Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny
Alexey Navalny, Russian opposition leader, walks with demonstrators during a rally in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, an anti-corruption investigator whose exposés have targeted President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. His detention and subsequent imprisonment for more than 2 1/2 years upon his return from Germany, where he was recuperating from a nerve-agent attack he blames on the Kremlin, sparked the biggest unauthorized protests Putin has ever faced. The U.S. and EU have demanded Navalny’s release and hit senior Russian law enforcement officials with new sanctions over his treatment, further straining relations with the Kremlin.

1. Why is Navalny seen as a threat?

Navalny, 44, resisted the kind of pressure -- repeated jail sentences, house arrest, physical assault -- that led many other Putin critics to flee the country. Until his poisoning though, the Kremlin’s seeming special treatment of him inspired speculation that he was a known quantity and therefore an acceptable threat. He was even allowed to run for mayor of Moscow in 2013. But that calculus has changed. Navalny’s “smart voting” initiative, which encourages voters to coalesce around politicians most likely to beat the Kremlin’s favored candidate, led to the defeat of some ruling party representatives in 2019 and again had some success in local races in September 2020.

2. Who would want to harm Navalny?

The U.S. directly blames the Federal Security Service (FSB) for the attack, and the EU and U.K. say it could only have been done with the spy agency’s involvement. Investigative website Bellingcat said in December that it had identified members of a clandestine FSB unit specializing in poisons who had followed Navalny since January 2017. Putin later admitted Navalny was under surveillance but denied the government was behind the poisoning, saying that “if we had wanted to, we would have finished the job.” French President Emmanuel Macron described it as an “assassination attempt,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Navalny in the hospital and in October, the European Union blacklisted six people in Russia allied to Putin over the poisoning.

3. How does he make himself heard?

Navalny has a huge social media following, which made him a target as it allowed him to deliver his message despite an effective blackout by Russia’s tightly controlled television networks. After his arrest, he published an investigation into a giant Black Sea palace he said belongs to Putin. The Kremlin says that’s not true, but within days it became his most-popular video ever, racking up more than 100 million views, while a billionaire friend of Putin’s claimed ownership of the property. In a June 2020 survey by the Levada Center, a non-governmental research organization, Navalny was named the most inspiring public person in Russia other than Putin. But he suffered a symbolic setback in February when Amnesty International rescinded his status as a “prisoner of conscience,” saying anti-immigrant statements he made early in his career qualified as “advocacy of hatred.”

Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny

4. How has the Kremlin tried to neutralize him?

Navalny has been in and out of jail since 2011, often on charges of organizing unsanctioned protests, but never served more than a month at a time until his latest sentence. He was barred from running in the 2018 presidential election due to what the European Court of Human Rights labeled politically motivated convictions. The Kremlin learned its lesson in 2013 when Navalny was allowed to run for Moscow mayor against incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin loyalist, and received 27% of the vote. He had been handed a five-year suspended sentence in an embezzlement case in July of that year. Navalny also received a suspended sentence in 2014 while his younger brother, Oleg, was imprisoned for 3 1/2 years in a separate trial involving the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Both men denied wrongdoing.

5. Is it working?

After two weekends of large-scale protests following Navalny’s arrest, the authorities’ harsh crackdown appears to have delivered results. Over 10,000 people were detained at the rallies, as demonstrators braved riot police, freezing temperatures and threats they could face charges for participation. Many of Navalny’s key allies now face prosecution for their involvement, forcing the opposition to call off new protests as it regroups. Still, the demographics of the protests highlight why the Kremlin is worried: according to one pollster, the average age was younger than past protests and nearly half of the attendees were out for the first time.

6. What else has happened to Navalny?

An assailant linked to a radical pro-Putin group threw chemical dye in his face in 2017, nearly costing him his sight in one eye. When jailed for 30 days following Moscow city council elections in 2019, Navalny was briefly hospitalized after what his doctor called “a toxic reaction to an unknown chemical substance.” His official diagnosis was an allergic reaction. Earlier that year, the Russian authorities started an investigation into the alleged laundering of 1 billion rubles ($14 million) by his Anti-Corruption Foundation, charges that Navalny and his allies denied. He dissolved the fund after it was blacklisted in 2019 as a “foreign agent,” subjecting it to restrictive regulations. He said on Twitter at the time that the fund had never received foreign money.

Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny

7. What about his latest imprisonment?

Russian police detained Navalny upon arrival in Moscow on Jan. 17, 2021 over charges of violating the terms of a suspended sentence when he failed to check in during his recovery in Germany. A Moscow court ordered him jailed for 2 years and 8 months on Feb. 2 for violating parole for the 2014 fraud conviction. Investigators also opened a new criminal case against him for alleged fraud that could keep him in jail for a decade. Putin has said that Navalny is supported by American spy services, which he denies.

8. What action has been taken?

The Biden administration announced its first sanctions against Russia on March 2, punishing the Kremlin for the poisoning and jailing of Navalny in a sign of deepening tensions between the nuclear powers. The penalties -- like those adopted by the European Union -- targeted senior Russian law enforcement officials, as well as broadly matching sanctions the EU and the U.K. imposed earlier on other Russians allied with Putin in response to the attempted murder of Navalny. Officials targeted included Igor Krasnov, the country’s prosecutor general, and Alexander Kalashnikov, the Federal Penitentiary Service chief, according to a U.S. Treasury statement.

9. How was he poisoned?

Navalny fell ill in August 2020 on a flight to Moscow after meeting with local activists in the Siberian city of Tomsk, who were organizing for regional elections. His shouts of pain could be heard in a video taken on the plane, which was diverted to Omsk in a move that likely saved his life. Local doctors kept Navalny in a clinic there for two days before, under international pressure, he was transfered to Berlin’s Charite hospital. The Kremlin says it found no proof Navalny was poisoned. In October, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, confirmed that a nerve agent from the banned Novichok group had been used in the poisoning.

10. Have things like this happened before?

Yes. There were high-profile poisonings of former intelligence officers living in exile in the U.K.: Alexander Litvinenko was given a fatal dose of polonium 210 in his tea in a London restaurant in 2006, while Sergei Skripal survived an assassination attempt with Novichok in 2018. The chief coordinator for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia organization, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was tailed by the same FSB team linked to Navalny’s poisoning before he twice suffered near-fatal attacks, according to a Bellingcat report in February. Activist Pyotr Verzilov, who led a pitch invasion during the 2018 soccer World Cup final game to protest Putin’s rule, was treated for what doctors said were symptoms of poisoning later that year. Other Kremlin critics who have been killed include former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, journalist Anna Politkovskaya -- who had earlier suffered a poison attack -- and human-rights activist Natalia Estemirova. A number of Chechens living in exile have also been killed, including in Germany in August 2019.

11. What does this mean for Putin?

Navalny’s imprisonment ensured heightened tensions between Putin and Biden right out of the gate. But Russia’s relationship with Washington is already at a post-Cold War nadir, meaning Biden’s leverage is limited. Some critics have dismissed new sanctions from the U.S. and EU as toothless. More relevant could be domestic politics and events in former Soviet states. The crackdown has apparently knocked the wind out of the opposition for now, with the next round expected ahead of September parliamentary elections. Those backing the use of force can also look to neighboring Belarus, where a much-larger movement to remove President Alexander Lukashenko eventually crumbled in the face of police violence and oppressive tactics.

12. Does the opposition have other leaders?

Navalny, who combines charisma with a sophisticated understanding of how to use social media to bypass the Kremlin’s blackout, is by far the most visible leader among Russia’s fractured anti-Putin bloc. He’s the only opposition politician who controls a nationwide network that could be mobilized for elections in September 2021 to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. Currently, the 450-seat body doesn’t have a single opposition member.

The Reference Shelf

  • Clara Ferreira Marques says Russia needs Navalny, despite his sometimes objectionable views.
  • A Bloomberg report on U.S. and EU sanctions.
  • Navalny’s YouTube video alleging Putin built a $1.3 billion seaside palace.
  • A Bloomberg article on Navalny’s sentencing and the international reaction.
  • Bellingcat implicates an FSB chemical weapons team in Navalny’s poisoning.
  • Navalny’s “smart voting” initiative encourages voters to coalesce around politicians most likely to beat Putin’s favored candidate.
  • A QuickTake on U.S. sanctions against Russia.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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