The sordid episode of poisoning Alexei Navalny on August 20 in Siberia, which left him comatose in a Berlin hospital, is not the first time Russia’s most prominent opposition politician has come under a chemical attack. The German government has said toxicology tests showed Mr. Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok family, which was used in a 2018 attack in Britain on an ex-Soviet spy. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
The charismatic and combative Mr. Navalny, a lawyer by training, had once professed extreme nationalist views and hostility towards immigrants, leading to his expulsion from the liberal Yabloko party. The persona of the anti-corruption crusader that many Russians will more readily recall is that of a firebrand blogger-turned-politician, who has unrelentingly exposed corporate fraud in Russia’s state-owned energy companies and taken on the Kremlin establishment.
Born on June 4, 1976 in Butyn in Moscow Oblast, Navalny grew up in Obninsk, some 100 km south-west of Moscow. He rose to prominence when he led large-scale protests against Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, after serving as Prime minister in the foregoing four years and as President in the preceding eight years. Amid high drama before the snap 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, he was released within hours of the pronouncement of a five-year conviction for embezzlement; the abrupt U-turn was ascribed to the Kremlin’s intervention.
From February 2014, Mr. Navalny was placed under house arrest for several months and denied Internet access during investigations into another case of fraud that ended in a suspended conviction. His announcement to challenge Mr. Putin for the presidential poll was marked by a 2017 social media expose against then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s amassing of lucrative assets. The revelations channelled popular anger in a country reeling under rapidly declining living standards following a slump in oil prices and pension reforms.
In mass demonstrations in some 100 cities, thousands demanded President Putin’s resignation. A chemical attack near the offices of his Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) in April 2017, attributed to Kremlin loyalists, damaged Mr. Navalny’s vision in one eye. By the year end, the two previous convictions were invoked to bar Mr. Navalny from running against Mr. Putin in the February 2018 race.
Soon thereafter, Fifth Season of the Year, the forum Mr. Navalny had used to campaign for a boycott of the polls, was ordered by a court to close.
Violation of rights
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in November 2018 that repeated detentions of Mr. Navalny violated his right to liberty, fair trial and freedom of assembly and imposed $72,000 in damages. Seven months later, the Strasbourg Court held that the 2014 house was disproportionate to the criminal charges he faced, after its initial verdict that his conviction fell outside the definition of fraud.
Mr. Navalny’s latest campaign strategy was on display during the polls in September 2019 to various local councils, when candidates from his Russia of the Future party were barred from contesting. The smart vote system he devised, the electronic platform to enable tactical voting, encouraged citizens to reject Mr. Putin’s United Russia party candidates, even if that meant backing other pro-Kremlin parties or the communists. To devastating effect, United Russia lost nearly half its seats in Moscow and other cities. Mr. Navalny’s recent travels in Siberia, amid pervasive official surveillance, was to replicate this approach in regional polls this September, and very likely to extend to the 2021 parliamentary elections.
The silencing of Mr. Navalny has heightened speculation about Moscow hardening its stance towards the opposition, especially in the backdrop of the unrest in the province of Khabarovsk Krai for greater autonomy. Moreover, President Putin’s recent statement on deployment of the security services should the situation warrant in the ongoing uprising in neighbouring Belarus is a clear sign that the Kremlin cannot allow any unrest in its backyard to deteriorate into instability. When he is back in action, Mr. Navalny may encounter a far more hostile environment than in the past.