Russia’s Navalny fights to stay in public view at Putin’s deadlock
MOSCOW – When Alexei Navalny returned to Russia in January after what Western supporters and officials say was an assassination attempt on his life, he knew it was a gamble.
Friends and associates say Mr Navalny was keenly aware of how other dissidents largely fell out of sight after leaving Russia and that he did not want to share their plight. Since his return and subsequent detention, his team has instead raised the stakes, posting online videos accused of alleged government corruption and other documents.
Mr Navalny has gone on a hunger strike to demand access to proper medical care, a move some observers say was also meant to ensure he remains in the public eye after being sentenced to 2 years and a half in a prison camp.
But as Russian authorities work to put an end to what remains of his movement, the coming months could determine the outcome of Mr Navalny’s standoff with the Kremlin and reveal what, if anything, has him. will succeed if it collapses in the dark.
Russia’s most prominent dissident, 44, has long used his showman skills to galvanize opposition to Mr. Putin’s government. In recent court appearances, he joked about ordering food from McDonald’s and taunted Russia’s chef, calling him a “naked thief king.”
For some of his followers he already possesses something of a Messianic quality. Doctors in Berlin, where he was flown in for treatment after collapsing on a flight from Siberia to Moscow last year, determined he was exposed to Novichok, a nerve agent from the Soviet era. Mr Navalny, who blames the Kremlin for the attack, almost died and was in a coma for weeks. The Kremlin has denied harming Mr. Navalny.
He often posed for photographs with admirers. When some followers lost their jobs after participating in street protests on his behalf, he wrote a thank-you message last week to his staff for posting online. “Together we will certainly build a country in which no one can be fired for their political opinions,” he said.
Mr Navalny is deeply and ruthlessly ambitious, his critics say, and his fixation on being Mr Putin’s only real challenger means there is no obvious successor waiting behind the scenes. If he is out of sight for an extended period of time, his entire movement may falter.
Raised in a small town about 30 miles southwest of Moscow, the young Navalny was a gifted but stubborn student, his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya recalls. “It was impossible to say ‘no’ to him,” she told the New Times, a Russian online magazine, in 2013. “I remember he was reprimanded once for something by a teacher, so he refused to go to school. She said he told her he didn’t want to have to study.
He joined the Yabloko Liberal Party in his twenties, but immediately set about building his own personal brand by taking advantage of the internet at a time when many Russians were going online for the first time, people say. know. Eventually, he was kicked out of the party and co-founded a nationalist group called Narod, or the People, which advocated for the modernization of Russia instead of expanding its influence in other countries of the former Soviet bloc.
“He always paid a lot of attention to public relations,” said Sergey Mitrokhin, a Moscow city councilor who was in the State Duma, or the national parliament, when he first met Navalny. 20 years ago. “This desire for public relations is perhaps the key characteristic of his character.”
Stanislav Belkovsky, a political scientist who offered advice and guidance to Narod’s team, said Mr Navalny hit him like a politician of natural origin when they first met.
Pro-government figures today highlight the fact that some members of Narod joined marches where some participants were seen saluting the Nazis.
Mr Navalny denies endorsing racial hatred or xenophobia, but has been accused of making derogatory remarks about Russia’s Chechen minority after appearing in a video clip implying that Chechen activists should be shot.
“He doesn’t care what he sees – liberal, fascist, communist, whatever,” said Sergey Markov, the pro-Kremlin director of the Moscow Institute for Political Studies. “This man is a power fanatic. He is ready to give his life for personal power.
Other critics have called Mr. Navalny a puppet of the West after he began publishing deadly criticisms of Mr. Putin’s Russia. Some have seized the award of a scholarship to Yale University’s prestigious World Fellows program in 2010 as proof of its disloyalty.
However, Mr Navalny doubled down on his attacks, helping organize anti-government protests in 2011 and shifting to a new foundation aimed at exposing corruption in government circles, telling his supporters it was time to ‘get rid of the shackles’ , as he said. in a blog post.
“The fight against corruption is what openly angers him, openly motivates his work,” said Ivan Zhdanov, director of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Yevgeny Feldman, a photojournalist who met Mr Navalny at the time, noted that unlike other opposition leaders, Mr Navalny preferred to reach his supporters via the internet, blog posts and on social networks. This, he said, was something new for Russia.
“His attempt to speak directly with people and communicate as if he was one of them seemed like a populist approach,” Mr. Feldman said.
Mr Navalny has amassed over 6.5 million YouTube subscribers and used Instagram and Telegram to pitch his ideas on improving public services and living standards.
But it was his videos on corruption that he said are rampant among Russian elites that have made him such a major thorn alongside the Kremlin.
A 2017 film alleged that then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev amassed a real estate empire obscured by offshore companies and charitable foundations. Outrage over the revelations, which Medvedev denies, drove thousands of protesters through the streets of Moscow and other cities.
The most recent video, released shortly after Mr Navalny’s arrest for violating his parole conditions on a previous conviction, was of a Black Sea palace believed to belong to Mr Putin. This prompted a personal video rebuttal from the Russian leader, who largely avoided referring to Mr Navalny by name, calling him, among other things, “the patient from Berlin.”
Lasting nearly two hours, Mr Navalny’s video has racked up more than 116 million views and shows a sprawling resort set up with lavish venues, including a tea room, amphitheater and helipad. A Russian businessman with ties to the Kremlin says he owns the closely guarded property.
Although popular with some Russians, many others dislike Mr. Navalny. A national poll released on May 18 by independent agency Levada found that 56% of respondents who said they voted in a presidential election held on the nearest Sunday would vote for Mr Putin and 2% for Mr Navalny. In Moscow, where Navalny is better known, his number of polls increased only slightly, to 5%.
Mr Navalny is also less effective from the prison, to which he was sentenced after his recovery in Berlin from the poisoning, meaning he did not attend a series of parole meetings on a previous conviction . Protests in April to force his release drew fewer people than organizers had hoped and future rallies are now in doubt.
Mr Navalny also called off his hunger strike, stopping three weeks after doctors warned he was on the verge of death.
Most importantly, perhaps, the Russian authorities are in the process of having its political movement, including its anti-corruption foundation, declared an extremist organization, putting it on an equal footing with terrorist groups such as Al -Qaida or violent religious sects.
The move would stifle funding and give Moscow more leverage to demand that YouTube, Facebook and other websites remove content from its group and drain Mr. Navalny of social exposure. The next hearing is scheduled for June, but the main lieutenants have already fled to Europe.
One of them, Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to Mr Navalny, recently told a panel discussion hosted by the University of Chicago that Mr Putin’s drive to raise the stakes has forced the movement to reassess his tactics. “We have to be, as Alexei used to say, like water so that when they hit we are fluid, we are flexible, we get to regroup and reorganize,” he said.
Their main mission, however, remains the same: to keep Mr. Navalny in the public eye and alive.
“The risk will increase if it is forgotten,” Volkov said.
Alexei Navalny movement
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