Alexei Navalny and Russia

What is the issue?

  • The latest happening in relation with anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny is his detention on arrival from Berlin and the subsequent country-wide public protests.
  • The events surrounding Navalny needs attention and here is a look at the likely impact of his presence and role in Russia.

Who is Alexei Navalny?

  • Navalny is a lawyer-turned-activist.
  • His political career started with the liberal opposition party, Yabloko, in the early 2000s.
  • He subsequently broke away to form his own nationalist group. His anti-corruption campaigns began in the late 2000s.
  • As a shareholder of large companies such as Rosneft, Gazprom, he tried to seek greater transparency about their financial dealings.
  • He followed this up with several exposes of key members of the Russian elite. He came to prominence in 2008 after he started exposing corruption in Russian politics through a blog.
  • In 2018, he was barred from standing against Putin in the presidential elections.
  • He has also been arrested on multiple occasions.
  • Since he started his political campaigning, Navalny has spearheaded many anti-corruption rallies in Russia.
  • The latest, now viral exposure, targets Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
  • Navalny is considered to be the face of the opposition in Russia, a country that has long been known to eliminate dissidents and spies by poisoning them.

What happened to him recently?

  • In August 2020, Navalny was put on ventilator support in a Siberian hospital after he consumed a cup of tea that is suspected to be poisoned.
  • While Navalny was returning to Moscow by air, he felt unwell as a result of which the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk.
  • Navalny had toxic poisoning.
  • Reportedly, Russian intelligence operatives trained in poisons, who had been trailing Navalny for years, were nearby him around this time.
  • It was assumed that Alexei was poisoned with something mixed into the tea. It was the only thing that he drank that morning.
  • At the request of his wife, he was taken to Germany where he completed his treatment and had a miraculous recovery.

What is the controversy around this?

  • The German government felt that it had enough evidence to accuse the Russian security services of poisoning Mr. Navalny.
  • The Germans claim that he was struck with the now infamous Novichok poison.
  • This led to the European Union imposing sanctions on six Russian officials, including the head of the national security outfit, Federal Security Service (FSB) and a chemical research Centre.
  • Russia denies the accusations.
  • But the Russian government still has many questions to answer about the poisoning.
  • Also, this was not the first time that Navalny was faced with such a situation. As learnt, there had been several attempts to kill him.

What has Russia’s reaction been?

  • Russian authorities have denied playing a role in Navalny’s poisoning.
  • Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is entering his 22nd year in power, alleged that Navalny “relies on the support of US special services.” Putin has even told journalists with a laugh that if Russian operatives wanted to kill Navalny, “they would have probably finished the job.”

What is the significance of the current protests?

  • The present charges against Navalny for detention include an old case in which he received a suspended sentence and a new case of fraudulent use of public money.
  • Mr. Navalny denies all charges.
  • The protests demanding his release are widespread, occurring in every major city, from the Pacific coast to the Baltic Sea.
  • They resulted in about 3,000 people being detained and released. These are not the largest seen in Russia.
  • However, what is different this time is that people from various strata and age groups joined the mostly peaceful protest actions.
  • Normally, Navalny-related demonstrations attract primarily youth (15-25 years old).
  • The fact that others joined the protest this time is significant.
  • It is probably a reflection of the deep disillusionment with the drop in living standards.
  • This is sparked off by years of Ukraine-related sanctions and lower energy prices.
  • The conditions were worsened by the pandemic-driven economic downturn.

Why is it a challenge for the government?

  • What would worry the government now is Navalny’s call for ‘smart voting’ in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
  • All opposition voting for one person against the ruling party candidate is a cause of concern for the present government.
  • Also, it is suggested that Navalny was used as a tool in the internal battles among the elites.
  • This is supported by the fact that some of the information that Mr. Navalny uses in his anti-corruption campaigns would be difficult, actually impossible, to find in publicly available sources.
  • This kind of knowledge would have to come from someone not just inside, but very high-up in the system.

What is the likely impact?

  • The anti-regime protests expectedly sparked off mixed reactions.
  • Some suggest that these are the beginning of serious moves for regime change.
  • Navalny’s return from Germany is even compared to a similar journey in 1917 in a sealed train by iconic Bolshevik leader (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) Lenin.
  • This was the precursor to the October revolution of that year.
  • Notwithstanding the euphoria, Alexei Navalny is unlikely to be the catalyst that will lead to ‘regime change’ in Russia
  • And whatever the reasoning, Mr. Navalny is no Lenin, even if the protests for his release continue.
  • His nationalist platform is not currently capable of appealing to all sections of Russian society or convincing the political opposition to coalesce around it.
  • However, it is clear that now, Mr. Navalny will have a more prominent role in Russian politics.
  • He is likely to emerge as a favourable figure of the western media.
  • Navalny’s presence and role is also an indication of serious churn among the Russian elites.
  • To note, in Russia, historically, barring once, change usually begins in the upper echelons of power.

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