In the last week, Vladislav Naganov and Aleksei Navalny, two of Russia's most prominent liberal democrat bloggers, entered the debate about a proposed NATO transit hub in Ulyanovsk. The transit hub (or “military base,” as critics call it) is unlike most Russian political issues that involve the North Atlantic Alliance, as the Kremlin in this instance has agreed to cooperate with (rather than resist) the West. Until recently, the public backlash was chiefly limited [GV link] to activists in the Communist Party and other factions notorious for their anti-American sentiments. The arrival of liberals like Navalny and Naganov is a powerful reminder that RuNet political mobilization can produce strange bedfellows.
Not Friends Anymore
The attack on the Ulyanovsk hub tends to be conspiratorially angry. In their April LiveJournal posts, Navalny and Naganov both accuse Putin and Russia's military leadership of being foreign spies. While Navalny's tone is largely ironic, Naganov seems to seriously believe that Putin colluded with the United States to secure American support for his reelection. Navalny jokes [ru]:
We need to find the [Russian] politicians who take orders from the global cabal and beg for scraps at NATO's offices. Channel One is silent. NTV doesn't film [GV link] ‘The Anatomy of the Military Base.’ Clearly, the American spies have already infiltrated quite deeply.
Naganov, on the other hand, writes [ru] the following about the Kremlin:
These scum fool Russian citizens as a service to another country. They're all traitors to the Motherland, unashamedly masked as patriots actively battling the United States and NATO — all in order to cover their tracks and promote themselves.
In a follow-up post, Naganov states [ru] plainly:
[Putin's] seat as President of Russia was exchanged for the NATO base in Ulyanovsk, disguised by anti-Western hysterics in the media, and agreed upon [in advance] with the Americans.
How unusual is it for liberal democrats to attack the Kremlin for undermining Russian sovereignty? Garry Kasparov was perhaps the first liberal oppositionist to raise the conspiracy flag, blogging [ru] on the day of Putin's reelection (March 4) that Washington was curiously silent about “the gravest human rights violations in Russia,” pondering connections to Ulyanovsk as “geopolitical currency.” The election context is important to understanding how liberal democrats have reconciled themselves to joining the anti-NATO activists. Typically champions of Russia's path to integration with Western Civilization, liberal oppositionists have momentarily abandoned that line in order to lash out at American “appeasers” like Hillary Clinton and Michael McFaul (who remained “silent”), as well as sustain their campaign to deny Putin's legitimacy as President.
Every Post is a Repost Repost
Various pro-Kremlin bloggers were quick to point out [ru] that both Navalny and Naganov very clearly either misread or misrepresented Federal Resolution 219 [ru], a government ordinance enacted in 2008 that regulates the transit of military cargo over Russian soil into Afghanistan. Both bloggers listed weapons from the resolution's annex, arguing that the government had authorized NATO to transport across Russia items such as “bombs,” “lasers,” and “warships.” In reality, however, the annex is a list of weapons excluded from the Resolution's jurisdiction.
The backlash was so overwhelming that Naganov was compelled to respond with a second blog post [ru], where he explained that the Kremlin would enact separate legislation to permit the transit of lethal military cargo, now arguing that Resolution 219 “allowed” items like “tanks” and “explosives” because it did not explicitly ban them. He lashed out sarcastically:
On the whole, it's a completely idiotic situation. There are all kinds of agreements with NATO countries — but there's no permission to transport and there won't be any! The ‘Kremlin patriots’ declare: ‘When they actually grant permission for transits, then we'll talk!’ and Naganov and Navalny are just lying. They didn't read the documents. They aren't real lawyers. Yeah, well, we are lawyers, and you are idiots. Why on Earth then did they conclude bilateral agreements on military cargo transits in the first place? And the Americans decided to open a NATO base [in Ulyanovsk] not to transport weapons, but to ferry napkins and toilet paper from Afghanistan to the Baltics?
Was this Naganov's initial argument? The text of his original blog post contains none of this subtlety, and neither does Navalny's shorter and more moderate repost.
Whatever these bloggers’ true beliefs and intentions, the RuNet debate about Ulyanovsk and Resolution 219 has produced a remarkable reversal of the usual political conflict. Activists known [en] for lobbying the Justice Department to enforce American laws against Russian citizens are now accusing the Kremlin of betraying Russian sovereignty by cooperating with NATO. Equally bizarre, pro-Kremlin bloggers (as well as avowed Stalinists [ru]) are now flocking to defend Russia's decision to better assist Washington's military effort in Afghanistan. Indications are that this debate is far from over.