As featured in Edition 38, available here.
BY DORKA FRISCH (3rd year - PPE - Budapest, Hungary)
Who is he?
Alexei Anatolievich Navalny has been internationally branded as the face of Russian opposition, the “person Putin fears the most”, and he has undoubtedly earned that title. Working as a lawyer in 2011, Navalny first made news when he bought small shares in various Russian state-owned companies to gain access to classified company documents and use those to expose government corruption. Through those documents the young activist uncovered state officials accumulating massive amounts of wealth in real estate. In the beginning, Navalny shared his exposés on his personal blog, then going on to create a YouTube channel and founding the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which produces extensive documentaries uncovering corruption in Russia. The 2017 documentary about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has sparked the largest protest in Russia since the 1990s.
Navalny quickly established himself as the leading figure of Russian opposition – his 2011 description of Putin’s United Russia Party as a “party of crooks and thieves” is a slogan of Russian opposition to this day. Ahead of the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections Navalny was given a suspended sentence for embezzling, yet was still allowed to run in the election. In the end, incumbent Sergey Subyanin won, however Navalny exceeded all poll expectations by getting 27% of the votes. Presumably as retaliation, Navalny received a second suspended sentence for embezzlement in 2014 preventing him from running in the 2018 presidential elections. During the elections themselves, Navalny did everything besides running as a candidate; he organized mass protests against the government, came up with a tactical voting system called Smart Voting to break United Russia’s dominance, and continued his fight with corruption.
Better Alternative to Putin?
While undoubtedly a positive force in Russian politics, even some of Putin’s critics are hesitant of Navalny. Besides battling corruption and ending Russia’s Putin-era, the 45-year-old politician does not have a clear agenda for what his vision of Russia might look like. In the past, Navalny has often resorted to populist or nationalist ideas to unite the nation against Putin, and it is worth asking how much of those sentiments would stay under a Navalny government. Similarly, his active online presence built a dedicated following that some fear might turn into a Putinesque personal cult once in power.
In August of 2020 during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow Navalny suddenly fell ill and was immediately hospitalised in Omsk, and then later evacuated to a hospital in Berlin. During his three weeks in a coma, German officials concluded that Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent; a Soviet era poison which was also used to poison former UK intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in 2018. It was revealed how Navalny was poisoned when Navalny called an agent of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who was implicated in his poisoning. Posing as a higher up at the organisation, Navalny had an hour-long phone call with the agent about what went wrong in the operation. Upon returning to Russia, Navalny was seized at the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport and arrested for violating the parole of his 2014 corruption conviction. Even though his lawyers argued Navalny only exited the country for medical reasons, he was imprisoned in March and is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year long prison sentence.
Since then, with the help of his lawyers, the opposition figure has been posting regularly on social media to highlight the continuing corruption in the Russian government. He most recently gave an interview to the New York Times where he describes his experience as a “modern political prisoner” in Putin’s Russia. According to Navalny “psychological violence” is the key strategy, with inmates having to watch five sessions of propaganda daily. Despite all these hardships though, Alexei Navalny believes that “the Putin regime is a historical accident, not an inevitability” and once the current government is gone, the people of Russia will choose a more democratic path.
IMAGE: Flickr / Michael Gubi