Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Since 1999 Russia has been under the control of Vladimir Putin in one form or another. The Russian constitution dictates that a person is only allowed to serve two consecutive terms, so in 2008 Putin was forced to step down as President and serve as Prime Minister. However, Putin and his allies found a loophole: there was nothing to prevent an individual from serving more than one two-term period in office. Even from 2008-2012 when Dmitry Medvedev, a close ally of Putin, held the presidency, it was widely accepted that Putin remained in control. During the early years of Putin’s regime he enjoyed very high approval ratings of over 80%, something almost unheard of in western democracies. However, after his re-election to the presidency in 2012, protests broke out after cries of electoral fraud and a fixed election. Who was at the centre of these protests? Alexei Navalny.
Navalny is the biggest opposition figure in Russian politics; he became prominent through his anti-corruption campaigns and YouTube channel that exposes the government. This grass roots activism has made him a very significant threat to Putin and United Russia (the ruling party in parliament). So much so that he has been charged on jumped-up counts of embezzlement and money laundering twice shortly after the 2012 protests. These cases were clearly politically motivated, and were ruled arbitrary and unfair by the European Court of Human Rights in 2017.
Despite the Russian regime repeatedly attacking Navalny legally for decades, he ran in the Moscow mayoral election in 2013 against pro-government incumbent Sergey Sobyanin. He ran an almost unseemly large campaign with over 20,000 volunteers campaigning for him in the city. He received very little press coverage so truly relied on his ground swell of support, and his own charisma, to win over the population of Moscow. However he only gained 27% of the vote, whereas Sobyanin received 51% and won the election.
This did not discourage him, as in 2016 he announced that he would be running in the 2018 Russia presidential election on a ticket of anti-Putinism, anti-corruption and nationalism. His YouTube channel documented the attacks on him during his campaign, including when he was sprayed with green dye by an unknown individual – taking away 80% of his vision in his right eye. He was also imprisoned for 25 days in 2017 after inciting illegal protests. All of these attacks do not have a direct link to the Kremlin, but Navalny, and human rights NGOs have all asserted that both the government and the police intentionally tried to hinder the campaign. He was jailed for a second time in 2017, and barred from the election, meaning Putin remained the only viable candidate. Navalny called for a boycott and protests over the election, as it was clear that the result was pre-determined. Putin, of course, won gaining 76% of the vote.
So Navalny has a very long and rocky history with the regime, which has come to a head in recent months. In August 2020 he was poisoned with a nerve agent Novichok – a Soviet-era chemical weapon and one frequently used the Russian security service the FSB. Navalny has remained vocal about who he believed tried to kill him, tweeting ‘I know who tried to kill me. The case concerning my murder attempt is solved’ – clearly asserting that it was the Kremlin who ordered the hit on him. Putin, naturally, denies this, disregarding the claims as baseless. After recovering in a Berlin hospital, Navalny flew back to Russia on the 17th of January, and was detained almost instantaneously for having allegedly broken the terms of a suspended sentence he had been serving. Since then, he has been remanded in prison before a trial, but his Instagram has called people to take to the streets and protest. The Kremlin are likely to block any attempts at protest and maintain that they do not fear Navalny’s followers.
When discussing Navalny and his anti-corruption, anti-government campaigns, it is important to state that he is not a westernised, liberalising figure. In the west he would not considered to be on the left of the ideological spectrum. He is a staunch nationalist, and has consistently remained vague about his views towards ethnic nationalism. Beyond his anti-corruption campaigns, he has been ambiguous about the direction he would take Russia in; something definitely note-worthy.
Navalny’s struggles against the government will likely continue for years to come, particularly due to Putin’s constitutional changes that could allow him to remain in power until 2036. All the world can do is wait to see what his trial brings.