Navalny – The next in line for Russian authorities.
The recent arrest and imprisonment of Alexi Navalny highlights Russia’s renowned history of silencing political opposition. Navalny is an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin’s zeal for Soviet authoritarianism and is also considered the driving force for political change in Russia. His rise to power captured international observers’ attention in August 2020 when he was suspected of being poisoned on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and then evacuated to a German hospital. The investigation, published in The Lancet, determined that novichok (a Soviet-era chemical weapon) was used in the attempt. The use of novichok was also hastily condemned by the European Union when it sanctioned members of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau (FSB) who were believed to have been involved in the attempt.
At the time of the poisoning, Navalny was serving a suspended prison sentence for what he argued are trumped-up fraud charges. After his release from the German hospital, Russia’s prison service (FSIN) made it clear that he would be arrested if he returned to Russia. Despite the warning, Navalny chose to return and was arrested at the airport. This caused civil unrest and protests throughout Russia and drew further international attention to the ease with which critics of Putin’s authoritarian rule can end up in prison. While Navalny was fortunate to have survived this poisoning attempt, he is not the first to have been targeted by Russian authorities’ elaborate schemes.
For example, in 2015, Boris Nemtsov, leader of key opposition group solidarnost, was murdered while crossing the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow. Nemtsov was a vehement critic of former President Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. It was also around this time that Navalny and Nemtsov were close associates working together as outspoken critics of Putin’s Presidency.
Writers, authors and human rights activists are also routinely persecuted in Putin’s Russia. Anna Politkovskaya was a writer and reporter on the Second Chechen War and an outspoken critic of Putin’s. In an eerie foreshadowing to Navalny’s experiences last year, she was poisoned on a flight while on her way to assist in the Beslan School hostage crisis in 2004. Surviving the poisoning, she then rose to international prominence as a political commentator. Specifically, she received awards for her coverage on Russian affairs and her book, Putin’s Russia, where she argued that Russia still operated like a police state under Putin’s rulership. During the same War, Politkovskaya also published A Dirty War, in which she criticised the Russian government’s media censorship over reports on developments in the War. She was later found murdered in her Moscow apartment in 2006, widely believed to have been the victim of a contract killing.
Putin’s Russia also routinely targets defectors as much as it does critics and opposition figures. Former FSB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, was the victim of a polonium-210 assassination in the UK in 2006. Litvinenko sought asylum in the UK in 2000 after publicly accusing the institution of trying to assassinate Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky two years earlier in 1998. Berezovsky was a powerful oligarch and critic of Putin in the lead up to Putin’s first Presidency in 2000. The allegations were also the subject of a 2016 report by the UK. Similarly, the former double agent turned defector Sergei Skripal was poisoned in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Similar to Navalny, Novichok was also used in this attempt. Recent reports also indicate that Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition figure, was targeted by the same FSB squad members who were involved in Navalny’s poisoning.
For some time, coverage of Russian politics has centred around Putin’s slow rise to power and the associated silencing and elimination of political opposition. Navalny’s poisoning is, therefore, only the latest in a long line of attempts Russia has made in silencing opposition. Although Navalny survived, Russian authorities imply that Navalny remains a convicted felon who breached a suspended sentence. Yet, the growing popularity of Navalny’s opposition movement suggests another motive exists by the Russian state - one that involves silencing its leader. Silencing opposition is in fact essential to the Putin regime’s survival because criticism and opposition, in its view, weaken Russian strength and authority. Such a view relies on a convoluted and inaccurate narrative of Russia’s soviet past - one that forges a narrative about Russia’s strength and place in the world. Importantly, in Putin’s view, these are the ideals modern Russian success depends upon. Putin’s fondness for the USSR likely comes from his tenure as a former KGB operative and his dismay at the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Growing resentment and frustration within Russia at how Putin handles criticism will only trigger more protests and civil unrest. If Navalny or other critics spend the rest of their days in prison or are targeted in assassinations, clamour for democratic reform will continue to grow. While it does, the international community and Russians themselves will demand greater accountability and transparency from Putin’s rule. Russians must therefore continue to channel the resolve and determination of critics, both past and present alike.
Mitchell Thomas holds a Bachelor of Arts (Government and International Relations) from Sydney University. He writes with a number of outlets and is interested in globalisation, defence policy, cybersecurity and human rights.