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Alexei Navalny: The jailed challenger who Vladimir Putin is finding impossible to ignore

What next for Russia following the jailing of the anti-corruption opposition leader?

Navalny at a rally in July 2019.
Navalny at a rally in July 2019.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

ALEXEI NAVALNY HAS spent his career trying to lead a Russian revolution.

The 44-year-old Yale-educated lawyer has run for mayor of Moscow, fronted the Future of Russia party’s local election campaigns, and faced the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin – who doesn’t refer to Navalny by name.

In 2014, a Russian court found Navalny – an anti-corruption activist – and his brother Oleg guilty of fraud and embezzlement in what has been criticised internationally as a politically motivated trial, and despite the European Court of Human Rights finding the verdicts “arbitrary and unfair”, the convictions have not been overturned.

Navalny received two suspended sentences as a result, while his brother went to prison for over three years. Alexei Navaly’s conviction barred him from running for election as Russian president in 2018, keeping Putin’s main challenger at arms length.

Now Navalny has been sentenced to almost three years in a prison camp for not signing on as part of his parole agreement from that case – because he was in a German hospital receiving treatment for nerve-agent poisoning, from which he is lucky to have survived.

While returning to Moscow from Siberia during Russia’s local elections in August last year, Navalny fell ill onboard a plane.

Doctors in Russia said he had not been poisoned, but after being flown to a Berlin hospital for intensive treatment, doctors there concluded that he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, a Soviet-era chemical weapon closely linked to the Kremlin.

In an interview Navalny would give to Der Spiegel a week after being discharged from hospital, after emerging from a three-week coma, Navalny explained what being poisoned with the nerve agent felt like:

“The most important feeling was: You are feeling no pain, but you know you’re dying. And I mean, right now, yet nothing hurts. I leave the toilet, turn to the steward – and instead of asking for help, I say, to my own surprise: ‘I’ve been poisoned. I’m dying.’
“And then I lay down on the ground in front of him to die. He’s the last thing I see – a face that looks at me with slight astonishment and a light smile. He says: ‘Poisoned?’ and by that he probably means I was served bad chicken.”

Despite the serious damage he suffered, Navanly has recovered well. Soon after being discharged from intensive care, he was giving interviews about who he thought was to blame for his poisoning: Putin.

Putin has rejected that he or Russia’s security services were behind Navalny’s poisoning by saying that if they had wanted that, “they would have taken it to the end”.

explainer-russia-navalny-protests Navalny surrounded by journalists in Berlin before a flight to Moscow. Source: Mstyslav Chernov/PA Images

Even though threats of his arrest if he returned to Russia were clear, Navalny flew home in mid-January where he was immediately detained by police upon landing.

Over the past week, tens of thousands of protesters have lined the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities in support of Navalny – which has happened almost each time the charismatic challenger has come up against Putin and his party, United Russia.

This is particularly impressive in a country where people fear protesting. According to a snap poll by Levada Centre, just 23% of the Russian public think political protests are possible where they live.

You can understand their concern: over 4,000 protesters have been arrested, including Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of a medical union linked to Navalny, who played Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ on the piano as police came to arrest her.

russia-navalny Alexei Navalny's wife Yulia after arrival at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, where her husband was arrested. Source: Pavel Golovkin

This is part of the Navalny team’s social media strategy to gather supporters to their cause.

Since 2011, when Navalny led mass protests in Moscow over vote-rigging in parliamentary elections, he and his team have honed a loyal young fan base through viral social media videos exposing corruption among the elites.

This most recently featured an exposé on Vladimir Putin’s secret €1.13 billion lavish palace near Gelendzhik on the Black Sea – complete with a plush cinema theatre, a huge greenhouse, a hockey rink, and a church.

The ‘documentary’ has been viewed more than 108 million times on YouTube and was seen as a driving force behind the latest demonstrations.

Putin's palace Source: Palace of Putin

In 2017, Navalny accused then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of massive corruption in a YouTube documentary, kick-starting a wave of nationwide demonstrations that were also met with police violence and large-scale arrests.

The same year he had to travel to Spain for surgery after one of several street attacks left him nearly blind in one eye.

But despite tapping into discontent among the largely young, urban middle class, he is still far from a unifying opposition figure, and some have criticised his anti-immigrant nationalist stance.

When he was poisoned last year, it was off the back of political success in local elections in 2019 and 2020, when pro-Putin parties suffered losses because of a ‘smart voting’ plan Navalny put forward after his allies were barred from standing in numerous races.

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The tactic called for voters to support the one candidate most likely to defeat the United Russia party and saw Kremlin-linked candidates drop seats in the Moscow assembly in 2019.

russia-navalny-protests People clash with police during a protest against the jailing of Navalny in St Petersburg. 23 January. Source: AP/PA Images

Amid criticisms from around the world – most fiercely from German Chancellor Angela Merkel – Navalny was jailed in lightning-speed ‘hearings’ where his options to legally defend himself were severely limited – if at all existent.

He’s now going to spend two years and eight months in jail, and possibly more time after that, in what is the greatest test of his strength and political determination so far. 

What the Kremlin does next is difficult to predict: Putin seems indifferent to the global criticism, but will also be wary of making a martyr of Navalny.

The next Russian election is on 19 September this year – for Russia’s version of the Dáil, the Duma. 450 seats are in contention, which Putin’s party won 54% of in 2016.

Navalny says that the results of the last two elections have put Putin under pressure: “It is often claimed that his sole focus anymore is geopolitics, that [Putin] doesn’t care about anything else. But that’s not true.

“He saw what happened in Khabarovsk, where people have been taking to the streets in protest for 80 days now and the Kremlin still has no idea what to do with them. The Kremlin realised they had to take extreme measures to prevent a ‘Belarusian scenario’. The system is fighting for survival and we have felt the consequences.”

Meanwhile, the international community is left helpless once again to defend Navalny’s freedom of speech. The European Union and the UK imposed sanctions on Russian officials – a tool not unfamiliar to Russian authorities.

The UN Security Council, of which Ireland is a member, was going to meet to discuss Navalny’s incarceration this week – but this idea was abandoned, as veto-wielding permanent member Russia dismissed the jailing of Putin’s main challenger as a purely domestic issue.

Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs has said that Navalny’s sentence is “deeply disturbing” and “not in keeping Russia’s international human rights obligations”.

A statement added: “Ireland reiterates the call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Navalny.”

With reporting from AFP

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