By Sam Baker
The recent decision of Alexei Navalny to return to Russia following an attack on his life with a Novichok nerve agent is not the first time he has stood up to Kremlin bullies.
Despite recent polls indicating overwhelming support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the vaccine-bearing knight in shining armour is far more fragile than ever before.
Such fragility has been caused by the best that 2020 has to offer, from the Covid-19 pandemic to a wave of national protests. The perfect year, then, for Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most fearsome opponent, to garner support as the cracks in the Putin regime are exposed. And there’s nothing Mr. Putin hates more than to be made a mockery.
Who is Alexei Navalny?
Dubbed by the Wall Street Journal as “the man Putin fears most,” ex-lawyer Alexei Navalny has become the most prominent name in Russian opposition politics.
Through his own investigations over the years, he has exposed corruption at the heart of the Russian parliament and judiciary, publishing the results to an audience of more than 4 million YouTube subscribers. Since a pivotal investigation in 2010, Navalny has persisted in his reference to Putin’s ruling United Russia as the party of “crooks and thieves.”
Founding the anti-corruption foundation, Navalny is a member of the Russian Opposition Coordination Council, a hodge-podge of anti-corruption political opponents to United Russia with a broadly centre-left message. He is generally supported by most in Russia’s liberal circles.
Navalny is also the only political leader in Russia in favour of same-sex marriage, and has fiercely campaigned against the state’s abhorrent purge of “gay propaganda.”
Having said that, Navalny disappoints progressives on a number of counts, including his pointedly ambiguous stance on Russian nationalism. Nevertheless, Navalny and his supporters wouldn’t miss a golden year for Putin-bashing.
What has Navalny done?
Alexei Navalny has been helming a movement of continuous widespread protest for about two years.
In late 2018, shortly after Putin’s re-election, public approval of the President hit an all-time low after he announced a raise in the retirement age. It is thought that only 10% of citizens supported these changes. Navalny, a political prisoner at the time, called on the masses to take to the streets.
Unwilling to concede, Putin enshrined new retirement ages of 60 for women and 65 for men. With male life expectancy in Russia at 65.1 years, the issue remains sour in Russian society. Particularly unforgiving of Putin’s retirement age changes are those women out-of-work (which is common in Russia), formerly married to working men who died naturally before receiving a single ruble from the state. It is clear that Navalny’s cry was heard by many.
When Covid-19 hit Russia, Putin didn’t exactly salvage his reputation. Instead, swathes more people died before retirement, including an astounding 7% of all health workers.
In response, Navalny publicly lambasted Putin and encouraged Russians to vocalise their own anger. Navalny painted a scene of national discontent, claiming that “rage is brewing.”
With valuable sects of the electorate turning their backs on the President, Putin turned to autocracy in June in the form of a referendum on constitutional changes. In the small print of the ballot paper, a vote ‘for’ the changes was a vote to allow Putin to stay as president until 2036 (instead of 2024, as stated by the previous constitution).
Across his social media platforms, Navalny urged his supporters not to vote, as the online voting system made independent scrutiny impossible. Nonetheless, Putin secured a landslide victory and the constitution was dually reformed.
Of course, Navalny insists that the results are entirely false. “If there are rules and procedure, [Putin] will lose,” he claimed on instagram the day after the results were announced.
Anti-Putin protests sweeping the nation
Since the referendum, anti-Putin protests have swept across the Russian far east. Originating in Khabarovsk, they followed the state detainment of the region’s governor, alleging his involvement in a 15-year-old murder case. Navalny’s blog says the arrest conveniently coincides with the governor’s popularity soaring above Putin’s.
Now entering their 11th week, shows of solidarity with Khabarovsk have spread across Russia partly thanks to circulation of media by Navalny’s team. The recent wave of protest has sparked Navalny to relentlessly encourage anti-Putin action across the country.
If that wave of protests wasn’t enough of a shock to Putin, mass protests in Belarus have certainly been of concern. After four weeks of momentous protests in the country, a defeated Lukashenko issued a stark warning to Putin, stating “if Belarus collapses, Russia is next.” Predictably, Navalny has supported the protests in Belarus along with their sister demonstrations taking place in Moscow.
On20th August, during the second week of protests in Belarus, the fifth in Khabarovsk and at a time when Russia continued to record thousands of new cases of Covid-19, Alexei Navalny was poisoned after a campaign event in Siberia. It is clear to see why the Kremlin would want to put a stop to his fast-growing movement.
Since the poisoning…
Putin’s United Russia party secured sweeping victories in recent local elections. Having said that, representatives of Navalny’s regional offices made gains, most notably in Tomsk, where he campaigned prior to the elections and was subsequently poisoned, and in Novosibirsk, the neighbouring city and Russia’s third most populated.
In fact, United Russia lost their majorities on both city councils, despite allegations of vote stuffing and obstruction of vote counters. Clearly Navalny’s campaign of tactical voting, which he launched following the referendum on constitutional changes, paid off.
His return to Russia is no-doubt alarming for Putin.