Alexei Navalny and Russia: What’s Happening?
Alexei Navalny has gained prominence as Russia’s de-facto leading opposition figure due to his decade long exposing of corruption within the government. The refusal to allow Navalny into the political sphere a decade ago has forced him and his supporters to amass an online platform, engage in countless campaigns and organised rallies which subsequently led to arrests (seen by many as unwarranted), and has cemented his hero like status among Russian reformists.
Arrested and sentenced for a criminal charge many believe to be politically motivated, thousands have gathered to protest the government and its crackdown on the opposition leader. This piece considers who Alexei Navalny is, explores why he was arrested, why people protested and the responses of both the Russian government and the international community.
Who is Alexei Navalny and why has he been arrested?
Alexei Navalny, the man Vladimir Putin ‘fears most’, is a lawyer-turned-activist and anti-corruption blogger. Throughout his career he has challenged corporations and the government to tackle corruption by fostering transparency, and has gained prominence in the last decade for his anti-Putin stance. Establishing the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) in 2011 which collected citizens’ reports to expose corrupt government practices, helped Navalny play an important role in the 2011 mass protests, where more than 100,000 people rallied against the alleged electoral fraud by Putin’s Party. He was imprisoned for 15 days for his involvement, whereafter Navalny’s frequent run-ins with the law and increased involvement in oppositional politics only increased.
In August 2020 whilst on a return flight to Moscow, Navalny became extremely ill and fell into a coma. He was transported to a Berlin hospital, where it was confirmed that he had been poisoned with Novichok, a chemical weapon specific to the Soviet Union. Whilst Russian officials denied involvement, the Bellingcat-CNN investigation blamed the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) for the poisoning. The investigation found that the FSB had been closely surveilling Navalny after he announced his run for presidency in 2017. They shadowed Navalney throughout 2017, 2019 and 2020, travelling alongside him on various occasions and the report suggests previous attempts to poison Navalny had been carried out.
Navalny, posing as an official from the Russian National Security Council, was able to record Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an agent from the FBS, admit to a previous poisoning attempt of the opposition leader.
Despite the threat of both arrest and possible death as well as pressure from Russia to remain in exile, Navalny returned from Germany on 17 January 2021 and was immediately detained in Moscow. His return was comprehensively documented online and witnessed by the world, triggering a fresh wave of protests.
On 2 February Navalny was sentenced to 3-and-a-half years in jail due to a parole violation from a 2014 embezzlement conviction. The terms required him to attend parole hearings yet some of these hearings were missed due to his hospitalisation in Germany. Tom Tugendhat MP highlighted the irony in the ‘designed to deceive’ arrest, stating that missed probationary hearings was an excuse to arrest a man whom they had planned to murder anyway.
Why have people protested?
The January 2021 protests were initially sparked by Navalny’s arrest, with supporters taking to the streets in the hopes this show of strength would force the government to release him. They also called for Putin to step down, making it clear that his desire to stifle dissent pushed more to rebel against the ruling party. In the first week, police forces estimated that only 4000 protesters attended, but Reuters estimated the figure to be around 40,000. Despite many oppositions groups in Russia often disagreeing, the protests saw unanimous support amongst the opposition, with many issuing statements advocating Navalny’s release and calling the FBK to release its findings into Putin’s alleged palace scandal.
Whereas in 2011 mass protests swayed the government into changing Navalny’s sentence, it was clear Navalny was given his sentence in February because he now poses more of a threat to the ruling party who see him as an enemy and ‘traitor’, so they remain less concerned with the growing opposition and international backlash to his detention. Despite significantly fewer protesters compared to a decade ago, opposition groups have made it clear that the government’s attempt to suppress dissent will only lead to more societal unrest.
Various videos also circulated online of police brutality towards protesters. Riot police ‘pursued’ protesters through the capital and engaged in brutal arrests as protesters in Moscow ran across streets and blocked traffic. Tensions escalated in the second week of protests, when police looked close to losing control of the situation. Protesters gathered on streets stalling traffic leading to many being chased out of city centres and into the outskirts by police. It was clear the government was prepared to take extreme measures to prevent protesters disrupting cities across the country. By the end of January, over 5000 people were arrested (including Navalny’s wife) for their involvement across 100 cities. On the day of Navalny’s sentencing, marches in central Moscow took place and more violence ensued. More than 1000 people were arrested in one day.
There has been international condemnation of Russia’s decision to jail Navalny. In January, the EU issued a statement condemning the detention of Navalny. The 27 heads of member states will look to reassess the EU’s relationship with Russia at the March summit. States who called for sanctions to be placed on Russia if Navalny was not released included Poland, Italy, Romania and the Baltic states. Given Navalny has recently been sentenced to a prison term, it looks likely that sanctions will be given more serious consideration after the EU had previously considered holding off if Navalny had been released.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell stated that whilst there was no ‘concrete proposal’ from member states on what course of action to take, the EU was ‘ready to react’ and emphasised that police brutality towards protesters was ‘completely unacceptable’. During his trip to Moscow on 5 February, Borrell stated the treatment of Navalny brought ‘a low point’ in ties between Russia and the EU.
Manfred Weber, head of the EPP grouping in the EU Parliament, stated the EU could not ‘dodge’ imposing sanctions on Russia for its actions. One of these possible sanctions could be to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a project which would double natural gas deliveries between Russia and Germany. Without the threat of sanctions, Weber believes Russia will remain undeterred in changing its political agenda. Angela Merkle has however made it clear that despite criticism the project will continue as planned.
The US has been swift in condemning the use of force against ‘peaceful protesters and journalists’ whose rights were suppressed. They called on Russia to release all those detained, including Navalny. National security advisor Jake Sullivan emphasised the need to bring to justice those who carried out the assassination attempt against Navalny in August.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stated Navalny’s detention was ‘appalling’ and the UK official statement called Russia’s actions a ‘deterioration in the human rights situation’. They also called for further investigation into the August 2020 attack, and following Navalny’s sentencing Raab called for his ‘immediate and unconditional release’, as well as that of all protesters.
Russia firmly denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning and Putin candidly remarked that ‘if someone had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off’.
Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov maintained that there are many citizens who support Putin and will vote for him in the upcoming elections and claimed the protests were small and over exaggerated. Putin himself labelled protesters as ‘terrorists’ and state-controlled media focused on the violence by protestors and praised the ‘restraint’ of the police.
The blame has seemingly been placed on the US who Peskov accused of ‘meddling’ in Russian internal affairs. He also accused the US Embassy of publishing protest routes to support protestors and foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused tech companies of circulating pro-Navalny content. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the EU as ‘an unreliable partner’, accusing them of behaving like the US. Officials and state media have portrayed Navalny as a puppet of western politics, despite the fact that Navalny has carefully distanced himself from foreign governments. These comments and Navalny’s portrayal confirmed that the government will not be swayed by protests or international pressure.
Whilst Navalny has been jailed, his return to Russia has energised an opposition who refuse to live under Putin’s regime. While further opposition protests have been cancelled due to the high volume of arrests during the January demonstrations, the national election due to take place in September will likely see a resurgence of these protests. Sacrificing his liberty proves Navalny is committed to reforming Russia, whatever the price. However, whether an imprisoned Navalny is the man to galvanise enough support to remove Putin from power and change the political landscape, is yet to be seen.
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