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  1. International
16 February 2024

Navalny and Russia’s lost future

Will the dissident’s death galvanise the scattered Russian opposition – or mark the moment of their definitive defeat?

By Daniel Beer

Last December, as he stood at a closed judicial hearing in a prison in the Arctic Circle to hear a Moscow court sentence him to an additional 19 years of “severe prison regime” for “extremism”, a gaunt and frail Alexei Navalny observed that “his sentence would either be as long as his own life or the life of the regime” in Russia. Navalny died in captivity on 16 February 2024 while his nemesis Vladimir Putin has been taking to press conferences and interviews with a newfound buoyancy. The Russian army is once more grinding out small victories along the front line in Ukraine, and the Kremlin is showing no signs of weakness at home.

The state’s escalating persecution of Navalny has tracked the emergence of a full-blown authoritarian regime since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. Navalny initially tried to work within the formal democratic structures of the Russian Federation, seeking elected office in 2013 on a prospectus of anti-corruption, democratic accountability, and “the beautiful Russia of the future”. The regime initially believed it could contain Navalny, and allowed him to run for mayor of Moscow, believing that his participation in the election would offer a patina of legitimacy to the Kremlin’s own candidate Sergei Sobyanin. But Navalny’s relative success in the election (he won 27 per cent of the vote with no access to official media) had the regime worried and the next step was to try to ensnare Navalny in trumped up charges of embezzlement to bar him from standing in further elections. He was duly prevented from running in the presidential elections in 2018.

Navalny also took his campaigning online and amassed millions of followers, as he exposed case after case of grotesque corruption in the Kremlin elite. In 2020 the regime staged its bungled poisoning of Navalny, an effort to murder the politician while maintaining (im)plausible deniability, which was thwarted by local doctors in Omsk who were quick to administer life-saving treatment after Navalny’s plane made an emergency landing at the city’s airport.

After Navalny was subsequently flown in a coma to Germany for further treatment (and tests that confirmed the use of Novichok and the Kremlin’s fingerprints all over the attempted murder), he made the stunning decision to return to Russia an act of political courage that many believed reckless. At that point, the regime dispensed with any public pretense of legality and resumed a persecution of Navalny by turns sinister and comical. Arrested at a Moscow airport after his flight from Berlin had landed, Navalny was imprisoned for violating the terms of his suspended sentence while recovering from near fatal exposure to Novichok in a German clinic. His prison sentences were later extended as a succession of increasingly outlandish additional convictions were heaped on a malnourished and ailing dissident, culminating in the last prison term of 19 years for “extremism” which a court directed he serve out in one of Russia’s grimmest jails, IK-3 ”special regime” colony, known as “Polar Wolf”, in Kharp in the Arctic Circle. After the last round of sentences, Navalny was expected to leave prison in 2050 at the age of 74. Repeated spells in isolation cells ate away at what was left of Navalny’s health as his lawyers protested the regime’s denial of independent medical care.

As the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches, the message of Navalny’s death in captivity is that no one in Russia is safe; the law is an instrument not of justice but of persecution, and no amount of popular support at home or abroad will offer protection from the Kremlin’s determination to destroy threats to Putin and his entourage. Navalny now takes his place alongside Boris Nemtsov, another genuinely popular opposition politician, who was shot dead in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015.  

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When he returned to Russia in January 2021, Navalny knew that prison beckoned but could not have guessed that he would never again walk free. His decision to return to Russia and deliver himself into the hands of a regime that had tried to murder him was a strategic calculation that now looks like a terrible error. Navalny believed that the alternative to persecution in Russia was the life of a political exile of diminishing relevance. The cacophony of Russian opposition groups strewn across Europe today is testament to the pitfalls of political exile from Moscow. Yet in prison, Navalny found himself effectively muzzled; his occasional Twitter threads relayed by his legal team were a poor substitute for the sensational video exposés of Kremlin graft in which Navalny so excelled. Yet Navalny understood that his very survival in the country’s harsh penal system was a clarion call to Russians that “the beautiful Russia of the future” was still possible.

Even locked away, Navalny remained a king across the water, and the figurehead upon which most of Russia’s disparate opposition groups still pinned their hopes. Over a political career spanning more than 20 years he had matured into a politician of real vision. Navalny’s nationalism, not always to the liking of pro-Western liberals, was a compelling ingredient in a political brand that resonated beyond Moscow and could mobilise popular support in the regions. The state’s endemic corruption, repressiveness and violence, presided over by an increasingly monarchical Putin equipped with grand palaces and a court of sycophants, galvanised Navalny’s supporters across the political spectrum. Navalny came to offer a synthesis of nationalism and liberalism that carried both the “creative classes” in Moscow bridling at the absence of civic and political freedoms and provincial Russians tired of poverty and the venality of local officials.

His death testifies both to his undimmed appeal as the alternative to Putin and to the fragility of the regnant political system. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has necessitated a brutal crackdown on all forms of dissent at home. A battery of fantastical new laws has criminalised all and any criticisms of the war; incautious social media posts result in prosecutions for extremism; schoolchildren are encouraged to denounce each other and their teachers; teenagers are locked up for posting flyers bearing figures of the estimated death toll in Russia’s neo-imperial war of conquest in Ukraine.

Even if, with the connivance of a Trump White House, Russia manages to wrest a good chunk of territory from Ukraine, the invasion has proved a strategic failure that will come to haunt the Kremlin. The expansion of Nato’s borders, a Ukrainian society resolved on membership of Nato and the EU and now implacably hostile to Russia, and the appalling costs of casualties borne by Russian soldiers are all disasters that the Kremlin cannot allow to be publicly aired. The alternate reality carefully curated by Kremlin media remains brittle. For every Russian who cheers the Kremlin’s “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine, there are others who oppose it and a majority who just want the war to end. The recent examples of Afghanistan and Chechnya point to the impending blowback from the invasion as hundreds of thousands of brutalised and damaged young men are flushed back into civilian life without adequate resources and support networks. Escalating protests by the mothers of Russian soldiers are harbingers of what is to come.

Aggression abroad is therefore sustained by repression at home The Kremlin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine explains why Navalny, even in his isolated and ailing condition, remained a threat: a charismatic and politician with the authority to denounce the horrors of the war and expose the terrible price that Russians will pay for it in the years to come.

For centuries, opponents of the Russian state have shown that martyrdom can prove a potent political force. When asked about the risk of assassination in 2022, Navalny mused that his death should be taken as a sign that the Kremlin was weak, and its opponents were strong. “You’re not allowed to give up,” was his message. Navalny’s life is a testament to individual courage and political vision, but it now falls to others to show whether his death can galvanise the scattered forces of the Russian opposition, or marks the moment of their definitive defeat.

[See also: The dissident is dead]

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