Home > 2021 > Navalny Vs. Putin — Russia In Turmoil | R G Gidadhubli

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

Navalny Vs. Putin — Russia In Turmoil | R G Gidadhubli

Friday 12 February 2021

by R.G.Gidadhubli *

Alexei Navalny has hit the media headlines both in Russia and abroad in January 2021. Hence several questions arise. Why Navalny has gained so much immense popularity both domestically in Russia and globally? At the same time why despite getting immense popularity, he has been facing repeated punishment of imprisonment by the Russian government? An effort has been made to enquire and seek answers to these questions.

Navalny Contentions

44-year-old law graduate from Moscow, Alexei Navalny’s rise as a force in Russian politics began in 2008 when he started an anti-corruption campaign and formed Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) to promote and carry out his objective and activities. After, over a decade of having started this organisation, he has emerged as a political activist in Russia gaining huge popularity in the country despite not being a member of any political party but possibly getting direct and indirect support. He alleged malpractices and corruption at some of Russia’s big state-controlled corporations.

It needs to be mentioned that he has been very critical of the Russian government and the Russian president Mr Vladimir Putin. This is evident from the fact that during 2011 parliamentary election, even though he did not fight as a candidate, Navalny urged his blog readers to vote for any party except the United Russia party of Putin, which he dubbed as the "party of crooks and thieves". Perhaps making such a direct critical statement on the ruling party was partly unjustified and for which he has been possibly given severe response by the government.

Secondly, Navalny has directly accused and targeted Putin in his anti-corruption campaign. For instance, he has also specifically mentioned Putin’s Palace on the Black Sea coast of Russia costing 100 billion Rubles ($1.35 billion). It is contended by Russia’s political opposition that this property has become a brazen symbol of rampant state corruption running straight to the top. According to Mr Navalny’s blog, rich businessmen of Russia have built this luxurious palace for President Putin, which was viewed by more than 55 million people and became a huge talking point on Russian social media. But the Kremlin has dismissed the video as a "pseudo-investigation".

Thirdly, Navalny has millions of Russian followers on his social media blog - many in their early 20s and 30s on his campaign against corruption, which has emerged as a major issue in Russia. It needs to be stated that due to widespread and high level of corruption, the Russian economy has suffered badly affecting a large section of the population – causing money laundering, increasing unemployment and leading to wide income disparities. More than 35 - 40 pc of the population have to survive on below-average income. In contrast at the same time corruption has enabled the emergence of a class of millionaires during the last over two decades many of whom have parked their ill-gotten wealth abroad. This is because there is a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who have a common interest in this widespread corruption and making ill-gotten money at the cost of a large section of the population. In fact from a classless society during the Soviet era, a New Class of Oil Barons comprising of multi-millionaires has emerged with the support of politicians and bureaucrats in Russia while the large section of Working Class of the country has been badly hit due to the poor state of the economy.

Fourthly, it was reported that in July 2020 Navalny collapsed on a flight in Siberia and was rushed to a hospital in Omsk where he was in coma and there was speculation that his life was in danger. With the approval of Russian government, a German-based charity airlifted him to Berlin for treatment. On 2nd September 2020 the German government revealed that tests carried out by the military found a chemical nerve agent of Novichok group. Mention may be made of the fact that Novichok was the chemical weapon which nearly killed former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, in March 2018. As per media reports a local woman died later from contact with Novichok.

As per reports Navalny has accused the Russian Government for his poisoning and has alleged involvement of Putin claiming that he has evidence to that effect. However, the Kremlin authorities have

consistently denied any role in Navalny’s poisoning. Not only that Navalny was allowed to go to Germany for treatment where he stayed for about 6 months.

Fourthly, on 17th January 2021, Navalny was arrested at a Moscow airport when he returned from Germany after recovering from poisoning and has been remanded in custody for 30 days and has been placed in a cell in Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina detention center. Reacting to this Navalny called on Russians to "take to the streets" to protest against his detention. Hence his team called for a nationwide protest on 23rd Jan. and again on 31st Jan. 2021 which was illegal as per Russian law.

Fifth, Navalny has succeeded in getting support from a large section of Russians against his imprisonment. As reported in Russia and by the global media, there were protests in more than 100 cities in Russia apart from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk against Navalny’s arrest and 4000 people who were chanting slogans for the release of Navalny from jail and “Putin Resign” were arrested during the last two weeks. Moreover, many media reporters including ladies were arrested and hurt for disregarding a law passed by the Russian government in 2018.

Sixth, mention needs to be made of the fact that Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and ally of Navalny and Vladlen Los, a lawyer with Navalny’s Anit-Corruption Fund, Anastasia Panchenko, the coordinator of Navalny’s headquarters in the southern Krasnodar region were

detained in the last week of January and not allowed to meet him. Moreover, the flats of Navalny’s wife Yulia and Navalny’s brother were raided on 30th January 2021. In response as expected Sobol has described the Russian authorities’ behavior as "absolute lawlessness."

Seventh, to promote his main political objective against corruption, Navalny has urged the Western countries to do justice for Russia to be critical and support him and his activists for cracking down on "dirty money" system that has emerged in the country. At any rate this has suited the interest of the West to criticize Russia and particularly Putin. Navalny’s detention has sparked global outrage and a chorus of international calls pressuring Putin for the Kremlin critic’s immediate release.

