Surely in no other self-avowed democracy is being an opponent of the ruling regime so mortally dangerous as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Alexei Navalny, in a coma in an Omsk hospital after a suspected poisoning, joins a sickening roll call of those who have ended up dead or fighting for their lives. They range from opposition figures such as Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Kara-Murza to journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya — and there are many more. The apparent attempted murder of the opposition leader is another indictment of Russia’s culture of political violence.
Though Mr Navalny is a charismatic campaigner, the Kremlin’s dominance over the media, courts and electoral system have made it near-impossible for him to make a political breakthrough. But his corruption investigations, packaged into slick videos seen by millions, have made him a thorn in the side of the ruling circle.
They also mean Mr Navalny made enemies across Russia’s business and political class. If he was poisoned, there is no certainty the authorities or state-linked actors were responsible. Yet in Russia, they must be prime suspects until proven otherwise. The opposition leader has, after all, been repeatedly arrested, nearly blinded in one eye with an antiseptic dye, and suffered a mysterious “acute allergic reaction” in jail last year. His assertions that the uprising against dictatorship in Belarus foreshadows Russia’s own future will not have endeared him to the Kremlin.
Where the Russian leadership is undoubtedly culpable is in allowing a culture of impunity around such violence. Sometimes those wielding the revolver or poison are jailed, but those who ordered killings are never found. The Kremlin is apt to dismiss attacks on its opponents as “provocations”. Occasionally there are hints that present or former security agents — or local bosses such as the thuggish Chechen leadership — have taken matters into their own hands, hoping to “please” the president. Yet Mr Putin could have made clear to all that such activities will not be tolerated.
Where evidence against state-linked figures seems overwhelming, the response is often a knowing smirk. Andrei Lugovoi, one of two men the UK charged with murdering ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 with polonium-210, became a Russian MP a year later. Mr Putin gave him a medal (officially for parliamentary work) in 2015 even as Britain’s Litvinenko Inquiry was hearing of the radioactive trail Mr Lugovoi left behind in London. Military agents accused of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent in Salisbury gave a risible interview claiming to have flown in on a bleak February weekend to see the cathedral spire.
Foreign investors should not close their eyes. Some argue there are “worse” regimes, or that their money and technology can encourage change. Such assertions were more valid in Mr Putin’s first decade, when hope remained that his “managed” democracy might evolve in a more liberal direction. Instead, with the president in his third decade and cleared to rule until 2036, the system has become more darkly authoritarian.
Many countries now have “Magnitsky” laws permitting sanctions against human rights abusers that they should use against any officials implicated in an attack on Mr Navalny. Leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron who have sought a “reset” with Russia should also be wary. Dialogue on issues such as nuclear arms is necessary. But anyone seeking to engage should have no illusions about the nature of the system Mr Putin has created.