Russian nationalists have been in the news as of late. Early last month, they marched in the Moscow suburb of Lyublino, marking the country’s Day of National Unity with signs at once anti-Kremlin and anti-Semitic. (Organisers claimed there had been 20,000 in attendance. Police and The Moscow Times put the number somewhere at 5000-7000.) A few days later, The Moscow Times reported that Nashi, the pro-Kremlin nationalist youth group, would flood Moscow with 30,000 of its members for an annual conference that began last Sunday, which not so coincidentally happened to be the day of the State Duma elections, too.

The strategy was a familiar one, as well as a cause for concern. When the same group was flooded into Moscow for the legislative elections in 2007, it was to serve as unofficial Kremlin enforcers on the look-out for any signs of colour, revolution or some unholy mixture of the two.

In these two stories we can see the perfect bifurcation of the Russian nationalism into its two distinct halves. We can see it even more clearly when we note that Nashi, whose name translates as “Ours”, staged a national unity rally of its own that was twice as large as the more widely reported one. The bifurcation in question, of course, is the one that increasingly separates pro- and anti-Kremlin nationalists, which is really just another way of saying pro- and anti-Vladimir Putin ones.

That is truer this year than it has been for the past four, with Putin poised to resume the Russian presidency next March and to run with it for the next 12 years. Late last month, Putin formally accepted United Russia’s nomination for the presidency. The overhyped and pseudo-liberal reign of his faithful terrier, Dmitry Medvedev, is coming to an ignoble end. And Putin’s encore performance is the point at which Russia’s nationalists diverge.

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Dr Robert Horvath is a La Trobe University research fellow with a deep and abiding interest in this divergence. Indeed, last month he was awarded a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship to research the complex relationship between the Kremlin’s managed nationalists and the country’s broader nationalist movement.

“Nashi fulfils two political functions,” Horvath tells Crikey. “It promotes the idea that the regime is the embodiment of patriotism and the defender of national sovereignty and it vilifies the Kremlin’s opponents as hirelings of foreign powers or the heirs of an earlier generation of foreign invaders. Some of Nashi’s rhetoric might be described as civic nationalist.”

However, Horvath is also quick to point out that Nashi is not always characterised by such ostensible civic-mindedness. He notes that the group also attempts to engage with hard-line nationalist elements by inviting figures such as Andrei Kuraev, an influential cleric who has been accused of anti-Semitism, and Valerii Korovin, a co-founder of the pro-Kremlin Eurasian Youth Union, to lecture at its annual youth forum at Lake Seliger. (The Eurasian Youth Union, which is banned in Ukraine, calls its members the “oprichniki” after the military detachment infamous for its reign of terror under Ivan the Terrible. One is reminded of Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 novel, Day of the Oprichnik, which is set in the future and in which a new-age oprichniki go about murdering the king’s opponents before retiring to a bathhouse for an enforcer-on-enforcer orgy.)

The authorities have also established and fostered several overtly nationalist organisations, such as Mestnye (Locals) and Rossiya Molodaya (Young Russia), and have encouraged the politicisation of “violent subcultures”, such as football hooligans and motorcycle gangs.

All of these, Horvath says, are handsomely rewarded for their efforts, and not only with the right to exist and continue operating. “Pro-Kremlin youth groups benefit from lavish funding, and from professional advancement through connections with state structures,” he says. “Several pro-Kremlin youth leaders are now Duma deputies — notably Nashi’s Robert Shlegel and Rossiya Molodaya’s Maksim Mishchenko — while more extremist elements have benefited from privileged access to public space.”

“Some day,” Vito Corleone says, “and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.” In return for the Kremlin’s patronage, these organisations render such a service, forming what Horvath describes as a “counterforce against any potential challenge” to the regime’s rule. “There are varying levels of loyalty,” he says. “Nashi activists meet the president and have to be totally loyal. The relationship of the authorities to other groups is murkier and their freedom of action is greater. The crucial thing is that beneficiaries of the regime’s sponsorship oppose the regime’s enemies.”

It is important to note that Putin does not only court and reward nationalists in this way, either. Liberals, journalists and business leaders, too, have all been co-opted by the regime, usually on the pretence, at least among the first group, that the best way to fight the system is from the inside. Putin’s nationalists — as well, one suspects, as a few of the journalists and business leaders — are happy to take the kick-backs. (“The nationalist blogosphere has a lot of web pages devoted to exposes of ‘managed nationalism’ and allegations about who has sold out,” Horvath says.)

