Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was nearly murdered in August by poisoning with the nerve-agent novichok, and on February 2 was sentenced to two and a half years in a penal colony for an alleged parole violation. The resultant protests in support of Navalny have been attended by tens of thousands of citizens in more than a hundred Russian cities. Pictured: Navalny attends a hearing inside a glass cell at the Babushkinsky District Court in Moscow on February 20, 2021. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)
The near-murder of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny by the nerve-agent novichok last August, his return to Moscow in January, and the resultant protests attended by tens of thousands of citizens in more than a hundred Russian cities, raise the question of how long the Russian people will continue to tolerate President Vladimir Putin's repressive acts against political enemies and rivals.
The crowds were rallying in support of Navalny after his return to Moscow on January17, 2021 from medical treatment in Germany, some in temperatures of -60 degrees Fahrenheit. The police, attacking the protestors with batons, arrested more than 3,300 people.
While recuperating in Germany, Navalny, aided by an investigative organization, filmed himself calling Konstantin Kudryatsev, a toxins expert in Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). Using a disguised telephone number, Navalny posed as an aide to the chairman of Russia's Security Council. He asked Kudryatsev for the details of his poisoning. In the 49-minute conversation that followed, Kudryatsev divulged full details of the poisoning, including how the novichok poison had been placed in Navalny's underpants in a hotel in Tomsk.
In December, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) released the video of the telephone call.
After his January arrest in Moscow, Navalny released a nearly two-hour documentary entitled, "Putin's palace. History of world's largest bribe," that has drawn more than 100 million views on YouTube. The billion dollar plus residence was financed, claims FBK, through a corruption scheme run by oligarchs in Putin's inner circle.
On January 23, Navalny was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of his parole -- which was imposed in 2014 under a suspended sentence for what he calls a "fabricated" charge of embezzlement. The European Court of Human Rights in 2016 had already ruled that the 2014 conviction was unlawful.
According to the BBC:
"The case against Navalny was based on his failure to report regularly to police during 2020 - an absurdity, his legal team argued, as the authorities knew full well that he was getting emergency treatment in Berlin for the Novichok nerve agent attack. He reminded the court that for part of that time he was in a coma."
In a speech to the court on February 2, when the judge sentenced him to two and a half years in a penal colony for the parole violation, Navalny said:
"[Putin's] main gripe with me is that he'll go down in history as a poisoner. We had Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise, and we will have Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner."
In the courtroom, Navalny drew a heart with his finger on the glass wall of his enclosure for his wife, Yulia.
Navalny, the next week, was hauled back to court for allegedly "slandering a World War II veteran who took part in the promotional video in support of last year's constitutional amendments that cleared the way for President Vladimir Putin to run for two more terms in office..." Navalny had "described those in the video as 'traitors,' 'people with no conscience,' and 'corrupt lackeys.'"
Meanwhile, nationwide protests continued. In the freezing winter, Russians gathered in groups and held up their mobile phone flashlights in a display of support for Navalny.
Why is this outpouring of support for Navalny significant?
Since 2018 he has headed a political party, "Progress," also known as "Russia of the Future." Its platform stands for, among other things, the decentralization of power; the rule of law; ending censorship; reducing government interference in the economy, and partnering with Western countries.
In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western candidate for president of Ukraine was left with his face pock-marked and disfigured by a poisoning attack.
In 2006, Russian double agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed with radioactive polonium. Popular political reformer Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015. His friend, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, but survived. Sergei Skripal, a former Colonel in Russian military intelligence and allegedly a double-agent working for Britain, was also poisoned with novichok, along with his daughter Yulia, while living in the UK, presumably to underscore that no one was out of reach.
How did Navalny to rise to prominence in Russia? In 2007, holding a small number of shares in Russian state-owned oil and gas companies, Navalny obtained information on their corruption and misuse of funds, which he then publicized on his widely-read LiveJournal blog.
In 2011, he founded his Anti-Corruption Foundation. He also ran for mayor of Moscow but lost. The same year, he led a series of protests against election fraud. In addition, his organization created a "smart" voting platform, which advises the public of alternatives to Putin's candidates.
In the 2012 parliamentary elections, Navalny's party lost out to Putin's United Russia Party by a large margin. In 2020, however, thanks to Navalny's growing influence, Putin's party lost seats in Moscow, Khabarovsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk.
