Alexei Navalny, a man facing an uphill battle.

On 17 April, Alexei Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, announced on Facebook that Putin’s fierce opponent was about to die in prison. A quick look at Navalny’s fight against a corrupt government.

Alexei Anatolievich Navalny was born on 4 June 1976 in Butyn, Soviet Russia. He spent his youth in Obninsk, a hundred kilometres from the capital, Moscow. Of Ukrainian and Russian descent, he is fluent in both languages. In 1998, he obtained a law degree from the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in Moscow. So far, it has been difficult to paint an atypical portrait of a character who seems rather banal. But the young Navalny continued his academic career at the Russian Government Finance University. Although information about his youth is scarce, Navalny had a fairly straightforward and untroubled path to politics. In 2000, despite some reservations, he joined the political party Yabloko, and gradually rose to the top of the liberalist party. In 2004, he became the leaders of the Moscow branch. Navalny already stood out for his desire to make politics attractive to young people, a line of conduct that he would maintain throughout his career. The politician uses YouTube in particular to reach a maximum number of young people, and the American platform was extremely useful to him when he embarked on a crusade against Putin. But before that, Navalny resigned from his position in Yobloko to found the Russian National Liberation Movement (NAROD). A controversial past that he drags with him in his struggle.

Navalny leading a protest. ©Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

Nationalism, a double-edged sword

By the end of 2006, Navalny was already breaking away from Yobloko, a party that had never really convinced him. On 3 November 2006, on Unity Day, Navalny organised the Russian March in Moscow, despite the ban on demonstrations imposed by the traditionalist mayor Yuriy Luzhkov. In the spirit of promoting individual freedom, Alexei, who was still head of the Moscow branch of Yabloko, encouraged those who wanted to demonstrate to defy the ban and use their freedom to protest. A brief point about the Russian March is in order; if it was banned, it typically was because it brought together extremists, xenophobes, and neo-Nazis of all stripes to show their white superiority and to celebrate it. The Nazi imagery and the growing sense of nationalism clashed with liberal counter-protests organised by students and other associations belonging further to the left of the political spectrum.

In the end, even if Navalny’s intentions were unclear up to that point, it remains difficult to criticise a politician who has protected the freedom of action of some citizens, regardless of their political orientation and ideologies. However, in 2007 Navalny’s NAROD allied itself with the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and he declared on his own YouTube channel that he is nationalist. Once affiliated with the far-right movements, Navalny tried to prove that he could be a liberalist, but also love his country. He gained popularity very quickly, and his blog brought him more and more visibility and notoriety. He did not hesitate to use the nationalist sentiment as a tool to move forward in politics. But the real controversy took place on 16 November 2015, three days after the Paris attacks. The politician published an article against Muslim immigration to Russia, citing the Paris terrorist attacks as an example of how dangerous Islam is and pointing out that Russia had already been taken over by Islamic terrorists. What at first seems like a simple statement turns into an attack on the laxity and hypocrisy of the government in addition to the Islamophobic and hate-filled words that place all Muslim migrants in the hat of terror. Navalny makes the alarming observation that the only way to stop these migratory flows is by shooting the migrants down.

He never went back on those words. He, who had been designated a « prisoner of conscience » by Amnesty International in January 2021, lost his status following a massive number of complaints that Amnesty apparently could not ignore. His speech was labelled as « incitement to hatred » and therefore, like Mandela before him, Navalny was no longer a « prisoner of conscience » but just a prisoner. However, it remains important to note that Navalny is a very nuanced character, and many have seen this as an attempt by the Kremlin to destabilise Putin’s main opponent, discrediting him in the eyes of the West. After all, who would regret the death of a fascist?

A fight to the death against corruption

But why is Navalny so dangerous to Putin? To understand this, we will put aside Navalny the nationalist and focus on Navalny the reckless opponent of the man who has been at the head of one of the world’s greatest nations since the year 2000. Until 2011, the majority of Russians turned a blind eye to Putin’s rather authoritarian policies, as the economy was doing well, and the quality of life was increasing considerably. Putin was then the prime minister because he had already served two terms as president between 2000 and 2008. The scandal here was Putin’s willingness to stand for a third term in 2012, leaving the population no choice. This was followed by the completely rigged parliamentary elections of December 2011, where countless videos leaked on the Internet accusing the election of a nameless masquerade. From then on, Navalny, who was growing in popularity thanks to his blog, used his voice as a tool to rally a considerable opposition to Putin. Thanks to his nationalist and liberal political agenda, Navalny even tried to become the mayor of Moscow in 2013, failing despite a respectable score of 27% against Sergei Sobyanin, a supporter of the current government. It was now clear that Navalny was going to be a remarkable opponent of the autocrat.

Putin was now keeping an eye on Navalny, who was reinventing himself and rallying the crowds behind his anti-corruption policies. Consequently, the two politicians engaged in a war, with Navalny trying to mobilise the crowds and Putin trying to silence the troublemaker. Navalny regularly found himself in front of a judge, and any pretext was good enough for him to end up in court. In 2020, this war reached its climax, when the Russian president tried to silence his opponent forever.

In August 2020, the Russian opposition leader suddenly falls into a coma on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. Navalny’s clan suspected that the Kremlin had attempted to poison him, while the doctors treating him tried to cover up the affair by diagnosing a drop in his blood sugar level. The case gained momentum and eventually Navalny was taken to Berlin where he was treated and recovered by September. Later, suspicions of poisoning by the government were confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Navalny’s movement was strengthened by Putin after he had escaped death, he then returned to Russia to continue his fight against corruption. He was arrested upon his return to Russian territory, as it was apparently impossible for the Russian government to verify his whereabouts. He had to report his whereabouts to the government following a fraud trial that took place in 2014. He was in a coma in Berlin, which made it complicated. Then, under this pretext, he is now a prisoner. However, the man whom Putin absolutely does not want to turn into a martyr continues to communicate with his supporters. He revealed that he is being tortured and went on a hunger strike from his cell.

Navalny on a videocall from jail. ©AP/SIPA

These actions remind Putin that Alexei Navalny will follow through with his actions, even though these actions will certainly hasten his death. Putin’s back is against the wall, regardless of Navalny’s fate, whether he is kept alive or dies in questionable circumstances, the autocrat had never faced a threat that seems truly implacable.

Erdem Ozgunay.

Further readings:

Cover photo: ©Reuters/M.Shemetov.

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