Next week marks six months since the poisoning of Putin’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexey Navalny.
Since his arrival back to Russia, Navalny has been in jail - sparking widespread condemnation, and protests across the country’s 11 time zones.
I’ve mentioned Navalny many times in NewsFix, and will undoubtedly do so again in the future, so there’s no better time for us to get informed.
*This post was originally published on February 14, 2021
WHO IS ALEXEY NAVALNY?
Navalny is in his mid-forties, meaning he was brought up in the Soviet Union - a group of countries that disbanded and became independent states in 1991. Moscow was the capital of the Soviet Union, and then became the capital of Russia.
He grew up in a village called Butyn, near Moscow, and his Father was in the military.
Navalny has two degrees, he is both a qualified lawyer and economist, and practiced law in the past.
According to his own website, over the last few years he has lived in a three-room apartment in Moscow, with his wife Yulia Navalnaya and two children - Daria and Zakhar.
How did he get become an activist? More than a decade ago, Navalny started buying a small number of shares in state-owned companies, becoming a shareholder. As a result, he was then able to access internal financial documents. Navalny said these documents “absolutely” exposed corruption, and he posted them all on an online blog.
What are his political beliefs? Navalny obviously campaigns on an anti-corruption platform. He has also called for Russian oligarchs to be taxed, investment in health education to be increased, and a free press to be established.
Worth noting: In the past, Navalny has attended and spoken at right-wing nationalist rallies. Addressing this in an interview with US programme 60 Minutes, Navalny said he does not support nationalist or fascist ideology, but said; “I was part of these rallies because I support the freedom of rallies”. He also acknowledged that a lot of them support him “and recognise me as a leader”.
A post shared by Алексей Навальный (@navalny)
Caption: Navalny and his family
Vladimir Putin has been in a seat of power in Russia for more than 20 years, either as president or prime minister.
Prior to his political career, he worked as a KGB intelligence officer. *Note: The KGB is now the FSB.
Married for more than three decades, Putin and his ex-wife announced their “civilised divorce” in 2013. The couple have two daughters, but very little is known or reported about them. There has also been plenty of speculation and rumour that Putin may have at least one other child, but nothing has been confirmed.
“The thing is that I don’t want them to grow up like royalty, I want them to develop into normal human beings.” - Putin
PUTIN’S POLITICAL CAREER
Putin’s shift from the KGB to the world of politics was led by a mentor from law school, Anatoly Sobchak. When Sobchak became Mayor of Leningrad (now known as St Petersburg), he chose Putin as his Deputy.
By 1999, Putin was appointed as prime minister by then president, Boris Yeltsin. Less than five months later, Yeltsin stepped down and Putin became the country’s acting president.
Who was Yeltsin? In a nutshell, he was Russia’s first democratically elected president in 1991, but resigned before the turn of the century and left a very mixed legacy.
Putin in power: In March 2000, Putin was officially elected president, and served until 2008. Then Dmitry Medvedev became president, and Putin switched to prime minister. In 2012, the pair switched positions, with Putin once again becoming president in an election clouded with suspicion. Again in 2018, Putin won re-election for another six year term.
How long could he remain in office for? Last summer, a referendum gave Putin the power to seek two more six-year terms beyond 2024 - meaning he could potentially stay in power until 2036, when he will be 84 years old. He is the leader of the United Russia party, what Navalny famously referred to as “the party of crooks and thieves”.
HOW DOES NAVALNY GATHER SUPPORT?
Does Putin view Navalny as a threat? The answer might lie in what is not done or said. For example, Alexey Navalny is banned from appearing on national TV, and Putin refuses to refer to him publicly by name.
Navalny was also banned from running in the last presidential election, but more on that below.
*Note: Here is a great piece from last September - The name Putin dares not speak
Okay, so how has Navalny gained so much support? Navalny has used social media to amass followers and generate support. His Youtube channel - which has 6.47 million subscribers - has published complex investigations on the corruption surrounding the Kremlin’s key players.
Often using drone footage, Navalny has exposed members of Putin’s close circle who say they receive a “relatively modest salary,” but live in vast estates. One investigation about Dmitry Medvedev, which alleged he had five luxurious homes, sparked a lot of protest across the country.
His most recent investigation - Putin’s palace - is also his most watched. In a mark of staggering defiance, the documentary was uploaded while Navalny was in custody in January, days after returning to Russia.
In the past, Navalny has referred to Putin as the “Tsar of corruption,” and a “thief and head of the entire corrupt system”.
What does the documentary allege? That a palatial estate - including a church, spas, and a hockey rink - worth more than $1 billion, is being built for Putin on the Black Sea.
How much of an impact has it had? In less than a month, it has been viewed more than 112 million times. The story went so viral in Russia the Kremlin had to acknowledge it, denying Putin was the owner.
Full documentary below;
NAVALNY’S LEGAL CHALLENGES
In 2013, Navalny and Pyotr Ofitserov were accused of misappropriating half a million dollars worth of state-owned timber. A day before his conviction, Navalny had registered as a candidate for Mayor of Moscow. He described it as a fabricated case, with many saying the accusations were politically motivated.
Worth noting: Navalny came second in the election for Moscow mayor, winning 27% of the vote.
In a 2017 re-trial, Navalny was found guilty. In Russia, you cannot run for office if you are a convicted criminal, meaning he was banned from running in the presidential election the next year.
2014 - Navalny was given a suspended sentence after being accused of embezzlement. Much of the media in Europe and the US described it as a “politically charged trial” at the time. His brother Oleg was also accused, and unlike Navalny, received a prison sentence.
Oleg was released in 2018, but served at least two years of his sentence in solitary confinement. During an interview in 2017 while Oleg was still in prison, Alexey said he “absolutely” believed his brother’s sentence was nothing short of an effort to get him to stop his anti-corruption activism.
