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Two nationalists walk into a room... What we learned when Alexey Navalny debated Igor Strelkov

Meduza
04:07, 21 july 2017

Navalny Live / YouTube

Alexey Navalny, the Russian anti-corruption activist who's running for president, despite federal laws prohibiting his appearance on the ballot, has debated prominent public figures before. In March last year, he went toe-to-toe with television host Vladimir Pozner. The year before that, he faced off against Anatoly Chubais, the head of Rusnano and one of the most influential people during Boris Yeltsin's presidency. This Thursday, as his presidential campaign confronts a nationwide police crackdown, Navalny debated Igor Strelkov (born Igor Girkin), the Russian army veteran who played key roles in Russia's annexation of Crimea and later the pro-Russian separatist war in eastern Ukraine. Meduza summarizes the main takeaways from this encounter, which was televised on the independent station Dozhd and streamed online.

Nobody wants to show any support for the establishment

Strelkov insisted that he's never approved of Russia's post-Soviet authorities, arguing that he threw his support behind Vladimir Putin in 2014 because he believed the president was staging a “revolution from above” with the annexation of Crimea and assistance to separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk. By the spring of 2015, however, Strelkov says he lost faith in Putin when the “revolution” didn't come. Strelkov also criticized the president's handling of Chechnya. Dismissing Navalny's anti-corruption agenda as “cosmetic” reformism, Strelkov accused Navalny of seeking the presidency in order to continue the policies of Putin and Boris Yeltsin.

Navalny argued that his reforms would produce honest judges, free elections, and economic diversification, ending Russia's “crazy state regulations” and introducing new penalties against the illegal accumulation of wealth. He also reminded viewers that Strelkov is a monarchist.

Blaming the West is debatable

According to Igor Strelkov, the outside world is fundamentally opposed to the emergence of a strong, sovereign Russian nation. He even claimed that Vladimir Putin and Russia's ruling oligarchy are in fact Western puppets.

Alexey Navalny dismissed the idea of a global conspiracy against Russia, arguing that international competition is normal. Russia's biggest enemy, he said, isn't the West, but the actions of its own political leadership. Navalny also endorsed the West's sanctions against targeted Russian economic sectors and Putin-connected oligarchs, telling Strelkov that Russians should be most concerned with domestic problems.

The war in Ukraine remains a litmus test for Russian patriotism

When discussing the war in Ukraine, Navalny stayed focused on Russian domestic issues, framing the conflict not as a war of liberation or a criminal invasion, but as an unaffordable burden on Russia's federal budget. “The war you started is an expensive thing. It's destroying Russia's economy. Twenty million people are living below the poverty line, and you're telling me that we should fund a war. Russia can't afford to wage a war,” he told Strelkov.

Fielding a question from the audience, Strelkov denied any role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in July 2014, when he was serving as defense minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic. The former rebel commander claimed that his soldiers lacked the weaponry required to bring down a passenger jet.

Strelkov warned that Navalny's proposal to return control over eastern Ukraine's border with Russia to the Ukrainian army would risk a new wave of refugees and jeopardize Russia's sovereignty over Crimea. An all-out war between Russia and Ukraine is inevitable, Strelkov insisted, saying that Navalny's border idea would repeat Vladimir Putin's “treachery” against “Novorossiya.”

In response, Navalny challenged Strelkov's Russian nationalist credentials, accusing him of working for the Federal Security Service while Russian nationalists were being locked up and whole Russian populations were being forced to leave Uzbekistan and Chechnya. Strelkov pushed back against this characterization, citing his military service in Chechnya and insurgent activities in Transnistria.

Kevin Rothrock