But the fact that Putin needs a counterforce in the nationalist sphere is telling. As last month’s anti-Kremlin march demonstrated, it is also increasingly accurate.

“There has been growing tension between the regime and nationalist tendencies,” Horvath says. “On the one hand, some extremist nationalists have declared a ‘partisan war’ on the state. On the other, the authorities have been cracking down on the visible, legal structures of the nationalist movement, outlawing organisations such as the DPNI [Movement Against Illegal Immigration] and Slavyansky Soyuz [Slavic Union].” Indeed, where pro-Kremlin nationalists are bought and paid for in exchange for their loyalty, anti-Kremlin nationalists tend to belong to organisations that have been either targeted for their refusal to pledge it or else banned outright for the same reason.

Discontent is growing rapidly among pro-Kremlin nationalists, too. The former deputy head of Nashi’s ideological department, Sergei Kravtsov, last year abandoned the organisation to join the outlawed DPNI. Meanwhile, moderates such as the anti-corruption lawyer and blogger Alexey Navalny, who describes himself as a national democrat, have engaged seriously with such ultranationalists as it has become increasingly obvious that such groups represent the largest genuine opposition in the country. Throw in some unprecedented public displays of dissent — like that provided by the mixed martial arts audience that booed Putin out of the ring when he climbed into it last month — and oppositionists might suddenly find themselves with a broad-based movement on their hands.

Horvath takes care to emphasise the importance of Navalny’s work in particular. Between his LiveJournal blog and his website, RosPil, a kind of Wikipedia for anti-corruption advocates, the 35-year-old activist has revealed hundreds of cases of criminal corruption between the joined-at-the-hip worlds of Russian business and government.

In a New Yorker profile from April this year, Julia Ioffe described him as a “Russian Julian Assange or Lincoln Steffens”. Horvath believes that the comparison to Assange “diminishes” the blogger. “To an infinitely greater degree than Assange, Navalny put his life on the line,” he says. “If Putin has a nemesis, he is it.” While such a figure might seem out of place at a rally with hard-line nationalists shouting racist slogans, Horvath argues that he may in fact represent the best chance the movement has of reaching a broader constituency that shares some if not all of its complaints.“Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a decade earlier,” he argues, “Navalny is a propounding a democratic version of Russian nationalism. In essence, he is laying a foundation for the emergence of a broad alliance of moderate nationalists and moderate liberals, for the disengagement of nationalists and the regime, and for the denial of the idea that authoritarianism is an unalterable part of Russian culture.

“Obviously there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about any political phenomenon that emphasises identity as a political principle. But the Russian nationalist movement is so broad that it defies generalisation. It includes moderate intellectuals, national democrats like Navalny, populists and extremists from the DPNI, as well as neo-fascist tendencies like the banned Slavyansky Soyuz.”

Where Horvath notes the security establishment’s crackdown on these latter groups, and where others claim that the official policy towards them for the past two years has been nothing short of full-blown suppression, still others prefer to point out his continued attempts to pander to them all the same. When DPNI members and FC Spartak fans staged their own little Nuremberg rally in Moscow’s Manezh Square last December, reacting violently against the death of one of their number, Egor Sviridov, who was murdered in a fight with ethnic Dagestanis, the Prime Minister banned the DPNI but also visited the soccer fan’s grave and urged tighter registration laws for foreigners.

According to a Newsweek article by Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova, while only three people received jail time for the Manezh Square riot — a Slavyansky Soyuz leader and a DPNI member receiving the longest sentences at 15 days each — police proceeded to detain “more than 200 dark-skinned individuals after the Federal Migration Service ordered a crackdown on ‘loitering foreigners’.”  “If the Kremlin cannot destroy [ultranationalism],” the DPNI’s founder, Aleksandr Belov, was quoted as saying in that same article, “they will try to lead it”.

Navalny should be so lucky. The Kremlin’s state security apparatus doesn’t face the same difficulties when it comes to destroying individuals. “In recent months,” Horvath says, “the regime and its minions have waged an unrelenting campaign of harassment and calumny against him and his family.” When thousands of young people marched through Moscow on Monday night, railing against electoral fraud, Navalny was among those detained. Both he and the Solidarity movement’s Ilya Yashin were yesterday found guilty of failing to follow police orders during the protest and were hit with jail sentences of 15 days each.

