Tag Archives: navalny

Navalny, rights discourses in, and on Russia, and the missing pro-social policy platform

Quick follow-up to this piece on Amnesty and Navalny that I wrote for the Moscow Times last week.

Some people wanted me to clarify this bit:

“the case brings into focus long-standing debates about the outsized role western NGOs play in how Russia is perceived, and whether the retreat of the U.S. as a global hegemon has the effect of rendering “liberal” ideas of human rights less credible. Yet the problems of unequal access to palpable measures of human flourishing with which these same NGOs grapple — be they free elections, the rule of law or decent working conditions — are more pressing than ever.”

others thought I was unfair on Navalny’s programme, or that I was vague:

“As narrow and short-sighted as the dissidents of the Soviet past. The competitive, transparent elections and a “fair” and functioning market economy that Navalny advocates are not the same thing as a truly “universalist” approach to human rights — the right to human flourishing and full and equal development of human potential.”

You can see I repeat the phrase – ‘human flourishing’. I chose this phrase because it’s a way of broadening the rights perspective – to social and cultural conceptions of rights. It’s also a topic I close my book with – a rhetorical question about what we mean when people say Russia lacks something we (in the imagined West) take for granted, or as an ideal good – be it political rights, personal autonomy, social safety nets, or economic freedom. In the book, one of my points is that measuring by comparative yardsticks to say that human development in Russia is ‘lower than it should be’, is important (for example we can argue that many people in Russia lack access to economic security, a clean environment, healthcare and other goods that ensure an adequate life expectancy at birth). However, this metric ignores wider and equally important ways of thinking about human potential via what I call ‘habitability’. In the book, I identify these in concepts like ‘meta-occupational communities’, mutual aid practices, but also communities of craft and labour. There is also what others would call ‘social capital’, but I call local ‘authority’, autonomism, and reciprocal dignity based in webs of social ties of ‘extent, commitment and deep content’.

Similarly, with ‘human rights’, do we focus on trying to establish international public law predicated on an idea of an international order where such rights can be protected, or do we widen the debate to talk about how to defend wider perspectives of ‘human potential’ based on maximising people’s ability to take autonomous action? Now Amnesty already does this by including campaigning on biopolitical rights like the right to abortion, children’s rights, and racial justice. But, there remains a big gap between awareness raising and action that translates into enforceable legal mechanisms. This relates to a debate about the limits of legal positivism that underpins the global human rights industry.

The weakness of this version of ‘universality’ is that it tends to disconnect ‘rights’ from the social context of actual historical development and in particular the role of social movements in altering what we consider ‘rights’, and in moving forward agendas to realise them. We focus on the ‘ends’ of the claims, and not enough on the ‘means’ – in particular the historical non-legal and pre-institutional forms of fights against injustice. Today, the human rights agenda as pursued by organisations like Amnesty, is despite its claim to universalism, mainly focused on ‘negative rights’: political and civil rights rather than ‘positive rights’, like economic and social rights. Amnesty, as an international NGO, is ironically highly state-centric and ‘realist’ (it is the Russian state hailed in the plea to free Navalny and has a ‘duty’ to comply). At the same time, as I hinted in the article, the legalist model also relies on a model of unequal inter-state relations where via realpolitik, offenders are forced to comply. These are not my ideas – but mainstream debates in the social constructivist approach to rights discourses and the turn towards social movements as engines of change, along with the need for institutional democratisation. (Side note) – my current research is interested in the transition from new social movements to ‘social non-movements’. But that’s a post for another day.

How does this relate to Navalny himself? Well, at the back of my mind were various misgivings about his chameleon populist appearance – that his social populism was merely that – convenient rhetoric. What does he himself think about Russians’ social rights? (we know what he thinks about cultural rights – that beyond the ethnic ‘russkie’ they should be limited). My hunch on social rights is that he remains an incorrigible (neo)liberal, which would be understandable given his biography. But is that fair? Well, after writing my piece, I thought I’d better actually review my prejudices! My conclusion is based on a trawl of high-visibility interviews – with Yuri Dud’ and Sergei Guriev, as well as his campaigning materials.

Firstly – his ‘social programme’. People talk about his shift to focus on inequality, but really, I’m quite shocked they are so easily satisfied by pretty sparse detail and empty rhetoric (in fact, as empty of the ‘social guarantees’ rhetoric of the state itself). While many laud his anti-corruption campaign, his message of ‘better social equality via higher living standards’ relies on a kind of magical thinking related almost exclusively to removing corrupt elites. This will supposedly allowing lowering taxes and raising the minimum wage to… a paltry 25000rb. Navalny was fast to attempt to co-opt the pension protests from 2018, but as critics point out, prior to that he was quite consistent on the need to raise the retirement age.

