Alexey Navalny is a man of many names: Russian dissident, opposition leader, activist, investigator, lawyer, nationalist. Navalny, the most famous Russian opposition leader against Putin’s regime, is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for embezzlement. Beginning in the early 2010s, Navalny came to embody the possibility of change under an increasing dictatorial regime. Prior to this period, in the 2000s, he was known for his nationalistic and xenophobic positions, captured on videos at protests. In 2007, he left the socialist-democratic party Yabloko to create a new political movement. He and his co-founders called their movement Narod, translating to “people ” and functioning as an acronym for National Russian Liberation Movement. He debuted his party by advocating for deporting migrants from Russia. In the following years, he was present at the Russian March, an annual event in Moscow of ultranationalists, some of whom adopt swastika-like symbols. In 2008, he supported Russian aggression in Georgia, and strongly opposed illegal immigration from Central Asia into Russia. While he has not made any nationalist or xenophobic comments since 2013 and apologized for some of his previous remarks, for many his comments are still disquieting.
Beginning in 2015, Navalny shifted to use his knowledge as a lawyer to conduct targeted investigations into high-ranking Russian politicians. He made a name for himself by looking for corruption amongst Russian elites and formed a foundation to publish and promote his findings. He also uploaded videos detailing the results of his findings. Many Russian citizens, desperate for change, completely support Navalny, coming out to protest against the government based on his findings. Despite his previous anti-migrant statements, many people are drawn by his charisma and view his current work as more important than his past statements.
As Navalny gained notoriety, he became increasingly targeted by the Russian government. He was imprisoned several times, once for thirty days and more recently for two-and-a-half years after being poisoned. He was poisoned in August of 2020 on a domestic flight within Russia. He fell into a coma and flew to Germany to seek treatment and recovered. He claimed that it was a deliberate poisoning approved by the Kremlin, a position supported by the Russian opposition party and Western democracies. The United States and EU supported Navalny’s account regarding the poisoning, with the United States levying sanctions against the Russian government for a variety of transgressions, including human rights abuses.
In January of 2021, Navalny was arrested again. This event marked a dramatic shift in the dynamic between Putin and Navalny. Despite almost dying of poison in August, likely at the hands of Putin’s government, he chose to return back to Russia to continue his fight against corruption.
Since his arrest, he has been on a hunger strike, leading to the deterioration of his health. According to his lawyers, Navalny has lost sensation in his hands, has severe back pain and numbness in his legs. Despite regional and international calls for Navalny’s release from prison to recover in a hospital, Russian authorities have refused to release him. Doctors have speculated that his death could occur any day due to the stress of the hunger strike. Navalny has stated that his prison, Pokrov penal colony, is a concentration camp. Human rights groups have said it is known for its especially harsh conditions within the Russian penal system. On April 25, Navalny announced that he was ending his hunger strike, perhaps to take time to recover. By May 17, the prosecutor in the case submitted more material evidence to outlaw Navalny’s political movement on the basis of extremism, a new escalation in the silencing of Putin’s critics.
Despite the fact that Navalny is not an entirely admirable character and his positions on ethnic minorities are reprehensible, his death would be extremely important. He represents an alternative fate for Russia, besides the forever, corrupt, authoritative leader in Putin. Western democracies see the potential for an alliance with Russia if Navalny were able to become president. While he is not popular enough in the present, Navalny could become a viable candidate in the future if he survives his current prison sentence and his arrests and poisoning buoy his popularity to new heights. His presidency would mark a shift away from totalitarianism towards some semblance of democracy. There are a significant number of reforms that could occur from Russia joining the EU: stabilizing and reinforcing the European economy, changing the course of the civil war in Syria and improving the economic and political landscape of Eastern Europe. The changes that could take place under Navalny would completely shift the current geopolitical landscape. Already concerned about this outcome, Russian lawmakers approved a bill that would block members of “extremist” groups from running for office, targeted at Navalny and his supporters.
However, if he does die, his death would likely act as a catalyst for the international community to take more severe action, beyond simply levying sanctions. The annexation of the Crimea, military training exercises on the borders of EU members, funding Ukrainian separatists, and allegations of human rights abuses—there is a litany of reasons that the international community has to punish Russia beyond economic limitations. Given the Russian authorities’ unwillingness to cooperate on any level and their propensity for aggression in all areas of policy, the coalition of states willing to consider an increased offensive strategy against the Russian state could grow in the wake of Navalny’s death.
For Russian citizens, his death would have two effects: kill the last of the hope for a new leader and the opposition movement altogether, or galvanize the movement to new heights.
One can only hope that if Navalny does not recover, his death can be used to insist on the Russian government’s accountability and transparency. It is truly the responsibility of the international community to apply sustained pressure and focused attention on the treatment of Russian opposition figures, specifically Navalny at present, in order to protect the fragments of human rights conventions still present in Russian society.
Featured Image Source: New Yorker