Alexei Navalny: From Opposition to Arrest
Countries governed by authoritarian leaders have a long history of attempting to quash dissent and eliminate critics. On August 20, 2020, longtime opposition leader and fierce critic of the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned and later arrested. In addition, multiple people from Navalny’s team and family have been detained or put on house arrest. The Russian government is no stranger to silencing opposition. However, the poisoning and arrest of Navalny stood out from other previous attempts to muzzle public dissidents namely because Navalny has been such an iconic voice for the Russian frustration over the years. In response to Navalny’s arrests, tens-of-thousands of Russian citizens have taken to the street to protest, public action that seems to have been unanticipated by Russia’s authoritarian leaders.
Navalny has been butting heads with the Russian government for the better part of the last decade. The Kremlin targeted Navalny for years prior to his recent poisoning and arrest. In 2011, Navalny was credited with using social media and blog posts to mobilize national mass protests against voter fraud in the Russian parliamentary elections. These protests lasted into 2012 when President Vladamir Putin won a third term in office. The next year, in 2013, Navalny was accused of embezzlement in relation to a supposed theft from a state-owned lumber company. It is important to know that, at the time the government brought these charges in 2013, Navalny had begun to organize a run for President and the Russian constitution states that no one in prison can run for the office of President. It seems likely, as many in Russia and abroad concluded, that the embezzlement charges against Navalny were a politically motivated attempt to keep Navalny off the ballot. The European Court of Human Rights has called the charges invalid because Navalny appeared to follow normal business practices. However, the Russian government brought the same case against Navalny again in 2017 and handed down a five years suspended sentence.
The Kremlin’s relationship with Navalny continued to deteriorate throughout the decade. On August 20, 2020 Navalny was hospitalized after his plane from Siberia to Moscow made an emergency landing due to his noticeable illness and deteriorating condition. Two days later, a helicopter airlifted Navalny to Charite Hospital in Berlin Germany for treatment where the medical team indicated that their tests showed Navalny was poisoned. The medical team’s assessment was backed-up by German officials. Later, in September 2020, labs in France and Sweden confirmed that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok nerve agent, a Soviet-ear chemical weapon. At the same time, Russian officials rejected all claims that Navalny was poisoned.
In late-September the Russian government announced that Navalny was welcome to return to Russia. However, on December 8, 2020, Russia’s prison services gave Navalny a seemingly impossible ultimatum. Navalny was told to return to Russia by the next morning and report to the agency's Moscow office. The prison services agency warned him that he would be jailed if he returned to Russia any later because being out of Russia violated the terms of his suspended sentence. Navalny’s spokeswoman noted the impossibility of Navalny returning on such short notice because he was still suffering severe side-effects from the poisoning. Finally In January of 2021, Navalny returned to Russia and was arrested for violating the conditions of his suspended sentence by leaving Russia to receive treatment in Germany.
Quickly after his arrest, Navalny received a two year and eight month sentence from Moscow City Court for violating his suspended sentence. The decision has been criticized domestically and internationally as politically motivated. Protests erupted across Russia on January 23, 2021 and continued for several weeks. Protests occurred from Kaliningrad in the far west of Russia to the far east city of Vladivostok. The largest and most violent of these protests occurred in Moscow and St. Petersburg. While most of the tens-of-thousands of protesters remained peaceful, clashes with police did occur particularly at the larger demonstrations. Protesters broke through police lines in many areas and, in Moscow's center square, videos show police and protesters in physical altercations. Protesters and riot police were captured on video trading punches while a group of younger protesters kicked around a police helmet like a soccer ball.
While Navalny’s sentencing certainly served as a catalyst moment that ignited a forceful display of dissent against the Russian government, frustration among the public over the government’s handling of the economic downturn and stagnant wages has been brewing for some time. Accusations of corruption among government officials, rising poverty, falling incomes, and limited aid to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic have left many Russian citizens feeling ignored by their leaders. The Russian government has not been able to get a handle on its stagnant economy that is largely the result of a bust in oil prices and sanctions against the country. Furthermore, real disposable income among Russian citizens was 10% lower in 2020 compared to 2013. Adding to citizens frustration of government incompetence is the allegations of widespread corruption within the Russian government. There are reports that one billion rubles (13.6 million USD) were stolen from public works funds. Navalny himself created a video allegedly showing President Putin’s $1 billion palace that he claims was refurbished using money obtained through bribes. While it was Navalny’s sentencing that got protestors onto the streets, the protests are about much more than securing his release.
The Russian government is looking for a quick way to end these protests. Since the protests began, 11,000 people have been detained by the police. Many of those detained have complained of harsh treatment and abuse by the police while in custody. As part of this attempt by the government to quickly stop the protests, President Putin approved legislation that drastically increased fines for violations during demonstrations. The fine for those who are insubordinate to law enforcement officers increased from 1,000 rubles to 4,000 rubles (54.30 USD) in a country where the average monthly income is only about $650 USD. In response to the mass arrests and increased fines, Navalny and his allies have called for a halt to street protests. Instead, they have shifted their focus to lobbying countries, including those in the European Union and the United States, to institute sanctions on President Putin and those in his inner-circle. While the protests were unsuccessful in changing any domestic policies as of yet, the lobbying by Navalny and his allies may be paying off. Germany, Poland, and Sweden have expelled Russian diplomats from their country. Furthermore, on February 22, 2021, European Union foreign ministers approved sanctions on four unnamed members of Putin’s inner circle.
Even though protests have died down, we should not lose sight of how these mass demonstrations highlighted, both to their government and the world, the large number of Russian citizens who are dissatisfied. It has actually been speculated that Navalny’s allies decided to put a hold on protests for the time being in order to build momentum for the Russian parliamentary elections on September 19, 2021. United Russia, the current ruling party, is polling at 30 percent. If Navalny and his allies succeed, however, in mounting a sizable opposition the United Russia party could lose its supermajority and hold on its authoritarian power. So, while the current wave of protests did not lead any change, it is possible that the underlying anger among citizens displayed by these demonstrations will lead to big shake-ups in Russia’s future elections.