MOSCOW – To his supporters, anti-corruption figure Alexei Navalny, whose detention has sparked massive protests across Russia, was sent to prison for the crime of daring to survive President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to poison him.
“Putin is turning his main threat into a martyr, a kind of Russian Nelson Mandela,” said Jaka Bizilj, the director of the Berlin-based humanitarian group Cinema for Peace Foundation, referring to South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and former president.
In August, Bizilj organized for Navalny to be evacuated by private plane to Germany after he fell into a coma in the Siberian city of Omsk. Russia says there is no evidence the longtime Kremlin critic was poisoned. But German scientists determined Navalny had been exposed to the Russian military grade nerve agent Novichok, a claim backed by the U.S. and several European countries. An investigation by Bellingcat, a digital research organization, traced the poisoning to Russian security agents.
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Five months after the near-fatal attack, Navalny returned Moscow in mid-January. Just before takeoff from a Berlin airport, he posted a video to Instagram of his wife quoting a line from a popular Russia crime movie: “Bring us some vodka, boy. We’re flying home.” Navalny was immediately arrested at the border. Russian authorities said that by seeking medical treatment abroad he violated the terms of his parole in connection with an embezzlement case from 2014 that is widely considered to be politically motivated.
For several weeks, tens of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets — and ice, one demonstration was held on a frozen lake in Kazan in southwest at -45 degrees Fahrenheit — across the country to demand Navalny’s release. More unrest is expected after Navalny was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison on Feb. 3.
“(Putin’s) only method is killing people,” Navalny said as the judge read the verdict. “For as much as he pretends to be a great geopolitician, he’ll go down in history as a poisoner.” As Navalny stood in a glass cage guarded by court bailiffs he pointed to his wife Yulia on the other side of the court and drew a heart on the glass wall.
Analysts say the demonstrations represent a burgeoning protest movement that is growing exponentially and is spurred on by myriad issues coming to a head including increased economic hardship, frustration with the coronavirus pandemic, and the shocking scale of graft that for decades has been perpetrated by Putin and Russia’s political elite – exposed by anti-corruption campaigners such as Navalny.
“This is qualitatively different from what we’ve seen before,” said Robert Legvold, an expert on Russia and professor emeritus at Columbia University, noting that the protests have occurred not just across Russia but across ideological groups (from pro-democracy reformers to conservative nationalists). “A very substantial portion of that population no longer regards the government as legitimate,” he said.
It’s not difficult to see why.
After Navaly was arrested, his Anti-Corruption Foundation released a two-hour video investigation on YouTube detailing a luxury mansion on Russia’s southern Black Sea coast purportedly belonging to Putin. The video alleges that it sits on a private estate 39 times the size of Monaco, is the largest private home in Russia and was paid for with “the largest bribe in history.” The property has a theater, a casino, a church, a hockey rink, an “aquatic” disco and a hookah lounge with a pole-dancing stage. Putin denies owning the opulent palace and Russian billionaire Arkady Rotenberg has since stepped forward to say the 20,000-acre estate in fact belongs to him, not Putin.
But Rotenberg and Russia’s leader are close. For a time they were judo sparring partners. Putin’s official annual salary is about $150,000, according to official figures, a relatively modest sum for a man routinely seen wearing $60,000 watches. And various watchdogs, investigation groups and anti-corruption campaigners have estimated Putin’s personal wealth to be somewhere between $70 billion and $200 billion.
Nobody seems to know how exactly Putin, 68, acquired all this wealth.
Some of the protesters in Russia have been expressing their view on the matter by mocking Putin by bringing gold-colored toilet brushes to the demonstrations.
“Everything that is happening (with Navalny) is illegal,” said Moscow resident Darya Grechishkina, 20, an office manager. “Navalny is in jail because he is Putin’s personal enemy and Putin has unlimited power. I do not trust the justice system in Russia.”
Grechishkina said that she and most of her friends are afraid “to even go for a walk outside” because of the authorities’ intense crackdown on the protests. Police and security services have intimidated, beaten and detained activists, students and anyone who appears vaguely connected to the unrest. They’ve ordered social media companies to take down all posts calling for people to participate in the demonstrations and threatened them with hefty fines and other punishments for failure to comply.
Journalist jailed for a retweet
Almost 5,700 people have been detained across Russia, according to OVD-Info, an independent monitoring group that tracks political persecution in Russia. At least 80 journalists have been arrested, including Sergei Smirnov, the editor of MediaZona, an independent website founded by members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot.
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MediaZona’s reporting focuses on issues of human rights and criminal justice.
Smirnov was arrested for retweeting a post on Twitter that poked fun at his apparent resemblance to a Russian rock musician. The post also referred to a planned pro-Navalny protest that included a date but not the location or any other details.
