Is Russia ready for honest governance?

One of the great mysteries of 2021 is why Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent dissident, returned to his homeland last Sunday. He could have led a comfortable life in Germany where he had recovered from being poisoned last year in Siberia, allegedly by Russian intelligence officers. Instead this famed anti-corruption fighter bravely went home, knowing he could face years of isolation in jail on dubious charges in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

Indeed, he is now in jail, awaiting punishment, yet convinced more than ever that more Russians are eager for honest governance and an end to their declining incomes.

He is so confident of his cause flourishing without him that his staff released a video calling on people to join demonstrations at 2 p.m. on Saturday in “the central streets of your cities.”

The size of the protests could determine whether Russia descends further into dictatorship under President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin is deeply worried about the fate of the ruling party, United Russia, in parliamentary elections this September.

Mr. Navalny’s popularity is driven by his frequent videos on YouTube exposing official corruption through journalistic reporting. The latest one shows a $1.35 billion palace built for Mr. Putin on the Black Sea coast. At least a quarter of the Russian population has watched his videos.

“Alexei Navalny is a politician who has earned public trust through his efforts to expose and counter corruption,” states the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International. “The reaction of the Russian society to what is happening with Navalny can serve as another confirmation of how acute and painful the problem of corruption is for our country.”

Another reason for his return may be that his civic activism has planted the seeds for further reform. “While he is the face of the anticorruption movement in Russia, the ideas he represents have transcended his efforts,” writes Vincent Wu in the Global Anticorruption Blog associated with Harvard University.

In dozens of cities, Mr. Navalny has created a decentralized, grassroots operation run mostly on small, anonymous donations. This campaign to expose corruption can live on without him. And it relies on his insight that Russians are ready for honesty and transparency in government.

“His story shows that average citizens despise corruption, and that as long as there are advocates who are willing to fight the good fight, there will be people in the public to support them,” writes Mr. Wu.

Top officials in both Europe and the United States have called for Mr. Putin to release Mr. Navalny. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, described the detention as “an affront to the Russian people.” Yet the famous dissident may have another plan, one wrapped in a mystery over why he returned but one that suggests Russia is poised to change without him.

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