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The meaning of Alexei Navalny’s conviction

Vladimir Putin is determined to curb the opposition leader’s influence.

By Megan Gibson

In the end, the outcome of the trial was predictable. On 4 August, just as he had anticipated, the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was found guilty of “extremism” and sentenced to another 19 years in jail. These will be added to the nine-year sentence that Navalny is already serving in a high-security penal colony on charges of fraud, which Western analysts and human rights groups agree are politically motivated. His treatment during imprisonment has been grim: he’s been subject to sleep deprivation and long stretches of solitary confinement, and forced to listen to Vladimir Putin’s 2023 presidential speech repeatedly.

The day before the sentencing, Navalny’s team released a statement by him on social media in which he said he was expecting a long, “Stalinist” sentence and instructed people to “think about why such a demonstratively huge sentence is needed. Its main purpose is to intimidate. You, not me. I will even say this: you personally, reading these lines.”

Though he studied law at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in the 1990s, Navalny rose to prominence in Russia not as a lawyer but for his online screeds against Putin and for leading political rallies protesting state corruption. In 2011 he founded the activist group Anti-Corruption Foundation, which investigated Putin’s circle and other Russian elites, tracing the sources of their wealth.

It didn’t take long for the state to start trying to quash his influence. Navalny was arrested and detained repeatedly for his involvement in demonstrations. In 2012, prosecutors got serious by charging him and his brother Oleg with embezzlement. Oleg was sentenced to three and a half years; Alexei was given a suspended sentence following protests at his conviction. Navalny was not dissuaded from politics and ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, winning 27 per cent of the vote despite a notoriously un-free electoral system. Emboldened, in 2016 he announced his intention to run for president in the 2018 elections. He was blocked from appearing on the ballot due to his past conviction, but campaigned regardless, travelling the country and holding rallies.

The attacks against Navalny weren’t just legal. In April 2017 an assailant threw a green chemical into his face, which Navalny said left him with significant vision-loss in one eye; he claimed the Kremlin had orchestrated the assault. Three years later, while on a flight from Siberia to Moscow, Navalny fell ill and collapsed. Two days later he was evacuated to a hospital in Berlin, where it was discovered that he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichock – the same Soviet-era chemical that was used to target a former Russian spy and his daughter, as well as two others, in Salisbury in 2018.

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[See also: What happens if the Russian state collapses?]

Navalny spent more than a week in a coma, and took several more to recover enough to leave his hospital in Germany and resume activism. His team, along with several media outlets and the investigative journalist group Bellingcat, worked to track down the Russian agents they suspected had tried to assassinate him. Navalny managed to elicit details of the attack from one over the phone by posing as a Kremlin official. Though Russian authorities made it clear that he would be arrested if he returned to the country, Navalny travelled back to Moscow with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, in January 2021. He was detained upon arrival and has been in prison ever since.

Though Navalny is by far Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, support for him among Putin critics – inside and outside the country – is hardly uniform. Early in his political career, he alienated many in the liberal opposition with what has been called his nationalism. Navalny took a strong stance against immigration and flirted with the hard right: in 2007 he began attending the annual Russian March, a nationalist demonstration popular with neo-Nazi and far-right groups. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Navalny angered many in Ukraine by telling a Russian radio station that while Putin had violated international law, “Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation.” He added: “I advise the Ukrainians not to kid themselves, either. It will remain part of Russia and will never become part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future.”

Ukrainians have not forgotten these remarks. When Navalny, a documentary about the 2020 poisoning and subsequent investigation, won an Oscar in March – beating a documentary about Ukraine – many influential Ukrainians protested the win on social media. Though Navalny has been openly critical of Putin’s war, the view of him as just another Russian imperialist persists in Ukraine. On 25 July Nalvalny once again caused controversy on social media when he defended Igor Girkin, a pro-war nationalist who had been arrested after criticising Putin and the war’s leadership. Girkin was also convicted in absentia by a court in The Hague for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Navalny called him “a political prisoner”. (Again, Ukrainian Twitter was not pleased.)

These divisions, though perhaps minor in the context of creeping authoritarian rule, have been a gift to Putin. The Kremlin has long used Navalny’s previous nationalistic statements to portray him as a fascist – claims that have found traction. Shortly after he was detained in 2021, Amnesty International rescinded his “prisoner of conscience” status in light of past remarks that “constituted advocacy of hatred”. (Amnesty reversed the decision months later.)

And with Western support aligned behind Ukraine since the war began in February 2021, accusations Navalny is an imperialist have become more significant. To some Ukrainian activists, it doesn’t matter that Navalny openly opposes the war now. “Navalny hasn’t done or said anything meaningful to prevent the full-scale invasion of Ukraine since 2014,” Maria Buchelnikova, a Ukrainian journalist and activist, told the German newspaper Der Spiegel in February. 

It’s debatable how much these controversies have eroded support for Alexei Navalny outside the country. But as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s surprise mutiny in June demonstrated, it has become impossible to predict what, if anything, can fatally threaten Putin’s regime. As this latest prison sentence ruthlessly demonstrates, the Russian president knows how strong Navalny’s influence is within the country and is determined to stamp it out.

[See also: Alexei Navalny’s chief of staff: “Putinism will now come to an end much sooner“]

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