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Putin, Poison and the importance of Alexey Navalny

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Alexey Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, an anti-corruption investigator whose denunciations have targeted President Vladimir Putin and his entourage. His detention and imprisonment in 2021 upon his voluntary return from Germany, where he was recovering from a nerve agent attack he blames on the Kremlin, sparked the largest unauthorized protests Putin has ever faced. In March 2022, he was convicted in a new case that will bring his total prison term to around 12 years. Both the US and the EU demanded Navalny’s release without success.

1. Why was Navalny seen as a threat?

Navalny, 45, has withstood the kind of pressure – repeated prison sentences, house arrest, physical assaults – that caused many other Putin critics to flee the country. Until his poisoning, the Kremlin’s apparent special treatment of him inspired speculation that he was a known quantity and therefore an acceptable threat. But that calculation has changed. Navalny was sentenced to around 2.5 years in 2021 and most of his allies went into exile abroad to avoid jail after prosecutors called his campaign network “extremist”. Authorities were growing increasingly intolerant of dissent, even before the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which led to widespread international protests and sanctions. Since the beginning of the war, the repression has become even worse.

2. What caught the world’s attention?

Navalny fell ill in August 2020 on a flight to Moscow after meeting local activists in the Siberian city of Tomsk. His cries of pain could be heard in video taken on the plane, which was diverted to Omsk in a move that likely saved his life. Local doctors kept Navalny in a clinic there for two days before, under international pressure, he was transferred to Charite Hospital in Berlin. The Kremlin says it has found no evidence that Navalny was poisoned. In October 2020, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, confirmed that a banned Novichok group nerve agent was used in the poisoning.

3. Who would want to hurt Navalny?

The US directly blamed the Federal Security Service (FSB) for the attack, and the EU and UK said it could only have been done with the agency’s involvement. ‘spying. Investigative website Bellingcat said in December 2020 that it had identified members of a clandestine poisons FSB unit that had been tracking Navalny since January 2017. Putin later admitted that Navalny was under surveillance but denied that the government is behind the poisoning. French President Emmanuel Macron described it as an “assassination attempt”, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Navalny in hospital and in October 2020 the European Union placed on blacklisting six people in Russia allied with Putin for poisoning.

4. How did he make himself heard?

Navalny has a huge following on social media, which made him a target as it allowed him to get his message across despite an effective cut from tightly controlled Russian television networks. After his arrest, he published an investigation into a giant Black Sea palace he claims belongs to Putin. The Kremlin says that’s not true, but within days it became its most popular video of all time, racking up more than 120 million views, while a billionaire friend of Putin claimed ownership of the property.

5. How did the Kremlin try to neutralize it before?

Navalny has been in and out of prison since 2011, often accused of organizing unauthorized protests, but never served more than a month in a row until his last incarceration. He was banned from running in the 2018 presidential election after the Kremlin learned its lesson when Navalny was allowed to run for mayor of Moscow against incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin loyalist, in 2013 and got 27% of the vote.

6. Did the Kremlin tactics work?

Navalny was arrested and imprisoned when he returned to Moscow from Berlin in January 2021, sparking large-scale protests. More than 10,000 people were arrested at the rallies, as protesters braved riot police, freezing temperatures and threats they could face charges of taking part. The demographics of the protests showed why the Kremlin was worried: according to a pollster, the average age was younger than at previous protests and almost half of the participants were away for the first time. The ensuing crackdown, which banned Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and targeted opponents of all stripes, prevented protesters from taking to the streets.

7. What was he convicted of?

Russian police arrested Navalny for violating the terms of a suspended sentence when he failed to register while recovering in Germany. A Moscow court sentenced him to prison for violating parole for a 2014 fraud conviction, in a case the European Court of Human Rights has called politically motivated. The 2.5 year sentence was just the start and in March 2022 he was sentenced to an additional 9 years in a maximum security prison for fraud and contempt of court.

8. What action was taken?

The Biden administration announced its first sanctions against Russia in March 2021. The sanctions — like those adopted by the European Union — targeted senior Russian law enforcement officials, along with broadly equivalent sanctions that the EU and UK had earlier imposed on other Russian allies. with Putin in response to Navalny’s attempted murder. But actions over the Navalny case have been overtaken by international condemnation sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies that followed.

9. Have things like this ever happened?

Yes. There have been high-profile poisonings of former intelligence officers living in exile in the UK: Alexander Litvinenko received a fatal dose of polonium-210 in his tea at a London restaurant in 2006, while Sergei Skripal survived a assassination attempt with Novichok in 2018. The chief coordinator of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia organization, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was followed by the same FSB team linked to the poisoning of Navalny before suffering two attacks almost deadly, according to a Bellingcat report in February 2021.

10. Does the opposition have other leaders?

Navalny, who combines charisma with a sophisticated understanding of how to use social media to circumvent the Kremlin blackout, is by far the most visible leader of the fractured anti-Putin Russian bloc. The crackdown on dissent since the invasion of Ukraine has further marginalized the opposition, with Putin adopting the language of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin to condemn those who oppose the war as “traitors”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com

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