On Tuesday, police came down hard on protesters in Moscow just hours after a judge ruled that Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s harshest critic, would spend the next 2 years and 8 months in prison – a sentence condemned by the West. Thousands of protesters had already come out onto streets across the Russian Federation demanding Navalny’s release after he was arrested on his return from Germany where he had been recovering from an attempt on his life in August 2020.
Navalny, of course, collapsed when he took a flight from South-Eastern Russia to Moscow last August and blamed his poisoning on Russian security services operating under Vladimir Putin’s orders, stirring unwelcome memories of previous chemical attacks carried out in the West on Putin’s exiled opponents. Following his poisoning, he was taken to a Russian hospital, subsequently evacuated to Berlin, recovered, and then surprised many by returning to Moscow in mid-January where he was arrested. The latter event was captured in hours of online live streams watched by millions.
But just who is this opposition activist who has emerged as a household name, both in Russia and the West, and has been assigned the label “the man Vladimir Putin fears most”? Navalny is a 44 year-old real-estate lawyer of Russian and Ukrainian descent who grew up in the small city of Obninsk, 100km south-west of Moscow. He originally made a name for himself as a shareholder rights activist in the late 2000s. In 2008, he invested small sums of money in several Russian state-owned companies and then proceeded to pursue these companies for information which he would in turn upload to a blog that was widely read in Russian financial circles. This led to Navalny making a name for himself as an anti-corruption activist fixated on the hidden money of the Russian elite.
Navalny’s anti-corruption activism led to creeping political activism but his true political arrival came in 2011 when Putin unexpectedly announced that he would again run for president. The same year, Navalny memorably quipped that Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, was a “party of crooks and thieves” and played a leading role in protests that erupted in the country. In 2013, he ran for Mayor of Moscow and, despite being largely censored, received 27% of the vote, losing to a Putin appointee but receiving a significant vote-share for an opposition figure. It was around this time that internet access in Russia started to expand rapidly, something Navalny exploited tactfully through his use of social media platforms, most notably YouTube where he regularly uploads slickly produced content which hammers Russia’s political and business elite by drawing attention to their hidden wealth. These videos in turn have been used to galvanise political opposition to Putin, underscoring Navalny’s ability to use the internet to mobilise opposition activists.
But what is Navalny’s ultimate aim? One Russia correspondent has noted that he has been daringly explicit for years in stating that his goal is to take down Putin and overhaul the Russian political system. However, this ambitious aim was stymied during the years 2014-2018 as Putin rode the nationalistic wave that swept across Russia following the annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine. However, the shock 2018 decision by Moscow to dramatically raise the pension age for men and women while using the start of the FIFA World Cup in the country as political cover gave Navalny a fresh opening from which to denounce Putin. That same year he tried, but was blocked, from getting on the ballot for the presidential election when Putin was elected to his fourth term. Despite being prevented from running, Navalny did use the opportunity to build the physical infrastructure of campaign style offices all across Russia which in turn lead to increasing pressure from the Government on him and his organization. This pressure was characterised by frequent raids against offices and detention of opposition supporters. It was this increasing activism and pressure which ultimately, it appears, led to his poisoning, his recovery in Germany, his return to Russia and brings us up to the present day with his jailing.
While Navalny has been hailed in some circles in the West as the long-awaited Russian democratic reformer, others have noted his nationalistic views and his previous commentary on immigrants from Central Asian and the Caucasus. That said, his ability to appeal beyond Russian liberals and to a broad cross-section of the Russian population is exactly what makes him the most prominent Russian opposition activist to emerge since Putin’s ascendancy to power. Navalny’s future and that of his movement remains unclear as he languishes in a Russian jail and a police crackdown continues across the country.