As chief of staff for Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s run for the presidency in an election to be held next March, Volkov is the man behind a grass-roots political campaign unlike anything the country has ever seen.
It is Navalny’s sensational exposés of high-level corruption that have seized the national and international spotlight. But it’s Volkov’s organizational effort that has given the 41-year-old, Yale-educated lawyer political footholds in regions far from the capital, in towns and cities that will be essential to any attempt to loosen Putin’s almost two-decade-long grip on power.
That is, of course, if Volkov can get Navalny on the ballot.
Bearded, wearing a tieless shirt, the 36-year-old former IT professional was in a distracted mood when he met POLITICO at the campaign’s headquarters in eastern Moscow. Before sitting down for an interview, he spent minutes jabbing away at a smartphone and then recorded a video for the campaign’s increasingly popular YouTube channel.
The headquarters, which was raided by police in late March as anti-Putin protests rocked Russia, is sparsely decorated, an open plan office staffed by around a dozen studious twentysomethings. The last time Volkov recorded a live online video here, on June 21, a police officer barged into the studio while the camera was rolling and handed him a summons. Volkov was jailed for five days on a protest-related charge the next afternoon. This time, he managed to record his video without interruption.
Despite relentless pressure from the authorities, Volkov has so far overseen the opening of over 60 Navalny 2018 campaign offices across Russia, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. The election campaign, which Volkov said is funded entirely by donations from private Russian citizens, has raised 98 million rubles (€ 1.4 million) via online crowdfunding efforts and recruited more than 120,000 people, many of them in their teens or early twenties, as volunteers nationwide.
In the past few months, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have twice taken to the streets in dozens of cities, breathing new life into an opposition movement that was struggling to survive in the wake of the pro-Putin euphoria that swept Russia following the seizure of Crimea in 2014.
“We are imposing a black and white picture of the world on people, and forcing them to think about politics and the future of the country,” Volkov said, opening a laptop decorated with a Navalny 2018 sticker. “Forcing them to take sides. Are you for Putin or are you for Navalny?”
‘PRACTICALLY NO CHANCE’
The contrast between the Navalny 2018 election effort and the staid, low-energy campaigns traditionally run by Putin and the handful of Kremlin-approved candidates that have been permitted to stand against him over the years could not be greater. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has not taken part in an election debate, televised or otherwise, and presidential candidates of all stripes have shown little, if any, appetite for campaigning across the vast Russian landscape.
The Kremlin hasn’t taken kindly to Navalny’s violation of its unspoken rules. In addition to Volkov, who has been jailed twice in recent months, more than a dozen members of the campaign team, including Navalny, have been locked up for short periods on protest-related charges.
Security forces have raided campaign offices across the country, confiscating computers and other valuable equipment. Others connected to the campaign have been stabbed or beaten with baseball bats. In April, Navalny himself suffered a serious eye injury after he was attacked by a pro-Kremlin activist in Moscow.
On top of all this, Russia’s top election official has said there is “practically no chance” Navalny will be allowed on the ballot in next March’s election, citing a conviction for fraud that the campaign says was trumped up in order to neutralize his political ambitions. Russia’s government-controlled election committee is set to make a final ruling on Navalny’s candidacy in December.
For Volkov, the Kremlin’s furious response to the campaign is a clear indication his team is on the right track. And he clearly takes great pleasure in causing headaches for the president’s shadowy advisers. Putin has yet to formally announce he will seek reelection, but few have any doubt he is gearing up for a fourth term that would keep him in power until 2024.
“Our campaign’s aim is to create an atmosphere in which it is less politically advantageous for the authorities not to register Navalny as an election candidate, than to register him,” Volkov said. “When everyone in the country thinks that the only reason Navalny is not being allowed on the ballot is because Putin is afraid of him, then they will have no choice but to let him stand.”
That’s not the only scenario under which Navalny might be allowed to run. Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper recently cited sources close to the presidential administration as saying Putin’s advisers were struggling to come up with an inspiring electoral message that the ex-KGB officer could present to the nation ahead of next year’s vote.
Permitting the high-profile dissident to stand could solve that problem by injecting an element of intrigue into the election. It would also neatly allow the Kremlin to counter domestic and international criticism of Russia’s democratic credentials.
Volkov isn’t prepared — at least not publicly — to consider the possibility that a Navalny candidacy could be advantageous to Putin. He looked up from his laptop. “I have a plan, and we are working to it. And everything is turning out excellently for us.”
A WEIRD EXOTICA
Born in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth biggest city, in 1980, Volkov was a teenage computer prodigy, representing his hometown region at national and international programming competitions. From there, it was a clear path into the world of IT. He spent some 10 years working at one of Russia’s biggest software companies, SKB Kontur, rising to a senior management position — experience he said serves him well in his current role.
“Every day, I had to answer 300 emails, take part in 10 or so conference calls, plus meetings, interviews, as well find inspiring words for various departments,” he said. “Of course, not everything that is applicable to business is applicable to politics. The rules of the game change a lot quicker.”