“He’s in jail because he’s my brother, that’s the only reason.” - Alexey in 2017
THE 2018 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
“In Russia we have a joke, that you cannot chose your parents, you cannot chose your gender, and you cannot chose your president” - Ksenia Sobchak
As mentioned above, a criminal conviction banned Navalny from running for president in 2018, but it didn’t stop him campaigning as leader of the Progress Party.
While campaigning in Siberia, he was smashed in the face with “painful” green dye. Handling it with humour, Navalny referred to himself as Shrek and many others dyed their faces green in a show of support.
A post shared by Алексей Навальный (@navalny)
Later the same year, Navalny was attacked with dye a second time. He flew to Spain for surgery, as doctors prepared him for potentially being blind in one eye. Once he arrived back in Russia, he began immediately campaigning again.
A post shared by Алексей Навальный (@navalny)
During the campaign, Navalny was arrested many times at anti-Kremlin protests, including days before Putin’s inauguration.
If Navalny was out, who ran against Putin? One of the most high-profile and talked about opponents of Putin in that election was a public figure called Ksenia Sobchak.
Remember Anatoly Sobchak, Putin’s mentor who gave him a start in politics in the early 1990s? Well, his daughter is Ksenia. Anatoly died in unclear circumstances in 1999 - his funeral marking one of the only times Putin was seen crying in public. When Ksenia ran against Putin (a move approved by the Kremlin), it divided opinion. On the one hand she spoke out against corruption and pledged to step aside if Navalny was allowed to run, but many viewed her with suspicion, accusing her of being part of a Kremlin ploy to give a false appearance of democratic elections.
What did Navalny say about her election run? According to Reuters, Navalny described it as a “fairly loathsome Kremlin game that goes by the title of: ‘Let's put a liberal laughingstock up for the elections in order to distract attention.’”
What were the results of the 2018 election? As expected, Putin won by a large majority - gaining 76% of the vote. The line below from a BBC article at the time is worth noting;
“Video recordings from polling stations showed irregularities in a number of towns and cities across Russia. Several showed election officials stuffing boxes with ballot papers.”
PUTIN’S OTHER CRITICS
There has been a long list of Kremlin critics and political opponents over the years, many of whom are now either dead or in exile.
Alexander Litvinenko, Sergey Magnitsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky are among the most recognisable names, but in an effort not to make this piece too long, let’s focus on Boris Nemtsov.
Nemtsov - like Navalny today - was Russia’s most prominent opposition figure before his murder in 2015. Two days before a scheduled rally, he was shot from a car and killed metres away from the Kremlin.
Navalny described Nemtsov as a friend, and while Putin offered condolences to his family and the Kremlin denied any involvement, many Nemtsov allies accused Putin of responsibility.
Worth noting: Nemtsov had served as deputy prime minister during Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s. Remember: It was Yeltsin who chose Putin to serve as prime minister in 1999.
Want to know more about the “state-sponsored” poisoning of Litvinenko in London? Below is a fascinating video explainer from 2015.
THREATS TO NAVALNY’S LIFE
During a 2017 interview, Navalny was asked about his own safety, and said “maybe they missed the good timing for it (to kill him) when I was less famous”.
He also said that while he tries not to dwell on the risk, “I think I’m ready to sacrifice everything”.
Fast forward to August 2020, Navalny was heard screaming in pain on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. In an interview months later, Navalny said he told crew on board he knew he had been poisoned and expected to die. The plane was diverted, and after a few days, the Kremlin allowed him to be flown - while in a coma - to Germany for medical treatment.
To make a long and harrowing story short, German experts said there was “unequivocal evidence” he was poisoned with the nerve agent, Novichok. The Kremlin denied any involvement.
Navalny spent five months in Germany recovering. During this time, a damning investigation exposed how FSB agents followed Navalny on more than 30 trips over the course of three years.
Navalny also duped an agent into revealing specific details about how they poisoned him, by planting Novichok in his underpants. Asked about the investigation, Putin said if Russia wanted Navalny killed, “they probably would’ve finished it”.
During his first interviews, Navalny said he was adamant he would return to his home country despite the dangers. In January, he flew back to Moscow and was detained at the airport.
Prefer to watch something? This is a must watch.
“If this was a Hollywood movie you would say it was over the top” - CNN’s Clarissa Ward
WHY IS NAVALNY IN JAIL NOW?
As mentioned, Navalny was detained upon arrival back to Russia. His flight was diverted at the last minute from one airport where crowds of supporters had gathered.
Why was he detained? Well, he was accused of violating the terms of probation relating to a fraud case - that he considers politically motivated - from years ago. He never showed up for planned inspections - remember, he was in Germany recovering from being poisoned and being in a coma.
In early February, Navalny was sentenced to more than two and a half years in prison. The sentence was criticised by foreign leaders across Europe and the US, with President Biden calling for him to be released “immediately and without condition”.
Navalny was also mentioned during a first and “frank” phone call between Biden and Putin recently.
“Why are you sitting here and telling the court you didn't know where I was? I fell into a coma, then I was in the ICU, then in rehabilitation. I contacted my lawyer to send you a notice. You had the address, my contact details. What else could I have done to inform you?… the President of our country said live on air he let me go to get treatment in Germany and you didn’t know that too?” - Navalny in court, according to CNN and the BBC
Since Navalny’s most recent arrest, there have been widespread protests across the country, with thousands of his supporters being detained. Navalny’s own wife Yulia was among those briefly detained in Moscow.
As the outrage over Navalny’s sentence, and protests in support of him continue to gain momentum, I will keep a close eye and do my best to keep you informed. I hope that, for now, this has been a helpful start in having us all feel more confident in discussing this topical story.
Thank you for reading.