia might lose… Chechnya. To exchange Crimea for Chechnya, what could be more horrible? This is some kind of nightmare of every Russian, to exchange Sebastople for Grozny.

In the end Navalny's solution to the Crimean crisis is eerily similar to the official Russian position, short of recognizing the referendum: “increasing autonomy for Crimea, guarantees of Russian language status, guarantees of Ukraine's non-participation in NATO, amnesty for the current Crimean self-government.” Wishful thinking or not? With the referendum under way, we will soon find out.

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