Death of dissent: On Putin’s Russia today

Putin’s is not a sustainable style of governance 

Updated - February 23, 2024 09:41 am IST

Published - February 23, 2024 12:10 am IST

The death of Alexei Navalny, who was serving sentences adding up to more than 30 years on various charges, in a remote prison in Russia’s Arctic region, is a chilling reminder of the status of dissent in the state Vladimir Putin has built. For years, Navalny was the Kremlin’s most prominent critic. He survived a poisoning attack in 2020 and was taken to Germany for treatment. He later returned to Russia to “fight for freedom”, only to be imprisoned again. The reason for his death is still unknown. After the poison attack, he did have several health problems. His lawyers had complained about his not getting proper treatment in jail and he had staged hunger strikes. His wife Yulia Navalnaya said Mr. Putin “killed my husband” and vowed to continue his fight. Whatever the reason for his death, the Russian state cannot absolve itself of this tragedy. Russian authorities were hell bent on destroying the political opposition that Navalny had built. In Russia’s managed system, there are opposition parties that the Kremlin tolerates and there are dissidents who are treated as enemies of the state. Navalny, who started his political activism as a far-right ethno-nationalist, fell into the second category. Boris Nemtsov, another opposition politician who also fell into the second category, was shot dead in 2015 in Moscow.

President Putin, who effectively has run Russia for 24 years, and has plans to extend it by six more years through this year’s election, did not face any major political threat from Navalny. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings remain high, according to independent polls such as those by the Levada Center. The election fray is tightly managed — two of the candidates who were critical of the Ukraine war were barred from contesting, while Mr. Putin’s rivals are actually praising his leadership. Navalny was sentenced for decades and there was no scope for organised protests. Still, the fact that he had to die like this in a prison suggests the extent of the state’s fear of voices of dissent. Three of Navalny’s lawyers are in jail, while two others are in exile. By keeping Navalny in jail, the state wanted to send a message to its critics — fall in line or face the consequences. And Navalny, who chose to go back to Russia even after the poison attack, paid the supreme price for his activism. The Kremlin is centralising more and more powers in its hands, while the country is fighting a prolonged war abroad. The state does not want any voices of criticism or organised protests. It may have established order through fear as of now, but Russia’s own history suggests that this is not a sustainable model of governance.

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