Russia’s Perspective

The Russian government has totally denied allegations made by Navalny and in fact has accused him of repeatedly violating law. As opined by some analysts from Russia’s judicial perspective, Navalny has been jailed several times for his ‘anti-national political activities’. For instance, he was briefly jailed in July 2013 on embezzlement charges in the city of Kirov and was given five-year suspended sentence, which Navalny alleged was political. Navalny was convicted a second time in a retrial in 2017 and was handed over 5 year suspended sentence. In all he was in jail for 228 days till the latest imprisonment. In 2018 Russia passed a law that prohibits calling on anyone under the age of 18 to attend unauthorized street protests. Russia claims that Navalny has been persistently violating this law involving young generation to participate in his nationwide protests during the last couple of years. Navalny said it was designed to impede his own activities.

Secondly, despite being sentenced the Russian government did not bar Navalny from contesting in an election. In fact, he was allowed out of prison to campaign for the Moscow mayoral elections in 2018, in which he was runner-up. He secured about 27 pc votes behind Putin’s ally Sergei Sobyanin.

Thirdly, on the issue of poisoning, the Kremlin has consistently denied any role in Navalny’s poisoning. Not only that Navalny was given parole so that he could go to Germany for treatment. Moreover, Russia claims that it suspended sentence from a previous criminal case to enable him to leave the country for treatment.

Fourthly, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has shrugged off criticism by the West contending that Navalny’s case is a "domestic issue" and that Russia has "no intention of listening to any statements.

Western Response

The West has been highly supportive of Navalny and critical of the treatment meted out to him by the Russian government. Thus Navalny has succeeded in getting support for his cause from the West by media analysts, human rights groups and policy makers.

Firstly, this is evident from the fact that the Newly Elected President of the USA Mr. Joe Biden during his first mutual talk with Vladimir Putin has urged him to release Nalvalny from prison. In fact Jake Sullivan, who has become President Joe Biden’s national security adviser has frankly stated "Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable". In fact the former U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo also frequently bashed Moscow on its human rights record, arms-control violations, and other issues.

Secondly, there is geopolitics with regard to Navalny’s case which suits the interest of the West. This is evident from the fact that the Western countries are highly critical of ill-treatment of Navaly by the Russian government. Hence the European Union countries might bloc asset freezes and travel bans on Russian individuals and entities held responsible for the poisoning as also those involved in the decision to arrest Navalny. Those targeted by sanctions might also include "Russian oligarchs," President Vladimir Putin’s "inner circle," and "media propagandists,” according to the resolution. The EU also calls on the bloc to "devise a new strategy to punish Russia.

The West is aware of the fact Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor’s Silence) is the jail where in the past several of Putin’s outspoken critics have been sent, including former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his associate Platon Lebedev. Moreover, in one of the most infamous cases, prominent whistle-blower, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, died from

an untreated illness while in the jail after accusing Russian officials of tax fraud totalling $230 million. Hence the West enacted Magnitsky Act to punish those involved in this case.
Thirdly, on 21st Jan 2021 the EU lawmakers passed a resolution calling on the bloc to "immediately" stop completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which takes Russian natural gas to Germany in response to Navalny’s arrest. It needs to be mentioned that Nord 2 Pipeline is a major project supplying Russian oil and natural gas to Germany and other West European countries and about 90 pc of the work has been completed during the last about a decade. If Nord Stream 2 is blocked then Russia will be losing an opportunity to earn much-needed petrodollars to sustain its economy. However, mention may be made of the fact that despite the growing criticism, being the major beneficiary, the German Economy Ministry stated on 20th January that its plans for the project were "unchanged” much to the benefit of Russia as well.

Fourthly, mention may be made of the fact that the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, which was one of the Republics in the former Soviet Union, Mr. Gabrielius Landsbergis has condemned Russia’s “mock trial” of Navalny

Fifth, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been critical of Russia and has urged the Russian authorities to curb their "unlawful" campaign against jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, whose associates

are being pressured and rounded up in nationwide protests on 23rd and 31st January 2021 as demonstrations were held in more than 100 cities in Russia against the detention of Navalny. In fact Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW has contended "In the past year, Russian authorities have effectively banned all peaceful protest by the political opposition and prosecuted anyone who has refused to comply". HRW has been candid in stating against "extreme" police brutality and "mass" arbitrary detentions during the recent protests. HRW alleging lack of Freedom and Liberty in Russia has contended that this is further evidence of how low human rights standards have plummeted in Russia.

In lieu of conclusion, it may be mentioned that Navalny has emerged as the leader fighting against corruption in Russia, despite being repeatedly punished and jailed for this cause in the country. Navalny has become a Symbol of Change and Democracy for millions of people in Russia who are supporting him in his Anti-Corruption campaign and participating in the protests all over the country. Having been a vocal critic of the president of Russia Mr Vladimir Putin, Navalny has succeeded in his objective of reducing Putin’s popularity rate in the country. Thus Russia is in Turmoil as the fight between Navalny and Putin persists.

(Author: Dr R G Gidadhubli is Professor and Former Director, Center For Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, Mumbai)

1st Feb 2021

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