As we dig a bit we find some unguarded comments about Singapore as a model (!) and the merits of ‘complete deregulation’ – whatever that means. Again, if he wasn’t so prominent an opposition figure his naïve voluntarism married to his moist-eyed belief in markets might even be charming. He’s learned the word ‘deregulation’, but it doesn’t appear he’s thought of what the end point looks like for a country like Russia (that, by the way, isn’t a city-state in South Asia – followers of the Brexit debate on Britain’s future may be getting déjà vu here).

Should a future Russian leader revisit the corrupt and deeply flawed privatisation processes from the 90s? Largely, the answer is no. Yes, he talks about the fundamental problem the ‘loans-for-shares auctions’ of being that its injustice meant that the institution of private property does not exist (because the illegitimacy of the process meant that later state confiscation could always be justified). But, Navalny’s answer is mainly about windfall taxes on privatised companies ‘like in the UK’. So we get a good idea that his ideas about public goods are horribly atrophied. He’s a ‘realist’: you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube – which is fair enough on one level. However, again it’s kind of funny that the rhetoric of his support and his own message is ‘idealist’ (We can change Russia), yet the policy is somewhere economically to the right of Rishi Sunak (UK’s finance minister). It is telling that his talk about privatisation – probably the one issue that still encapsulates unfairness, corruption and inequality in Russia today– even shocks the orthodox economist Sergei Guriev. (Here’s an old evaluation by Guriev of Navalny’s economic policy positions).

De-monopolize the media in Russia? Firewalls of ownership. Impartial judges? Pay them a lot (and professionalise them). Taxes up, taxes down. Taxes to pay for this and that. ‘It’s easy in the world now’ – as if even the state of California hadn’t failed to address monopolies (this time Uber). As if off-shoring would stop after Putin. Everything is either a technical-legal solution or…. you guessed it: ‘taxes’ (sometimes up, sometimes down). ‘Vot etogo byt ne dolzno’, – ‘that shouldn’t happen’! I had to laugh when this was his response about quasi monopolies in new tech as if one could flick a regulatory switch. What to do with Oligarchs? ‘Get him to pay a tax, not confiscate or shoot him’.

Now this is mean of me. Who am I to criticise? Well on the one hand, yes it is unfair to carp like this. (Although I am by no means the first to view the programme as wafer thin). Navalny remains a ‘not-yet’ politician – untried, with limited resources to develop a detailed policy position. On the other, my point is not about politics or politicians in Russia, but instead about how skewed to the right the ‘Overton window’ is –especially when it comes to the idea of social and economic rights. Outsiders forget that, as Olga Shevchenko has investigated – especially among better off Russians there’s a brand of common sense in matters economic that align with ‘neoliberal rhetoric’, or at least right libertarianism and often extreme forms of social Darwinism. If you want another illustration of this with reference to Navalny, check out the rebuke to him from a patriotic right libertarian perspective from Yuri Dud’: “I get the feeling you don’t respect capitalism – all these demands that people make restitution payments for privatisation.”  Cue, Navalny spluttering that Russia has many good capitalists. The point is the Navalny is wholly unexceptional with regard to views among the tiny group of ‘winners’ in Russia. As I keep pointing out, that also means there is a reasonable objection to his politics from the left, and from the majority of Russians who have experienced economic stagnation for the last ten years.

Putin and property – a ‘boss’ but not an owner

After Repin. ‘They weren’t expecting him’.

I was reluctant to write about Navalny’s return to Russia. Partly because so much attention devoted to this figure in the ‘West’ does neither him, nor the breadth of political opposition in Russia any real favours – witness some of the naval-gazing attempts to tie Russian protests to BLM and other issues in the US that really have little to do with the Russian context and even less to do with Navalny’s case. Anyway, what did catch my attention was Putin’s unprecedented response (in that normally he pretends that N. does not exist) after the YouTube expose of what is alleged is Putin’s Black Sea palace. Second, I thought it worth underlining a point I’ve made before in this blog – that Navalny still fails to cut through as a national political figure, even though his videos and campaigning have fundamentally changed the political atmosphere. Also, unlike even at the time of the Moscow mayoral election in 2013 (which he should have rightfully won), pretty much all my research participants (in deindustrializing Kaluga region) are now aware of him.

So the post is in two parts –today, on the fickle meaning of ‘private property’ in Russia and later I will talk about some ‘on-the-ground’ responses to Navalny’s arrest and the 23rd January protests.

So, Oliver Carroll tweeted the strange phrase from the short interview Putin gave rebutting the allegations: ‘“Nothing described as my property belongs to or ever belonged to me or my close relatives. Ever” [ничего из того, что там указано в качестве моей собственности, ни мне, ни моим близким родственникам не принадлежит и никогда не принадлежало.]