“The Kremlin is very alarmed by the Navalny phenomenon,” Horvath continues. “One sign of official trepidation is reports of meetings of pro-Kremlin political technologists to work out a strategy for dealing with the Navalny threat. Another is the campaign of harassment waged by Nashi and the publication of his email correspondence on a Kazakh website.” The reason the authorities are concerned about Navalny, and especially about his seeming alliance with the anti-Kremlin ultranationalists, is obvious. Navalny calls United Russia “party of crooks and thieves” — a damning label that then went viral — and tends to have access to documents that can back such statements up.

Sharing several salient characteristics with several of the Arab world’s late regimes — political stagnation, a culture of impunity, corruption on an industrial scale — the last thing Russia’s ruling elite needs is a wired whistleblower on its hands. A wired whistleblower who has recently started hanging out with disgruntled nationalists and who liberals are beginning to refer to as the only electable man in the country is likely to be of even greater concern and precisely because he represents a common denominator between the two.

“Putin’s presidency has been defined by the relentless crushing of every kind of opposition that is independent of the Kremlin,” Horvath says. “By suppressing everything that is not controlled by the Kremlin, he gave ideological opponents reason to unite.”

Whether they will manage to do so remains to be seen. While Navalny was a co-organiser of last month’s Day of National Unity march in Lyublino — coming on board in an attempt to rehabilitate event’s image and transform it into a mainstream opposition rally — The Moscow Times reported that his message at the event was “largely overshadowed by the far more provocative images of a masked mob throwing up Nazi salutes”. “Navalny] sees the nationalists as his only chance to bring people to the street because people are already growing bored with anti-corruption slogans,” Alexei Mukhin, head of the Center for Political Technologies, told the newspaper, before adding that he thought the ultranationalists’ image would prove too divisive for the blogger’s project to succeed.

For even where the anti-corruption advocate and the ultranationalists agree — on the fact that the Kremlin sends too much money to the Northern Caucasus, for example — they do so for entirely different reasons. Navalny wants the Kremlin to stop plying republics such asd Chechnya with federal funds because human rights violators such as Ramzan Kadyrov spend it on multimillion dollar birthday bashes for themselves before their people ever see it.

The ultranationalists want the Kremlin to stop plying republics such as Chechnya with federal funds because Chechens aren’t Russian. “F-ck the Caucasus!” Navalny’s challenge is to triangulate the two positions: to reach out to moderate nationalists who resent the expulsion of ethnic Russians from the Caucasus and who are concerned about the influence of Caucasian criminal gangs in Russian cities but who don’t have any problems with Chechens or Dagestanis in general.

“One of the most poignant moments in Navalny’s speech to the rally,” Horvath says, “was his challenge to the audience’s prejudices: he reminded them that there were decent, hardworking people in the Caucasus, who aspired to live in fair, uncorrupt societies. It’s worth noting that his audience was not so xenophobic as to shout down these words of praise.”

The winds nevertheless appear to be blowing to the right. Kravtsov’s trajectory from pro-Kremlin nationalism to anti-Kremlin ultranationalism remains far more likely to be emulated than one that proceeds from anti-Kremlin ultranationalism to anti-Kremlin liberalism.

Horvath says this misses the point. Navalny isn’t trying to turn ultranationalists into liberals, he says, but rather to convince ordinary citizens to get back in the game. “Navalny’s main concern is not the small networks of nationalist activists,” he says, “but the vast public that shares some of their resentments and concerns. I see his project as less the reconciliation of nationalists than a fundamental realignment of the lines of political debate. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of his anti-corruption crusade, which has exposed the vast gulf that separates the elite and the population. For the first time in nearly two decades, a democrat has captured the public imagination.”

Monday night’s post-election protest was the largest that Moscow has seen in years and would suggest that there is some truth to this statement. Given the lack of nationalists at the event, relative to liberals and moderates, it would also suggest that it may not be necessary for these groups to converge to create problems for the regime.

At the same time, that regime’s aforementioned tendency towards political suppression may now have all but ensured such convergence. Even more than Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin next year, Navalny’s 15 days in prison are certain to galvanise the opposition. Which perhaps goes some of the way towards explaining the smiling faces in the photo he tweeted from the back of a paddy wagon moments after his arrest.

It certainly goes some of the way towards demonstrating just how worried about him the authorities are. While they may be unlikely to face a widespread uprising any time soon — Monday’s protest was nearly 15 times smaller than those that rocked Tahrir Square in February and was followed on Tuesday by a pro-Kremlin rally that was more than double its size — there can be no denying that this really has been a bumper year for authoritarian self-sabotage.

*Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba, and will cover the presidential elections in Russia next year for Crikey