“He’s calm because he’s innocent. He is upset that the court made an unfair decision,” said Fyodor Sirosh, Smirnov’s lawyer. “People are angry because they can’t get justice and can’t get a fair trial.” Smirnov was detained while on a walk with his five-year-old son. He was sentenced to 25 days “administrative arrest,” meaning there’s no trial.
Russia is no stranger when it comes to harassing and even killing journalists and opposition voices. In fact, 58 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1992, according to the Committee to Protest Journalists; 28 since Putin ascended to the presidency in 2000. The list of high-profile Putin critics and former Kremlin insiders, spies and power brokers who are the victims of unsolved murders, grisly poisonings, suspicious deaths, as well as lighter forms of persecution and ill-treatment, is also long.
One of the doctors at the Russian hospital in Omsk where Navalny was treated immediately after his poisoning has died, the hospital said Thursday. The hospital said in a statement he died “suddenly” but did not provide a cause of death.
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Polina Sadovskaya, literary and free expression group PEN America’s Eurasia director, said that the Russian government is currently trying to prevent “people (from) understanding the size of the protests and it seems like they want to put a lid on what’s happening right now and keep more of the public from taking to the streets.”
Sadovskaya said she is concerned Russia’s federal media watchdog “can literally force the media to take down any information that they find false and threaten media outlets that they can be closed if they don’t comply. And there will be more of those laws.”
‘New stage of the crisis for Putin’
Arkady Dubnov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, a foreign affairs think tank based in Russia’s capital, described “the developments around Navalny” as a “new stage of the crisis for Putin’s regime.” He said Navalny’s video of “Putin’s palace” was especially troubling and dangerous because it made younger Russians laugh at him.
“This is the worst kind of delegitimization of power,” Dubnov said.
He added that when Russia holds nationwide elections in September it seems likely, because of the depth and scale of the anger underpinning the protests, that Putin “will for the first time in his life have to actively participate in the campaign… The authorities will have to work very hard to keep his United Russia Party from defeat.”
However, for now, the sweeping police crackdown has had little impact on Putin’s overall approval rating, a survey by independent pollster Levada Center showed Thursday. The poll, conducted in the lead up to Navalny’s sentencing, showed a 1% drop in Putin’s approval rating to 64%, although his popularity among younger respondents dropped 17% to 51%, and Navalny’s supporters say that even independent polls can’t be trusted because many Russians are fearful of speaking out against Putin.
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Still, Vladimir Ashurkov, a Navalny ally and London-based executive director of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, said there is “no silver bullet” in terms of coming up with ways to secure Navalny’s release, reform Russia’s justice system, ensure media freedoms or persuade Putin to leave the office he has held for two decades.
Ashurkov recently called on President Joe Biden, who has characterized Navalny’s detention as a “matter of deep concern to us,” to sanction 35 members of Putin’s inner circle, including eight Russian oligarchs, to pile pressure on the Kremlin. These sanctions would go beyond what Washington has already imposed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea, election interference and for other malicious cyber activities.
Russia said Friday it was expelling diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany, accusing them of attending a rally in support Navalny. The action drew a strong rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We consider this expulsion unjustified and think it is another facet of the things that can be seen in Russia at the moment that are pretty far from the rule of law,” she said in Berlin after a videoconference with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Top Navalny strategist Leonid Volkov argued Thursday that trying to maintain rallies every weekend would only lead to many more arrests and wear out the participants. Instead, he urged supporters to focus on challenging Kremlin-backed candidates in September’s elections and securing new sanctions against Russia.
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Ashurkov said that “Putin is a tactician, not a strategist. When he feels enough pressure he’ll change his decision (about Navalny) and then the lawyers will find a pretext to let him go.”
He added that after Navalny recuperated in Germany there was never any doubt that he would return to Russia despite fears for his safety and liberty.
“It’s a moral choice. His life’s work is in Russia. The organization that he built is in Russia. His millions of supporters are in Russia. He has done nothing wrong. Why shouldn’t he return to his home country?” he said.
But Moscow resident Tatiana Ivanova, 71, had a different take.
“If we look back in history nothing good ever came of a revolution in Russia. I am skeptical the protests will get us what we want. Nobody gives up power easily and if the power is bigger, it almost always means bigger suffering for ordinary people,” she said.
And Sasha Krasny, 47, a philanthropy consultant who emigrated in 1990 to New York, where she still lives, from the former Soviet Union, said Putin was doing it all wrong.
“He is shooting himself in the foot by trying to poison Navalny and imprison him. Because the more he does that the more Navalny is becoming popular,” she said.
Contributing: Arthur Bondar in Moscow, Claire Thornton in Washington