ZOiS Spotlight 10/2021

The Navalny Case and Public Discourse in Russia and the West

by Mario Baumann 17/03/2021
A graffiti by street artist Harry Greb depicting Alexei Navalny in Rome, Italy. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The Kremlin’s aggressive and defensive rhetoric in the case of opposition politician Alexei Navalny shows that to some extent, public discourse in Russia still shares a common language with that in the West. Far from proving that Russia and the West have lost any common ground, recent events highlight that the two sides’ understandings of what can legitimately be said and done are not so different after all.

What is clear is the Kremlin’s limited room for manoeuvre in the face of a public discourse that forces the leadership to undertake rhetorical stunts in an attempt to keep up appearances. The Kremlin’s success in selling its story will be central for political developments in Russia and the country’s relationship with the EU.

Diverging narratives

From the beginning, the Western position on the poisoning of Navalny stood in stark contrast to Russia’s official rhetoric on the case. German chancellor Angela Merkel gave a first statement on 2 September 2020 after a German laboratory confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent linked to the Novichok group. Calling the act an attempted murder aimed at silencing a leading member of the Russian opposition, Merkel urged the Russian leadership to provide answers to the serious questions arising from the case. This call was later echoed by the EU and other Western governments, which see ample evidence of Russia’s responsibility for the attack. This is the rationale that supported the first round of EU sanctions against Russian individuals and a state research institute, imposed in October.

Russian president Vladimir Putin first commented on the case in late October—two months after Navalny was relocated to Berlin. He questioned the conclusions of Western governments and laboratories and lamented a lack of Western willingness to cooperate. Moscow has made numerous similar claims that Germany is actively withholding information, preventing the Russian authorities from starting an investigation. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has openly suggested that the case was an operation staged by the West.

This storyline blends into ongoing accusations of double standards that the Kremlin has made against the West. In this narrative, the West is the ruthless aggressor that seeks to maintain its dominance in the world, while Russia is the victim of a mass disinformation campaign and anti-Russian hysteria. Through this self-victimisation, Russia sidelines its role in the conflict entirely. Moscow refutes any form of responsibility by questioning the credibility of the case. The Kremlin denies Navalny sanity and integrity by diagnosing him with either paranoia or complicity with Western intelligence. Finally, Russia challenges its alleged motive for the attack by claiming that Navalny was simply ‘not worth it’.

Common ground

It may not seem obvious, but this rhetoric reveals that the Russian and Western public discourses share a sense of what can legitimately be said and done. The fact that the Kremlin has turned the matter into an anti-Russian conspiracy and ridicules Western accusations shows that it understands the need to keep up appearances.

In the Navalny case, the Russian and Western storylines clash not so much because of diverging normative views—whether it is problematic that an influential member of the opposition was poisoned in Russia. Rather, the two narratives are contradictory with regard to their factual assumptions and the conclusions they draw. In other words, it would be even more worrying if the Kremlin did not deem it necessary to defend itself, or if it openly articulated a narrative that justified the assault. As long as the Russian leadership feels compelled to deny Western accusations and assert its innocence, there is still some underlying common understanding of what is publicly perceived as right and wrong. This is encouraging, because on this basis, alternative narratives can be challenged with facts.

Fighting for hegemony

The Kremlin therefore has to engage with public discourse. It is in this context that policy is discussed, made, and justified. Public discourse prevents the leadership from saying certain things and forces it instead to say others. The rhetorical acrobatics that aim to discredit the Western story serve to consolidate the Kremlin’s version of events in this arena of competing narratives.

The question, of course, is to what extent this approach works. According to polls by the Levada Center, of the 78 per cent of respondents who were aware of the issue, 30 per cent thought that Navalny’s poisoning was staged, while 19 per cent considered it a provocation by Western intelligence services. Only 15 per cent adhered to the version suggested by Western governments and institutions—that the incident was an attempt by the Russian leadership to eliminate a political opponent.

The picture changes, however, when respondents’ ages are taken into account. While the largest share of respondents aged 55 or over supported the thesis of a staged poisoning, those aged 24 or under tended to subscribe to an elimination attempt by the Russian government. This illustrates that Russia’s official rhetoric is only partly successful in hegemonising public discourse. Moscow seems to struggle particularly with the young, who, through the internet and social media, are most exposed to alternative stories.

Implications for the EU

The EU should make use of the basic understandings shared by Russia and the West. An assault on a prominent politician is deemed equally unacceptable by Russian and Western publics. Against this background, the union must continue to insist on the Russian leadership’s accountability by urging Moscow to carry out a thorough and transparent investigation into the attack. The EU must challenge the false accusations and arguments that the Kremlin produces to fend off blame and responsibility. The union’s position should always be grounded in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law—values Russia has openly committed to.

More generally, the EU needs to intensify its relations with Russian society. The union must offer an alternative to the Kremlin’s narratives and be vocal about its infringements of the freedom of expression and moves to further restrict press freedom. The more the EU makes itself heard in Russia, the more the Russian leadership will be forced to explain itself and account for its policies.

Mario Baumann is a PhD candidate at the Brussels School of International Studies of the University of Kent. He would like to thank Dr Sabine Fischer for her valuable input.