Carroll commented: ‘A strange turn of phrase that doesn’t deny existence of palace resort or the fact that it was being guarded by the presidential security service.’ Then Timothy Frye responded that ‘Property rights are often seen as three separate rights: rights to use, to obtain income from, and to transfer an asset. Better to ask did you use the property or allow others use it than did you own it on paper.’ Frye has a book on property rights in Russia that I’m looking forward to reading. From a quick browse Frye asks the chicken and egg question about property rights – do people in developed economies abide by contracts because of social trust, social networks or effective courts? Interestingly he’s implying that our understanding of ‘good institutions’ in ‘the West’ is too simplistic and that social norms play more of a role than we would be comfortable admitting. Frye goes on to talk about the importance of informal institutions in Russia that provide their own ‘rules of the game’ in terms of widely understood sanctions for actions like reneging on informal agreements. In some business contexts, the rule of law can sometimes be a worthwhile recourse – legal dualism results. Later in the book I can see Frye has collected interesting survey data on the prevalent feelings of illegitimacy surrounding privatisation even 25 years on – particularly linked to perceptions about benefits to private individuals and the loss of public goods. “In a word, everyone hates privatization”, but not private property, write Frye.

My own research has not really looked much at property rights – only obliquely do I talk about corporate raiding (reiderstvo) and how its violence in Russia affects ordinary people. What was clear is that uncertainty and disputes of ownership of plant and land continues to create high levels of palpable risk even for ordinary people as it can result in catastrophic ‘externalities’ like pollution, violent crime, and the disruption of utility supply (p. 236 in the Conclusion linked above). It also results in a particular Russian anomaly – property that doesn’t belong to anyone. Famously the lack of ownership of graveyards has been widely discussed, but less well studied is the problem of roads and utility networks that jurisdictions fight over in order NOT to take responsibility for them. This was a running theme in my research on Izluchino in my book and many informal solutions of ‘devolved’ governance were found that would confound any traditional perspective on property relations.

In response to Carroll’s comment on Putin’s language – his disavowal of ownership of the palace – I was reminded of the literature on ‘private property’ in the USSR and in particular a discussion in a forthcoming book by Xenia Cherkaev that contains long discussion of ongoing significance of Soviet ‘property’. Usufruct looms large – ‘use’ stressed over ‘possession’ (vladenie) in the Soviet system where ‘private’ property was taboo, but still a reality, and thus had to be fudged in various ways. Putin is probably telling the truth that there isn’t a deed of property with his name on it. But that’s of course disingenuous because Navalyni makes the point about endless intermediaries himself (and points out that they are quite revealing of the relative narrowness of Putin’s trust circle).  By relying on old acquaintances from St Petersburg, if anything Putin is shown in quite a sorry light – he doesn’t have very extensive social capital – revealing his rather parvenu origins and unimpressive career prior to the later 1990s!). But I guess the point here is, how much ‘capital’ does Navalny really have – in Russia? Maybe by his public act of self-sacrifice this will be his moment to become at least a powerful political symbol – if not political leader. Or will this gamble mean that he’ll eternally be known domestically as an ‘avantiurist’ or traitorous dupe. That’s for a later post.

Now, Cherkaev’s book is not in print yet and I don’t want to steal its thunder. However, some of the book’s arguments are visible in two articles – unpaywalled here  and here.

Cherkaev writes: “Coming from the study of Soviet civil law (see Cherkaev 2018 [Russian text]), I am especially interested in nonprivate ownership, in what happens to the idealized triad of full and complete ownership rights—usus (to manage), fructus (to benefit from), abusus (to dispose of)—when property is collectively held.” In the 2018 Russian article, Cherkaev discusses ‘dignity’ as personal property in the USSR. In the book, Cherkaev builds on the distinctions between personal and private to show how the former served as a substitute for the impossibility of the latter in the realm of ownership. The Soviet solution of “Personal property” posed no threat to the Soviet monopoly on property “because it was essentially usufruct: the right to use and benefit from a share of socialist property, without alienating it from the commons”. This led me to reflect further on another discussion – linked to ownership, that Cherkaev makes – that of ‘хозяйство’ – (khoziaistvo)  – which can translate economy, household, property, house, establishment.  Traditionally, ‘the economy’ in Russian is essentially ‘narodnoe khoziaistvo’ and more recently ‘natsionalnaia ekonomika’.

