Portrait | Paying the ultimate price for fighting Putin


Portrait | Paying the ultimate price for fighting Putin

The dissident died in an Arctic prison only weeks before Russia holds its next presidential election in mid-March. Who was he, asks WILLEM KEMPEN.

THERE is no chance that anyone other than Vladimir Putin will be elected as Russia's president in less than a month.

That's because Russia is a democracy in name only; just enough public opposition is allowed to maintain the necessary smokescreen. How much support Putin really has among the Russian population is impossible to know. The same applies to the war in Ukraine. (Read this interesting exploration of the subject.) 

In the previous presidential election six years ago, Alexei Navalny tried to stand against Putin but Russia's Central Election Commission refused to register him as a candidate based on his conviction in 2013 in the so-called Kirovles fraud case. In 2014, Navalny was again found guilty of fraud in what is known as the Yves Rocher case.

Regarding the Kirovles case, the European Court of Human Rights found in 2016 that “criminal law was arbitrarily and unforeseeably construed"; the conviction was “manifestly unreasonable". Regarding the Rocher case, the same court said the conviction was likewise “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable".

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In 2022, Amnesty International said: “We conclude that this prosecution is politically motivated and based on arbitrary application of law. The charges strive to criminalise his own and his colleagues’ peaceful and legitimate anti-corruption and political activism.

“The objectives of this prosecution appear to be to ensure that a prominent critic of the Kremlin remains incarcerated and to stop or restrict his political activities, as well as to intimidate his supporters and other government critics in Russia. The charges also appear to seek to discredit Alexei Navalny for domestic and international audiences."

Navalny was born on June 4, 1976 in Butyn near Moscow. He studied law after school, then worked as an advocate and later founded his own law firm. His activism against corruption in Russia gained international momentum through the blog he started in 2008. There and on other platforms, he continued to expose Putin and his inner circle's graft.

It resonated with the Russian youth, in particular, amid disillusionment with rampant corruption. By last August his YouTube video, “Putin's palace. The story of world's largest bribe”, had been watched more than 127 million times. Putin's reaction? “The palace doesn't belong to me."

In 2011, Navalny started the Fond borby s korruptsiyey (FBK), or the Foundation against Corruption. It used social media and crowdfunding to conduct a series of investigations into prominent corruption cases and make evidence public. Among other things, this led to a series of previously unheard of public protests.

The FBK was declared an “agent of foreign powers" by the Russian justice ministry in 2019. In 2021, a court in Moscow officially classified the FBK as an “extremist organisation" and ordered that it be dissolved.

Through the FBK, Navalny took his activism beyond investigative journalism that was disseminated on the internet and social media. He organised street protests and made speeches demanding political reform and greater accountability from Putin and his government. His reputation grew as a charismatic leader who inspired change and was not afraid to take on Putin.

He paid dearly for this resistance. He was constantly harassed and persecuted by the Russian authorities. Apart from the fraud cases orchestrated against him, he was subjected to smear campaigns in the state-run media and to at least one physical attack by unknown assailants.

In August 2020, two years after his failed attempt to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, Navalny was drugged with a nerve agent in the Novichok family while travelling in Siberia. He was transported to Germany for emergency medical treatment and eventually recovered. Russian security services denied responsibility for the attack, but it sparked international outrage and renewed calls for sanctions against Putin's regime. Russian authorities refused to investigate the poisoning because there was “not enough evidence".

After his recovery, Navalny ignored all the warnings and returned to Russia. He was immediately arrested on his arrival on January 17, 2021 and thrown into prison to begin serving a 19-year sentence — for allegedly breaching the terms of his sentence in the Rocher case by travelling abroad. His arrest sparked mass protests in Russia, with thousands of people taking to the streets to demand his release.

Even in prison, and with his family not knowing where he was being held, Navalny did not remain silent. The FBK even revived as an international organisation in 2022 and still exists

Navalny used his trial as a platform to continue agitating against Putin, and world leaders and human rights organisations continually called for his release. (The South African government was not among them.)

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 made any possibility of open resistance against Putin's regime even more difficult. It also reduced to an empty threat the US government's warning that there would be “consequences" if Navalny died in custody. It was therefore not exactly a surprise to anyone when the Russian authorities announced on February 16 that exactly this had happened.

The circumstances of his death are still unclear. The first public reaction of his widow, Yulia, was: “I don’t know whether to believe the terrible news, but if it is true then I would like Putin, his staff, his friends, his government, to know that they will be punished for what they’ve done to our country, to my family and to my husband. They will be brought to justice, and that day will come very soon.”

♦ VWB ♦

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