Navalnyj is the Russian Mandela

Martin Jan Stránský

vydavatel Přítomnosti

Interview with Denis Bilunov


Denis Bilunov is a Russian politician, writer, and journalist. Bilunov helped organize the Marches of Dissent from 2006 to 2008, and was one of the creators of the Solidarity movement, having led the Moscow branch since 2011. He was creator and first editor-in-chief of the website from 2005 to 2007. Bilunov was an organizer of the Anti-Seliger opposition forum, and now belongs to the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University



Interviewer Martin J Stránský


Please excuse the nature of my first question, but regarding your activities and the activities of the dissident movement, including those of Mr. Navalnyj, how worthwhile are they in a country that’s only known czarist rule and dictatorship and never experienced anything close to true democracy?

Well, that’s a very frequent question.  I answer such questions by pointing to Korea, and to how North Korea and South Korea are so different, with South Korea being perfectly ready.  It’s actually a question of time.  I think it will take a dozen of years or so for our country to be perfectly ready for democracy.  We had the 90’s, which Putin labelled these as years of anarchy and banditism, in any case, it was a barely democratic period which unfortunately brought many disadvantages and problems to many people, which is why Putin still uses the same argument.  But I don’t think he convinces young Russians, those who are not afraid, since they didn’t experience that period.  Now, they are not happy about what’s happening, so they use the internet to find out what is happening in the world.  They know language and can compare.  With this new generation, we’re absolutely ready for any type of democracy. At the same time, at this point, we need to discuss about what democracy is, and what democracy in the world is really like…

That’s a very important point, because democracy as a political model is under attack everywhere.  Let’s get back to the timeline – our first president Thomas Masaryk said, that for Czechoslovakia to become democratic after 1918 it would take 50 years.  Here in the Czech Republic we are still building a fully democratic state.  It’s a question of generational change. Do you think that Russia is in the same ballpark as a central European country, which had twenty years of democratic inter-war rule, and now is free for an additional thirty years?  And are young Russians in the cities, who support change, the same as those outside of the cities?   

Russia is very heterogeneous.  There is a well-known article by Natalia Zubarevich, popular among social scientists and even among journalists, which states that there is one Russia of mega policies for big cities like Moscow, Petersburg and Jekaterinburg and for big industrial cities with Soviet infrastructure and completely different mentality.  Then there is another Russia of small towns and villages and then a multi-ethnic Russia.  Each one has its own particulars and contradictions. When we are talking about movements, we’re mostly talking, of course, about the first Russia, the post-modern Russia. I think that we are definitely ready to compete in the larger cities, even without free elections.

This brings us to the growing split taking place in all democracies, between people in cities and those in the less-developed areas. In the US, for example, there is a bitter divide based exactly along the lines that you mentioned.  Will democratization not cause a greater schism of this kind in Russia?

Well, it may happen, but we should not be afraid of it.  We just have to face it and take the challenges as they come.  I’m convinced that the movement for democracy in Russia is in one direction only.  There is no way back.

In regards to the movement, what’s going to happen to Mr. Navalnyj?

Mr. Navalnyj is unfortunately in a very concerning condition.  The main problem was his decision to return to Russia.  I admire his bravery of course, and I believe in his political intuition because he’s nearly perfect as a political strategist.  He achieved so many things that nobody believed in. When he decided to come back, I asked myself why, but at the same time, I believe that he had correct intuition.

Now that Navalnyi is back in Russia, what lies in store for him?

First of all, it doesn’t make any sense for Putin to harm Navalnyj as a play against the United States and the European community.  Putin has to keep Navalnyj alive.  If Navalnyj dies, this is a big disadvantage for Putin.  So at this point, I can’t say I’m not worried, but I do think there is no direct threat of this.  And if Navalnyj survives, he will be the Russian Mandela.

Is the opposition unified behind Navalnyj?

He’s definitely the point man for everyone.  Though there are concerns and disagreements in our circles, and though I personally had my problems with Navalnyj in the past, if we’re going to speak about a reliable  representative of a Russian position, it’s Navalnyj and no one else.

If there were free elections today, would Navalnyj win?

Yes, I think so.

Would he be a democratic president or would he be a Russian one?

Well he has his problems of course, and he has some, let’s say inclinations…

What do you see as his greatest accomplishment, what is his most troubling feature, and is Navalnyj such a strong figure that he can change Russia?

I would emphasize two points. The first one is that Navalnyj is a perfect communicator with young people.  He manages to find a way to speak to them better than anyone else.  His audience is constantly growing, there is no doubt about it, thanks also to internet and social media. The second point is, that Navalnyj  is very pragmatic in the sense that he always tries to work beyond his political niche.  For some of us, this is irritating, especially when Navalnyj’s reply is “you will support me anyway, and I don’t need to work with those whom I don’t like.

This is not the position of a typical dissident.

Of course people don’t like this, but I understand that he has to save time and effort and energy in order to be able to reach out to people beyond his circle.  It’s a very sophisticated game.  There can always be some improvements, especially regarding past events, such as in 2011 – 2012, when we had important street movements, as a result of which the Kremlin started giving us some small compromises.  At that time, we should have pressed more, but we didn’t, and the Kremlin saw that and set us all the way back.  That was a big mistake.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a Russia which has the world’s highest and growing rate of HIV positivity and a massive problem with alcoholism.  Birth rates are down, healthcare has collapsed.  Is this an important factor, or is it just business as usual for the Russia that always was?

We do have problems with public health, but I don’t feel it’s the main problem of the country.  We need to proceed step by step.  First, we need to fix our institutional problems and from that point on, we can think about other improvements.

How do you view the recent scandal uncovering the fact that Russian agents blew up our munition plant several years ago, and the current diplomatic war between the Czech Republic and Putin?

I’m ashamed for what Putin in doing regarding relations between the Czech Republic and Russia.  It’s important that I, as a Russian say this to a Czech audience.  Putin definitely does not represent all of Russia.  We must get rid of this big problem and improve this situation and the relationship between our countries.

published: 6. 5. 2021

Datum publikace:
6. 5. 2021
Autor článku:
Denis Bilunov