By DJEHANE VALLY
Over the past few days, diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden were expelled from Russia because they took part in what the Kremlin called ‘illegal demonstrations’ in support of Alexei Navalny, which took place on the 23rd of January. In answer to this, the three countries mentioned above also sent Russian diplomats back home. All of this is happening while the European Union is trying to broker a deal with Russia in order to get doses of the Spoutnik V vaccine against covid-19. Tensions are growing.
It is now clear that Alexei Navalny is the most important threat to Vladimir Putin since he took power more than two decades ago.
The 44-year-old opposition leader is a lawyer by training, having graduated in 1998 in Moscow. He then studied at the Russian Financial University and in 2010, got a scholarship to study at Yale University for the World Fellows Program. In 2013, Navalny ran to become Mayor of Moscow and raised an unprecedented amount of money to fund his campaign, which gave him the notoriety he needed. He announced his intentions to run for president in the 2018 elections, but the Central Electoral Commission barred him from running, explaining that he was charged with corruption at that time.
While on a flight in Siberia, Navalny fell ill and his plane had to land in emergency. He was able to get to Berlin where he stayed hospitalized and in a coma for about three weeks, and the German doctors found that he was poisoned by Novichok, a deadly nerve agent. He then recovered quickly and flew back to Moscow, where he was arrested and sentenced to two years and 8 months in prison for fraud. At that point, the protests took place on a larger scale, and the recent diplomatic row between the Kremlin and some European countries is the consequence of these events.
When he got back to Russia from Germany, Alexei Navalny released an explosive film accusing president Vladimir Putin of building an immense mansion that cost £1bn, and was funded, according to Navalny, by corrupt money from the president’s inner circle. The incredible details that Navalny’s team managed to gather is in itself an incredible achievement, and makes us wonder if perhaps someone close to Putin is leaking information. Even more astonishing is the fact that Putin had to justify himself and say that the palace was not for him, and oligarch Arkady Rotenberg later revealed it was his possession.
Is this time different, however? Boris Nemtsov was an important critic of Putin, but he was assassinated in 2015. Yet, what happened next? Not much. People took to the streets in 2017 against corruption, but that did not lead to reforms either.
Yet, this time, the protests are much more meaningful: they took place in more than 100 cities across Russia, from the far East to the far West of the country. According to Reuters, more than 5,000 people were arrested as of the 31st of January. They protested despite very difficult weather conditions. Moreover, back in the day, the opposition had no clear leader, but now it does: Alexei Navalny has never backed down. Russia’s opposition has been diverse, but Navalny has been there all the time and has outlasted every opposition party. He has been in prison multiple times but remains undeterred. He is strong mentally, but also physically: he has survived multiple attempts at his life, notably in 2017, when a man sprayed him with an antiseptic that caused him to lose 80 percent of his right eye’s sight. The poisoning that took place last summer was not the first one, as he was taken to the hospital in 2019 after a suspected poisoning while he was in jail. That makes him the most formidable opponent Putin has ever had.
As Navalny gathers more support, the Russian regime’s fragility becomes more apparent. In press conferences, the Kremlin almost never mentions Navalny, and when they do, they dismiss him as unimportant. Nonetheless, they are not willing to let him run in an election, most likely fearing that he can win. Some speculate that the president could resign and continue to influence Russian politics through other means. A new law that gives immunity to former presidents is another hint at the fact that Putin might resign from his office.
So what happens next? More protests are highly likely, and perhaps more sanctions from EU countries towards Russia. Yet, these must be more targeted and pertinent, as similar measures taken in the past have proven rather unsuccessful. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening are slim, as the Spoutnik V vaccine has proven to be more than 91% effective, and European countries might not want to take the risk of jeopardising their relationships with Russia and get refused access to the vaccine. Alexei Navalny, now in prison, is at the mercy of the Kremlin. If they want to kill him, they can do it whenever they want, but that is unlikely, as it would make him a martyr, yet releasing him is also a tremendous risk for the regime.
Uncertainty looms ahead, and the following weeks will be crucial.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Evgeny Feldman