Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 17 January 2021

 

The Extraordinary Courage of Aleksei Navalny

After a near-fatal poisoning, Russia’s top dissident steps back into the bear’s den.

Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s opposition leader, on a plane in Berlin. He was detained by police shortly after he arrived in Moscow on Sunday.
Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s opposition leader, on a plane in Berlin. He was detained by police shortly after he arrived in Moscow on Sunday. Credit... Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Aleksei Navalny knew he would be arrested as soon as he stepped foot on Russian soil, and he had no illusions about what this could mean.

Mr. Navalny had been abroad since August, after all, because President Vladimir Putin’s political goons had poisoned him, and had failed to kill him only because a pilot had diverted his flight to Omsk, where doctors kept him alive until he could be evacuated to Germany. Ironically, his flight was diverted again on Sunday — this time by Russian authorities afraid of the welcoming crowd gathering at the Moscow airport where his flight was supposed to land.

Mr. Navalny knew he would be arrested, because he has been arrested several times before. Repression is the only way Mr. Putin knows. But he is also learning that, in the era of social media, every arrest on a trumped-up charge only broadens Mr. Navalny’s following and amplifies his indictment of the corruption of Russia’s rulers.

Mr. Navalny knew what awaited him, because he knows as well as the dissidents of the Soviet era knew that the one thing a corrupt and authoritarian regime cannot abide is the truth. “I am not afraid. I know that I am in the right,” Mr. Navalny told supporters at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport before he kissed his wife goodbye and was hustled off by police officers who warned that they would use force if he disobeyed their orders. “All the criminal cases against me are fabricated.”

The charge used to seize him was violation of a suspended sentence imposed for a phony charge of embezzlement in 2014. He had failed, declared Russia’s federal prison service, to make his mandated bimonthly report to authorities. That he was recuperating from an assassination attempt by the government was not noted by the prison service, any more than his return and arrest were noted by the state-controlled media.

But Russians know. The internet has given Mr. Navalny, 44, a platform that Mr. Putin and his political police have not been able to silence. His populist, hard-hitting and often humorous videos deriding the “crooks and thieves” among the elite have been viewed millions of time, increasingly touching on a growing discontent among Russians with brazen corruption and a stagnant economy. Though repeatedly barred from challenging Mr. Putin directly at the polls, Mr. Navalny and his supporters around Russia campaigned to win seats on local and regional councils, with an unexpected measure of success.

Finally, in August, came the outrageous attempt on Mr. Navalny’s life. Poisoned on a trip to Siberia, he barely survived. Only international pressure compelled the authorities to allow his evacuation to Germany. There, the poison was identified as Novichok, a nerve agent developed by Soviet and Russian chemists and infamously used in an attempt on the life of a former Russian double-agent in Britain. More revelations were to follow: In December, independent researchers used leaked phone records to show that Russian agents had trailed Mr. Navalny on his fateful journey to Siberia, and Mr. Navalny himself placed a telephone call to one of them pretending to be a senior security official, extracting what amounted to a detailed confession.

Mr. Putin, of course, dismissed the evidence, accusing Mr. Navalny of working for American intelligence agencies and claiming — with a smirk — that had Russian agents wanted to kill him, “they would have probably finished the job.”

They did not, and succeeded instead in turning a nettlesome gadfly into an international hero. If Mr. Putin does decide to imprison Mr. Navalny, he will have a celebrated political prisoner on his hands. If he sets Mr. Navalny free, he will appear weak to his lieutenants and followers, and under constant assault from the Navalny-led opposition. The option Mr. Putin is least likely to consider would be to confront Mr. Navalny openly and fairly at the ballot box, say in the parliamentary elections looming in September.

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