After a decade in business, Volkov, a keen chess player, branched out into politics. In 2009, after self-financing his campaign to the tune of some €20,000, Volkov was elected as a local councilor in Yekaterinburg, traditionally one of Russia’s more liberal cities.
His victory came amid a low point for Russia’s liberal opposition parties, which were still reeling from a series of humiliating defeats in national and regional votes. Suddenly, Volkov was, as he put it, “a weird exotica: a young and independent elected official.”
He first met Navalny, who was already making a name for himself with his anti-corruption investigations, in 2010 at an opposition conference. Around half a year later, Navalny accepted Volkov’s invitation to visit Yekaterinburg, where the seeds of the Navalny 2018 campaign were planted.
“He flew in, carried out eight meetings with local businessmen, activists, and journalists, and spoke very convincingly at each of them,” Volkov said. “I remember thinking back then: ‘This is my presidential candidate.’”
Navalny’s visit was also the start of a close friendship between the two men. Besides their mutual loathing of high-level corruption, both share a wry sense of humor.
The current campaign isn’t Volkov’s first attempt at securing an elected post for Navalny. In 2013, he headed Navalny’s bid to defeat Sergei Sobyanin, the Putin-appointed incumbent, during Moscow’s mayoral election.
Sobyanin, taking his cue from Putin, declined to debate rival candidates, or even meet publicly with voters. Meanwhile, Volkov masterminded a slick, Western-style campaign. Navalny held up to three stump speeches a day and descended into the metro to distribute campaign materials.
The hard work paid off. Navalny, who had been polling at around 3 percent just weeks before the election, was barred from national television. And yet he took nearly 30 percent of the vote, securing second place amid rumors of last-minute vote-rigging by city officials desperate to ensure a first-round victory for Sobyanin.
In an age in which political upsets have become almost routine, Volkov sees no reason why Navalny cannot produce another shock at the March 2018 presidential election.
Although, like in 2013, Navalny is currently polling at around 2 percent, Volkov is confident a concerted campaign can once again tap into widespread anger over corruption. In a recent opinion poll, 67 percent of Russians said they held Putin personally responsible for failing to prevent the widespread pilfering of Russia’s national resources by officials and government-connected businessmen.
Even another respectable loss would provide a much-needed jolt to Russia’s political system, Volkov said, as Putin would be forced to confront a genuinely popular opposition leader with millions of supporters nationwide. “Even if we don’t win, if Navalny can get around 30 percent again, this will change things in our country completely.”
It’s an ambition that many political observers consider unrealistic in the current political climate. Russian authorities are unlikely to allow Navalny an official run, if only because doing so would allow him access to national television, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst whose election monitoring efforts helped spark anti-government protests in Moscow in 2011.
Even if Navalny were to run, Oreshkin said, he would struggle to get more than 10 percent of the vote: “Despite Russia’s growing economic difficulties, public disappointment with Putin hasn’t yet reached a level which would allow Navalny to be viewed by Russians as a genuine alternative. And this process will take years, rather than the mere months left until the elections. Time is on Putin’s side.”
CAMPAIGN FOOT SOLDIERS
Volkov’s place at the helm of Navalny’s quixotic campaign almost didn’t happen. In 2013, he nearly gave up on politics entirely.
“After the mayoral campaign, I made the conscious decision to return to IT,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’m an IT professional. I don’t need any of this.’ I thought there would never be anything as amazing as the mayoral campaign again in my life, and I was ready to come to terms with this. I wanted to grow professionally and earn money, so I moved to Luxembourg to work in IT.”
He had already started to reconsider his decision when the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician gunned down within sight of the Kremlin walls, convinced him to plunge once more into the uncertain waters of Russian politics.
“After Nemtsov’s murder, I stopped trying to combine political and business projects and resigned from my day job,” he said. “They murdered him on February 27, 2015, and March 15 was my last day in IT.”
When he returned to Russia in 2015, Volkov told an opposition rally that he “wants to be in power.” But although Navalny’s star is on the rise, Volkov insisted he has given no thought to any role he would play if the Kremlin’s most bitter domestic foe eventually wins the presidency. “Seriously,” he said. “I haven’t thought about this at all.”
Despite his professed love of calm, Volkov also has something of a reputation for controversy, frequently lashing out verbally against critics, and what he calls the “low-down cynicism” inherent in Russian politics. A pet hate is the generation of liberal politicians from the 1990s, in particular Russia’s oldest opposition party, Yabloko, which Volkov has at times accused of political cowardice and collaboration with the authorities.
Such outbursts, as well as his undisguised loathing for Kremlin-connected officials, could cause serious problems for the campaign, some political observers say.
“For Navalny, it’s extremely important that his chief of staff is a person who is able to compromise, and widen his support within the liberal opposition, as well as increase the number of people within the Moscow political elite that he can hold a dialogue with,” said Alexei Chesnakov, a political consultant who is also a former member of the Kremlin administration.
“But Volkov is quite a scandalous person, prone to making harsh statements,” he added. “If Volkov continues to behave like this, Navalny’s situation will only deteriorate.”
