Financial Times - Navalny debates nationalist Girkin in attempt to broaden appeal

Financial Times - Navalny debates nationalist Girkin in attempt to broaden appeal


21 июля 2017 г. Kathrin Hille.

Russian opposition politician seeks admission to presidential election in 2018.

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician, on Thursday staged an attempt to broaden his support base by debating with Igor Girkin, a nationalist former military and intelligence officer who played a key role in Russia’s invasions of Ukraine.

Seated across a meeting table in a darkened office, the two men verbally sparred for an hour and 20 minutes over how to rid the country of corruption, what kind of relationship to seek with the west, and how to deal with the conflict in Donbass.

Mr Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption blogger, has come closer than any other opposition politician during Vladimir Putin’s 17 years in power to challenging the president.

Mr Girkin has fought in the pro-Russian separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria, both of Russia’s brutal wars in Chechnya, played a key role in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and was a high-profile commander in the early stages of the war in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Navalny has built a nationwide campaign to be admitted to the presidential election in March 2018 on the back of a street protest movement kick-started by an online video accusing Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, of corruption. But after an initial anti-corruption protest in March helped him build a following among young Russians, his public recognition has stalled, with just 55 per cent of Russians knowing about him, according to independent pollster Levada Centre.

Like most opposition politicians, Mr Navalny is being ignored by the country’s mainstream media. The security services have targeted his campaign offices with frequent raids in recent weeks and both he and some of his campaign staff have been attacked by thugs loyal to the Kremlin.

Mr Navalny accepted Mr Girkin’s challenge to the debate, arguing he had to woo all Russian citizens, including fringe nationalist followers of the man who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov, as potential voters. Many Russian nationalists are critical of Mr Putin. Before his return to the presidency in 2012, nationalist groups had joined the liberal opposition in street protests, many attracted by Mr Navalny, who founded a nationalist movement himself a decade ago.

But many of the opposition leader’s liberal supporters fiercely criticised the opposition leader’s decision. “Nobody should sink as low as to debate with a war criminal,” said Anatoly Dubkin, a student who participated in two demonstrations organised by Mr Navalny this year.

After the debate, broadcast on Mr Navalny’s and Mr Girkin’s YouTube channels and the independent TV channel Dozhd and watched by about 240,000 people, some felt their concerns had been validated.

A charismatic orator who electrifies the crowds at his protest rallies and has seen subscribers of his channel soar past those of state TV within months, Mr Navalny often appeared helpless in the discussion with an opponent who kept accusing him of being unpatriotic.

Mr Navalny reeled off slogans from his campaign platform on how he wants to return fair elections, independent courts and free media to Russia.

“Patriotism in today’s Russia is often romantic — take weapons and go somewhere to fight. I look at the whole country. I see cities without roads, hospitals without bandages, crumbling schools,” he said when asked to define his patriotism. “For me, patriotism is that Russian people should live better, right now. Helping people now means not war but fighting corruption.”

But Mr Girkin told him: “While you were still studying, I was already fighting in Chechnya.” At the end of the debate, the former officer said: “You are not a nationalist, and you are probably not even a patriot.”

Some viewers expressed sympathy with Mr Navalny. “Whoever advised Alexei Anatolievich to agree to the debate with this barbarian is a stupid idiot,” wrote Rustem Adagamov, a Russian writer, on his Facebook page.

“Yes, Navalny made a miserable impression,” wrote another viewer.

And, in the course of his attempts to appeal to nationalists, the opposition leader may also have offended more liberally-minded potential supporters.

Trying to argue for the importance of free elections, he said: “I would admit everyone, not just the liberals but also including the nationalists, including you.”

Mr Navalny dodged a question submitted by a viewer online on whether he considered Mr Girkin a war criminal. “If he killed non-combatants, if he committed some acts which are listed in legal documents, if he marauded or enslaved people . . . Anyone who does that will be a target for the courts. If he is a war criminal it is up to the courts, not Alexei Navalny.”

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