The thorn in Putin’s side


The thorn in Putin’s side

Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most effective and fearless critic, has been sentenced to two years and eight months in prison

What is Navalny’s background? As a lawyer, an investigative journalist, an online activist and a politician, he has built up a range of skills which have made him uniquely effective as an opposition figure in the hostile conditions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the early 2000s, he published investigations into state corruption on his blog on LiveJournal. He acted as a shareholder activist: he would buy a small amount of shares in major oil companies or banks, dig into their paperwork, and then start to ask awkward questions about state finances, contracts and kickbacks. In 2010, he obtained documents suggesting executives had siphoned off $4bn from the state-owned pipeline company Transneft. In a country where endemic corruption is a bigger issue than the lack of democratic freedoms, his blog soon became influential.

When did he move into politics? Navalny has been active in various political parties since the late 1990s. However, the protests of 2011-13, triggered by Putin’s decision to stand for a third term as president and by widespread vote-rigging, saw Navalny become an opposition figurehead: it turned him, said one observer, “from an online leader to an offline leader”. In 2013, he ran for mayor of Moscow, and won 27% of the vote – impressive, given the forces ranged against him. Since then, his FBK anti-corruption foundation has published scores of slick, well-researched documentaries on YouTube about corrupt officials. In 2015, he exposed links between the prosecutor-general, Yury Chaika, and organised crime (the video has been viewed 18 million times). In 2017, he alleged that the then PM, Dmitry Medvedev, had built up a vast secret property empire. That video received 42 million views, and effectively ruined the reputation of Putin’s right-hand man.

How has the Kremlin tried to deal with him? He has been jailed more than ten times, mostly for organising or participating in unauthorised protests, and has already spent hundreds of days behind bars. In 2013, and again in 2014, he received suspended sentences for embezzlement; the European Court of Human Rights ruled that both cases infringed his right to a fair trial. Navalny has also been attacked repeatedly – in 2017, antiseptic green dye was thrown in his face, causing chemical burns to his right eye. And last year, he came close to death after being poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok (see box). Yet Navalny has proved remarkably resilient. After a long recovery, he responded with his biggest exposé yet – of “Putin’s palace”, a ludicrously luxurious Black Sea complex allegedly built for the president by a group of businessmen in his circle.

What are Navalny’s politics? Although his crusade has made him a darling of the Western media, he is not a Western-style liberal. At various points, he “has been described as a liberal, a libertarian, a nationalist and a populist”, says The Moscow Times. Navalny joined the liberal Yabloko party in 1999, but was later expelled for his links to ethnic Russian nationalists: he has embraced anti-immigrant politics, calling for the deportation of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus; he once referred to Muslim criminals as “cockroaches”. He also supported Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, and has stated that, though the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was illegal, “the reality is that Crimea is part of Russia. Crimea is ours.” Navalny is a political opportunist: he wants to build a base that extends beyond young liberals in the big cities. But his domestic policies, on which he tends to focus, are largely centrist: he wants a rise in state pensions and the minimum wage; all are based on the premise that Russia is a rich country made poor by corruption.

How popular is he really? It is difficult to tell, in a country that has largely excluded Navalny from its political system – by convicting him on dubious grounds, using his record to bar him from running for office, blocking him from appearing on TV, and even by refusing to speak his name (Putin calls him “that man”, or latterly “the Berlin patient”). State media has painted Navalny as an agent of Western intelligence. According to a November 2020 poll by the independent Levada Centre, only 2% of Russians listed him as their first choice of presidential candidate. However, support is higher among young professionals and his approval ratings are growing. “If it’s not seen as a political crime to support him, then Navalny’s support can increase tenfold,” says the Levada Centre’s Alexei Levinson.

Could he bring down Putin? The large street protests triggered by Navalny’s arrest have been uncomfortable for Putin, but are in no danger of bringing down his regime, which has full control over the Russian state: the executive, parliament, the courts, the security services. Both a “colour revolution”, of the kind seen in Ukraine and Georgia, and a democratic victory are highly unlikely. Yet he remains a threat.

How is he a threat? First, Navalny and his colleagues have built up a wide regional political network: protests were held in 198 cities and towns in response to his arrest. Second, he has a proven ability to define the terms of the political debate in Russia. The nickname he coined for the ruling United Party in 2011, “The Party of Crooks and Thieves”, captured the public’s imagination and helped to undermine its legitimacy. Today, he argues that the regime will deteriorate as it gets older, and refers to Putin as “the old man in the bunker”. “Navalny’s superpower has been his ability to show people what they had always known about the Putin regime, but had the option of pretending away,” said Masha Gessen in The New Yorker. He has also shown that, contrary to the Kremlin’s assertions, “there is an alternative to Putin”.