In 2018, Navalny campaigned and sought to run against Putin in the presidential election. Navalny obtained 200,000 signatures and opened 81 campaign offices nationwide. But unlike less well-known candidates, he was barred from running against Putin because of his 2014 conviction for embezzlement and money-laundering, a case he called "trumped up."
Since then, waves of protests have swept Russia, along with growing admiration for Navalny worldwide.
Navalny has made some telling comments about former President Donald J. Trump and censorship. Indeed, comparisons between underdogs Trump and Navalny are hard to avoid, particularly as both are censored. Navalny tweeted on January 9:
"I think that the ban of Donald Trump on Twitter is an unacceptable act of censorship...
"The election is a straightforward and competitive process. You can participate in it, you can appeal against the results, they're being monitored by millions of people. The ban on Twitter is a decision of people we don't know in accordance with a procedure we don't know...
Don't tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn't ban anyone (not that I ask for it)...
"Among the people who have Twitter accounts are cold-blooded murderers (Putin or Maduro) and liars and thieves (Medvedev). For many years, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been used as a base for Putin's "troll factory" and similar groups from other authoritarian countries.
"Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russian and China of such private companies becoming the state's best friends and the enablers when it comes to censorship.
"If you replace 'Trump' with 'Navalny' in today's discussion, you will get an 80% accurate Kremlin's answer as to why my name can't be mentioned on Russian TV and I shouldn't be allowed to participate in any elections.
"This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: 'this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter'."
Navalny had previously commented on the fact that unlike many other world leaders, Trump was unusually quiet about his poisoning. According to CNN:
Speaking to CBS on Sunday, Navalny said "I think it's extremely important -- that everyone, of course, including and maybe in the first of all, President of United States, to be very against using chemical weapons in the 21st Century."
In 2018, President Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the US days after the British government positively identified the nerve agent used in the Skripal poisonings as novichok. He also ordered the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle. European Union countries, Canada and Ukraine followed suit in expelling Russian diplomats.
The use of novichok is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty of which Russia is a state party.
Before Navalny, opposition figures who survived attacks have retreated or fled. Navalny, physically attacked, jailed and released many times, has refused flight, emigration and silence.
So far, Navalny, now in the IK-2 penitentiary in the city of Pokrov, said "he had seen no violence in his new surroundings," which he called a "friendly concentration camp," in a message posted to his Instagram account on March 15.
"I have not yet seen any violence or even a hint of it, although due to the stiff posture of the convicts, standing at attention and afraid to turn their heads, I easily believe the numerous stories that here, in IK-2 'Pokrov', quite recently people were beaten half to death with wooden hammers. Now the methods have changed, and, to be honest, I don't even remember a place where everyone speaks so politely and in a way, kindly."
"He is prepared to lose everything," said the economist Sergei M. Guriev, a Navalny confidant who in 2013 fled to France after coming under pressure from the Kremlin. "That makes him different from everyone else."
"Senior administration officials described the measures taken, which are also a response to Navalny's continued imprisonment, as catching up with sanctions imposed on Moscow by the EU in October..."
They are not likely to be sufficient. Russia has already imposed sanctions of its own against European officials in reprisal.
Voices worldwide need to continue to call for Navalny's release.
Putin, of course, is still popular with much of Russia. Polls show his approval rating in the mid-60s. Russian media are portraying Navalny's supporters in a negative light amidst footage of violence directed against the police. Crackdowns on supporters are anticipated.
Yet Navalny has hope that his movement can carry on without him. Reacting to his sentencing, he addressed his followers in the courtroom:
"This [imprisonment] is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They're imprisoning one person to frighten millions. This isn't a demonstration of strength — it's a show of weakness."
Dr. Jiri Valenta is a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan. A former tenured associate professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, he also served as coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies for the Master's program for intelligence officers of all armed forces. A member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, he is the recipient of the Jan Masaryk Silver Medal for his directorship of a post-revolutionary think tank in the Czech Republic. A recipient of several distinguished fellowships, he is the author of several books, some based on on-site research and covering Grenada, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Syria and Cambodia. For the last decade, he has worked with his wife, Leni, who holds a 3-year Masters from the Yale School of Drama in playwriting.