Navalny’s campaign effort at the 2013 mayoral election was staffed by thousands of mainly young Muscovites, many of whom were experiencing their first taste of politics. These volunteers quickly gained a reputation for political fanaticism, often subjecting Navalny’s critics to a barrage of personal abuse and online insults. Their zeal led Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin insider turned opposition supporter, to dub them “Navalny’s Witnesses.”
This time around, the majority of Navalny’s young supporters appear equally committed to the cause. But the first cracks are starting to show.
This month, Alexander Turovsky, a campaign volunteer in Moscow, lashed out at Navalny after being injured by police. When he left the hospital, Turovsky accused the opposition leader of “ignoring” him. He also announced he was quitting the campaign.
“For him, we are just foot soldiers, resources that he can sacrifice for the sake of his political battle,” he wrote in a much-discussed social media post. Volkov insisted the campaign had offered Turovsky every possible support, including lawyers, and voiced suspicions that the volunteer had come under “terrible pressure” from the authorities to write the post. Others criticized Turovsky for handing state media valuable ammunition in its efforts to discredit Navalny. Whatever the truth, it was the first real publicity crisis of the campaign.
RIGHT TO BE RUSSIAN
Part of the Kremlin’s efforts to neutralize Navalny has been an often-laughable attempt to portray him as a bloodthirsty Nazi. In 2013, a hysterical state television report compared him to Adolf Hitler. And earlier this year, amid reports that the Kremlin had created a special department to deal with the threat posed by Navalny’s presidential campaign, a video appeared on YouTube again depicting him as an unhinged, fascist demagogue set upon violent insurrection.
Navalny is, of course, no Nazi. But like much of the Kremlin’s propaganda, the far-right allegations were not simply plucked from thin air.
Up until 2011, when he first emerged as a major opposition figure, Navalny regularly spoke at the Russian March, an annual gathering of nationalist and far-right groups in Moscow. Navalny said his participation in the rally was an attempt to “normalize” the debate about illegal immigration and prevent the nationalist gathering from being hijacked by Sieg Heil-ing youths.
But the insurgent’s involvement with nationalism goes back further. In 2008, he appeared in a video dressed as a dentist, with an on-screen caption describing him as a “fully-trained nationalist,” and compared illegal immigrants to rotten teeth that needed to be “carefully but forcibly removed” from Russia.
“A nationalist is a person who doesn’t want the Russian roots to be removed from the word ‘Russia,” he said. “We have the right to be Russian in Russia and we are defending that right.”
In 2013, Navalny offered public support to rioters who were demanding the expulsion of Chechens from a town in southern Russia. He also sought to justify the nationalist violence that engulfed a region south of Moscow after the murder of an ethnic Russian by an Azerbaijani national later that same year. This month, he used a controversial debate with Igor Girkin, a former Russian security services officer who played a major role in the early days of the war in Ukraine, to reiterate his nationalist credentials.
Volkov, on the other hand, has never been associated with Russia’s nationalist movement. “I never went on the Russian March, because I’m very distant from that kind of ideology,” he said. He admitted he “often argues” with Navalny about politics, but firmly rejected suggestions the opposition leader’s history of involvement with nationalist politics is a source of tension within the campaign. He admitted, however, that Navalny has had problems in trying to explain exactly what he was trying to accomplish.
“Navalny tried, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to explain that there is nothing bad or shameful about being a nationalist when this means defending the rights of Russian-speaking people,” he said.
“His explanations satisfy me entirely,” he said, growing suddenly animated and closing his laptop.
“There are a huge number of people in power in Russia who are actual, genuine fascists. People in the Kremlin who believe in the protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so on. Today’s Russia is a typical fascist corporate state that is practically indistinguishable from Mussolini’s Italy with its state propaganda, control over the education of schoolchildren, and so on. And these people, these genuine fascists, are trying to convince people, especially Russia’s liberal intelligentsia, that if Navalny is a nationalist, then he can’t be a liberal, or for democratic values. This is nonsense.
“Just look at our political program,” Volkov said. “Sure, it has some moderately right-wing ideas, such as the imposition of a visa regime for people from Central Asia. But if Russia had a genuine political system, then we would be a moderate center-right party, with a strong left-wing slant on issues concerning personal values and freedoms.
“Like the U.S. Democrats, we are for gay marriage, unlimited freedom of speech, and for the legalization of soft drugs. But on economic issues, on the political compass, we would be moderate Republicans. We are for less state interference, lowering taxes, the privatization of state companies, and so on.”
At times, Navalny’s modern political campaign can seem like something from an alternative Russian reality: This, perhaps, is how election bids would be carried out here, if Putin had never come to power. If Russia’s fledging, post-Soviet democracy had not been crushed. But Volkov is under no illusions about the difficulties ahead.
“We are running the campaign in the full awareness of what country we are living in,” he said. “We know we have to force the authorities to register our candidate, force them to let us promote his candidacy normally, and force them to count the votes properly.”
Author: Marc Bennetts