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Russian Opposition Leaders Support Ukraine, But Crimea Is Not Coming Back

Russian opposition leaders Khodorkovsky and Navalny speak out on Crimea. Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

Russian opposition leaders Khodorkovsky and Navalny speak out on Crimea. Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

Russia’s leading opposition figures have a message for Ukrainians: Crimea is gone, and Ukraine is not getting it back.

Currently under house arrest for dubious embezzlement charges, Putin's harshest critic and anti-corruption advocate Alexey Navalny outlined his views on Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and other Russian issues in a controversial interview on October 15 to Alexey Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow). Despite his criticism of Russia’s sponsorship of the war in Ukraine, Navalny’s comments on Crimea came as a surprise to many.

Я считаю, что, несмотря на то, что Крым был захвачен с вопиющим нарушением всех международных норм, тем не менее реалии таковы, что Крым сейчас является частью РФ. И давайте не будем обманывать себя. И украинцам я сильно советую тоже не обманывать себя. Он останется частью России и больше никогда в обозримом будущем не станет частью Украины.

I believe that despite how Crimea was seized in a flagrant violation of all international norms, the reality nonetheless is that Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation. And let’s not fool ourselves. And I strongly advise the Ukrainians to also not fool themselves. It is going to remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future.

Venediktov went on to ask Navalny what he would do as president of Russia: would he return Crimea to Ukraine, or retain Russia’s newest addition? Navalny partially dodged the question, asking if Crimea is a piece of meat “that you pass back and forth,” but eventually said he considers the loss of Crimea as beneficial for Ukraine.

Я думаю, что на самом деле, это для Украины, несмотря на обиду, которую они чувствуют, и т.д., это плюс. Это большое счастье, что Крым с абсолютно пророссийским народом, с консервативно настроенным населением, которое не принимает их антикоррупционной революции, не принимает желание идти в Европу, ушел от них. Они лишились 2 млн избирателей, которые тормозили это движение. Поэтому это такая, с одной стороны, win-ситуация. В политике это долгое время будет мешать и нам, и Украине, и Европе.

I think that, in fact, this is a plus for Ukraine, despite the resentment and other things that they are feeling. It is a great joy that Crimea has left Ukraine, with its completely pro-Russian demographics and conservative-leaning population that will have no part in their anti-corruption revolution and have no desire to join Europe. They have lost 2 million voters who have hindered this movement. Therefore this is, on one hand, a winning situation. Politically, this will bother us, Ukraine, and Europe for a long time.

Navalny has never been a flawless figure for the liberal opposition in Russia with his unapologetic nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric. However, his acceptance of Putin’s grab of Crimea was too much for many Russian liberals and Ukrainians.

Crimea is Ukraine! #FU Navalny

Ekho Moskvy's radio interview with Navalny almost didn't make the airwaves: chief editor Venediktov got a phone call from Gazprom-Media's Chairman Mikhail Lesin, who demanded the interview not be broadcast, and threatened “problems” for the radio station (Gazprom-Media owns Ekho Moskvy—GV.) This seemingly blatant attempt at censorship did not work, as Venediktov ignored the threats and put Navalny's interview on air anyway.

After the drama around Navalny’s interview, another key opposition figure came out against returning Crimea to Ukraine: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch and Putin's nemesis who spent eight years in labor camps before receiving a pardon in December 2013. Khodorkovsky said on Twitter he had read Navalny’s interview and essentially agreed with him on Crimea:

I have read Alexey’s [Venediktov] interview with Alexey [Navalny]. We are allies on the main things that matter. We'll negotiate the details.

@psykrab: You are not going to escape the question. Would you return Crimea if you became president?

Khodorkovsky: I will give you a straight answer: I would not. The Crimea problem will go on for decades. The path lies through the blurring of boundaries in Europe, through municipalization. I will not live long enough to see it.

Popular Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov wrote a Facebook post criticizing Navalny and Khodorkovsky that generated over a thousand comments:

И что Ходорковского – впрочем, как и Навального – мы в нашей стране больше не увидим. Пусть лучше изображают демократов на “Русских маршах, в швейцарских ресторанах и даже в Кремле, где они вряд ли будут отличимы от сегодняшних подельников Владимира Путина.

And we will never see the likes of Khodorkovsky—and Navalny as well—in our country again. It is better that they portray democrats at “Russian Marches,” in Swiss restaurants, and even in the Kremlin, where they are unlikely to be distinguished from Vladimir Putin’ current accomplices.

Khodorkovsky personally replied to Portnikov’s message and to the hundreds of Ukrainian users who left angry comments, explaining his stance on the political realities in Crimea.

Вернуть Крым Украине в ближайшие десятилетия сможет только диктатор.
Ни один закон не работает без силы, а если президент силой заставляет общество делать то, что общество категорически не поддерживает – он диктатор.

Only a dictator will be able to return Crimea to Ukraine in the coming decades.
Not a single law will work without power, and if a president uses power to force a society to do what a society categorically does not support—he is a dictator.

Anti-Kremlin Russians and, to a greater degree, Ukrainians have grown frustrated over Navalny’s and Khodorkovsky’s stance on Crimea, calling them traitors and vatniks (a derogatory term for fervently patriotic Russians). However, as this episode demonstrates, the current anti-Kremlin opposition is far from a united front. While Navalny does oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine, he also believes that the problem of illegal immigration in Russia is a “hundred times more important than any Ukraine.”

Khodorkovsky has said that he sees himself as a leader of the Russian opposition movement, but this movement has significantly weakened since its peak in 2011-13, when a patchwork movement of nationalists, liberals, communists, and students protested corruption and election fraud. With Putin’s approval ratings hovering above 80% after the wildly popular annexation of Crimea, the Russian opposition is likely aware that it won't do itself any favors by rallying against the single greatest source of Russian national pride today.

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