Cherkaev draws on Stephen Collier who notes that khoziaistvo actually refers to any nexus of production, so is not just ‘the economic’ – “as a noun, [it] can refer to a farm, a household, or virtually any nexus of production and need fulfilment—that is, to almost any unit of substantive economy. But khoziaistvo can not imply the formal meaning of ‘economic’” (Collier, 2011. Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Page 81). This led me to reflect about Putin as the ultimate ‘khoziain’ – an owner-in-charge contrasted to owner-as-possessor – and that this also captures his managerialism, as opposed to entrepreneurialism as leader. Russia’s economy is also easily seen as a khoziaistvo rather than a legal-contractual system of possessions exchanged. Khoziaistvo as dominion shows both the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s ‘sistema’ (informal governance system) as it relates to the economic. From this meaning of khoziaistvo, Cherkaev marks Russia’s relationship to property as different to that of the ‘market economy’ . ‘Ekonomika’ is a formal space of circulation with equal and self-interested actors. But Putin as ‘khoziain’, shows the ‘substantive’ — in anthropological terms — meaning of his clientelist regime. We normally think ‘substantivism‘ as a ‘positive’ thing (after Polanyi), but why not avoid psychologising Putin as ‘avaricious’ (which may be true) and instead see him as product of a ‘self-provisioning’ system where actors are embedded (actually trapped) in a personalistic webs of mutual aid.

This is what Navalny’s vid shows very clearly – remarkably even – the same young-old faces at St Pete City Hall who start off writing bribe amounts in the 10s of thousands of dollars sheepishly on bits of paper and then – almost by accident – end up running a petro-economy where the opportunities for graft are endless. Ironically Putin is entirely unremarkable and his ‘khoziaistvo’ also. What’s clear is that his version of ‘gosudarstvennost’ (stateness – building a strong state) is subordinate to his ‘feeding’ system (the devolved form of governance allowing levying tribute and keeping part of it inherited from the Mongols). In some respects he’s never evolved from Soviet manager mindset – his idea of ‘initiative’ is personalised negotiation and accumulation – not according to market utility maximisation or even profit motive, but as a defensive and even ‘ethical’ protection of the team (this self-justification of course is part of Alena Ledeneva’s explanation of how ‘connections’ known as ‘blat’ in Russia work – by misrecognition as part of one’s ethical self that helps others out – Cherkaev also discusses this at length).

Of course in 90s/2000s this ‘mindset’ (that trust is personalised, limited in scope, conditional, and that there is no alternative to embedding oneself in a chain of mutual ‘aid’) spirals out of control and creates obscene wealth and inequality. Nonetheless the tacit (or not so tacit) acknowledgement of Putin as ‘khoziain’ of Russia Inc. means even Navalny’s latest will not cut through quite as well as we might think. No one likes obscene wealth in Russia, but most people have lowered their expectations after 30 years of no one wealthy really getting their just deserts (Khodorkovsky excepted – in that most people do think he got what was coming to him). Envy-culture (hatred of real entrepreneurs) is real. But again, this plays to Putin – as he’s not an ‘oligarch’, but khoziain. Despite Navalny’s revelations, Putin is still implicitly compared (by ‘ordinary Russians’) to another ‘khoziain’ who famously lived frugally – Stalin. He too secured resources through formal and informal means, determined entitlements according to a different kind of ‘economy’. Now I don’t agree with these people, but you have to admit Putin is successful (for now) in projecting himself as the arbiter of national khoziaistvo. In part because most people’s individual wealth is derived from personalised networks of trust no less than Putin’s own.

Final points – the irony of the Kremlin today saying they cannot name the true owners of the palace as they are entrepreneurs and therefore their transactions in the sphere of private property are to be respected.

People are much more critical of the authorities than ever before. People are cynical. People – thanks to Navalny – cannot ignore the vast scale of corruption in their own country, BUT! They were really uncomfortable with the ultimate upping of the anti by Navalnyi – maybe it was true – that the corruption extended to Putin himself? However, Putin’s response reassured them. If he was denying it then it required less cognitive dissonance to believe stories about Navalny being a stooge of the West and the whole story as some kind of slander on Russia. From there it’s not so hard to believe the current propaganda – that ‘foreign elements’ are paying protesters, etc, etc, to explain the Saturday protests in support of Navalny. Interestingly here, the message coincides with another one – of protecting youth from bad influences – which also gets a very sympathetic hearing among a majority of Russians.

Next post will offer some wide-ranging reflections on Navalny by my research interlocutors – young, old, rich and poor. Has his time passed – ironically at the time of the greatest international attention to him? Does he have a message beyond anti-corruption that is wide enough to cut though? Is his ‘reach’ to ordinary Russians over-rated to the Twitterati? Can there really be an opposition leader in Russia while Putin is in charge – or is that to miss the point – that Navalny’s strength is to serve as a hybrid figure who can channel various political imaginations that have been repressed for so long?