TOMSK, Russia – When Alexei Navalny arrived in this Siberian city in August, the opposition leader gathered supporters at his local headquarters to applaud their efforts in an ongoing regional election campaign and deliver a motivational speech tinged with his usual mix of sarcasm and black humor. .
But Andrei Fateyev, who was among those present, says Navalny got serious when a supporter asked a question he had been asked many times during his decade of activism against President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the corruption among the Russian elite: why haven’t they killed you yet?
“He said he understood that authorities were weighing the risks of various methods,” Fateyev recalled this week in Navalny’s team’s modest office near downtown Tomsk, “but they probably think it would be worse to kill him than to let him continue his work.”
The assumption seemed to crumble when, on the way back to Moscow on August 20, Navalny fell violently ill. The plane made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where he was placed in a coma and kept in a local hospital until he was airlifted to Berlin for treatment following the desperate calls from relatives and aides.
German officials would later confirm that he had been poisoned with Novichok, a class of Soviet-developed nerve agents, causing a diplomatic scandal and repeated denials of Kremlin involvement.
Navalny’s poisoning sent shockwaves through the Russian opposition, intensifying the soul-searching that had already begun amid heightened state repression and a Kremlin-controlled political climate that can seem impenetrable. But for Fateyev and other Navalny supporters in Tomsk, it served to galvanize their resolve to break the Kremlin’s grip on power in Russia.
“It was like a red flag for a bull. It motivated us,” Fateyev, 32, said. “When you face anarchy and injustice, it really pisses you off.”
Fight the power, pay the price
Along with 28-year-old Ksenia Fadeyeva, who runs Navalny’s operations in Tomsk, Fateyev ran for city council and won. Their applications have less triumphed over any sympathy for Navalny, they say, but thanks to the huge popularity – 4 million views and counting – of a video they recorded with the help of Navalny’s team, exposing corrupt schemes they claim are being run in the city by members of the ruling United Russia party.
Released 10 days before the September 13 election, it was the kind of immersive, artful documentary that has drawn millions of subscribers to Navalny’s YouTube channel in recent years, featuring drone photographs of lavish mansions allegedly owned by United Russia officials and screenshots of documents implicating them. in illicit activities.
“People started to recognize us on the street,” Fadeyeva said. “And some were cursing United Russia as they walked past.” Fateyev said the number of people registered for Navalny’s political campaign in Tomsk had quickly doubled.
Even before his poisoning, Navalny employees across Russia had been subject to police raids, arrests and fines for their political activism. Fadeyeva spent 25 days in jail, her car was vandalized and her apartment door sealed with spray foam by assailants who were never identified. In a recent raid on the apartment Fateyev shares with his brother, police seized computer equipment that his brother depends on to make a living as a programmer. It has not yet been returned, Fateyev said.
Despite the harassment, Fadeyeva and Fateyev say they advocate an open and transparent political style that, in many ways, is an extension of their activities as regional cronies of Navalny. The door to the unassuming office building that houses their headquarters on the fifth floor is open: anyone can climb the stairs and ask them for help. They do nothing to hide their ties to Navalny, whom state media label a Western agent – his name is displayed on plaques outside the Tomsk office. And voters can easily access team members’ mobile numbers and call them to set up a meeting. “We don’t turn anyone away,” Fadeyeva said.
“Smart vote”, but smarter
It’s the kind of novel approach they hope will fill a deficit of trust in politicians that pervades Russian society. Ahead of important elections to Russia’s parliament and other regional legislatures next year, Navalny’s teams across Russia plan to mount a campaign to secure a protest vote that has led to unlikely victories not just for their own candidates in Tomsk and Novosibirsk, another Siberian city. , but for other candidates across the country who represent an alternative in United Russia, close to Putin.
“There is a demand for a different type of political communication,” said Moscow-based political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann. “It’s a demand for more compassionate, humane public behavior, and for honesty and justice. And whoever gets that will be the beneficiary of the next political cycle.”
Last year, Navalny launched a strategy to break United Russia’s political monopoly by elevating rival candidates seen as most likely to defeat it. He called it “smart voting”. But with some of those candidates representing radical parties or susceptible to ruling party influence in elections, Schulmann says, the challenge for Navalny on his return to Russia will not only be to turn the sentiment of protest against politicians backed by the Kremlin, but to make sure the politicians it feeds capture those votes themselves.
“This general state of mistrust is, I think, uncomfortable for any society. People want to trust someone – anyone,” Schulmann said. But, she added, Navalny “has not yet been a beneficiary of this missing trust”.
“You are the minority now”
For Fadeyeva, the election result in Tomsk serves as a warning to United Russia that endemic corruption and a disengagement from people’s issues can no longer cope. The party’s popularity has plummeted nationwide in recent years, and its control over the Tomsk council has been gutted with the help of Navalny’s smart voting strategy: United Russia won just 24% of the vote in the September 13 election, losing 21 of the 32 seats it held in the 37 years. – seat chamber.
“It is not known what the government can do,” Fadeyeva said. “If they don’t register [opposition] candidates, they will have protests like in Moscow,” where thousands rallied last summer against the exclusion of independent politicians from city council elections. “If they register them and tamper with the vote, then they will have even more serious protests. “
Allowing opposition candidates to stand in next year’s elections could also spell “catastrophe” for the Kremlin, she said, as MPs and residents will see that they “are not crazy misfits running with a megaphone from one police van to another in protests, but people who really talk about common sense.”
Last week, deputies of the Tomsk city council split into commissions focusing on different local issues. Fadeyeva and Fateyev have joined the committee responsible for overseeing the local budget, property and economy – a way to have better access and oversight of the money flows they have long investigated, as outsiders , as representatives of Navalny in Tomsk.
Fadeyeva does not wait to make her mark, nor mince her words. In her maiden speech as city councilor on October 5, she issued a scathing indictment of Russia’s political system under Putin’s rule and the conditions in which opposition activists operate – the kind of searing tirade that few lawmakers have probably witnessed.
“The city of Tomsk cannot exist outside the context of Russia, where the political field over the past two decades has been deliberately purged: independent media have been destroyed, human rights persecuted and criminal prosecutions launched. against opposition activists who have had their homes searched and sometimes killed,” she said.
Real wages have fallen for six straight years, she said, and the retirement age has been raised as part of wildly unpopular reforms passed in 2018.
She then turned to members of the Kremlin-backed party who had managed to win seats on the council, their combined numbers representing a shadow of the influence they once wielded.
“Respected deputies of United Russia,” she told them. “Now you are the opposition. You are the minority.”