On 17th January, prominent opposition figure to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, was arrested upon his return to Russia from Berlin. He had resided in the German capital for five months whilst recovering from a nerve agent attack, which he blames on the Kremlin. Navalny has now been charged with breaking probation for an embezzlement (a type of fraud) conviction originally from 2014, which is widely thought to have been politically motivated.
President Putin and senior figures in the Russian government have dismissed Navalny as 'the blogger' and the President has even refused to address him by name. However, they have consistently pursued him for years and are now arresting and charging his followers. So, who is Alexei Navalny? And why is the Russian government seemingly trying to make him disappear?
Originally trained as a lawyer, Navalny first got into politics through the liberal Yabloko party, where he served as Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of its Moscow branch, before resigning and being expelled from the party in 2007 due to infighting.
Shortly after parting with Yabloko, in 2008 Navalny started blogging about malpractice and corruption within large state-controlled corporations. He eventually rose to prominence with a statement that would become something of a catchphrase, labelling Putin's United Russia as a "party of crooks and thieves". This is a sentiment he emphasised in 2011 when helping to organise one of the largest anti-government demonstrations in post-Soviet history with approximately 120,000 participants. At the demonstration, Navalny made a passionate speech where he suggested the crowd had sufficient numbers to storm the Kremlin, and that if the government continued in 'cheating' them, they would 'take back' what was theirs.
Almost immediately afterward the 2011 demonstration, Navalny was arrested and imprisoned for 15 days, marking the beginning of what would be a decade of frequent criminal charges and accusations. The next would be in 2013 whilst he was running for Mayor of Moscow, when he was charged and convicted with embezzlement. The conviction was met with widespread accusations of political motivation and was later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for violating Navalny's right to a free trial. Despite these legal troubles, and his campaign receiving no coverage from state media, Navalny came in second in the election behind a Putin-endorsed candidate.
He was then convicted again in a re-trial in 2017 and handed a suspended sentence of 5 years, preventing him from running against Putin in the 2018 presidential election, something that Navalny has consistently argued is a root cause of these convictions. He is now charged with breaking the probation linked to these sentences.
Folllowing the initial demonstration and his brief imprisonment, Navalny went on to establish and lead the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Russia of the Future party in 2012. The former of which regularly carries out investigations into the wealth of Putin and his inner circle and recently made headlines by revealing a luxury palace overlooking the Black Sea, gifted to Putin by his wealthy friends.
By 2013, through his rigorous opposition to and criticism of the Kremlin, Navalny had gained a reputation as "the man Vladimir Putin fears most", a reputation which was only perpetuated that year with the launch of his YouTube channel which now boasts around 6.5 million subscribers and over a billion views.
In August 2020, Navalny collapsed on a flight over Siberia. His life was saved by an emergency landing and the subsequent persuading of Russian officials by a Germany charity to allow Navalny to be airlifted to Berlin for treatment. The German government announced around a month later that tests carried out by their military had found "unequivocal proof of a chemical nerve warfare agent of the Novichok group".
The Kremlin rejected this finding and denied any involvement in the incident. After spending several months in Berlin recovering from the poisoning, Navalny returned to Russia, fully aware that he was likely putting himself at risk by doing so. This decision was widely interpreted as a statement that he was not scared of Putin and would not abandon Russia. He was arrested on arrival.
Navalny has now lost his appeal against the probation-related charges and faces slander charges, where he is accused of insulting a military veteran. The result is that he will be transferred from a prison in Moscow to a prison colony (a sort of camp) outside the capital to serve a sentence of 2 years and 8 months. In a speech to the court in which he emphasised the resilience of his cause, Navalny said: "Our country is built on injustice. But tens of millions of people want the truth. And sooner or later they'll get it."
Navalny's large and constantly growing following is made up mostly of young Russians. Many have suggested that he has connected so successfully with them through his modern and casual language on popular online platforms. His messages of anti-corruption and pro-democracy resonating so strongly with these young demographics is what makes him such a prominent threat to Putin.
Many notable figures and institutions internationally have expressed their opposition to Navalny's imprisonment. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that if he were to be jailed, the government would not be able to sufficiently protect his life and health, thereby instructing Russia to release him. In response, Russia called this a "blatant and gross interference in the judicial affairs of a sovereign state" and confirmed that they would completely ignore the ruling.
These demands for Navalny's release have been further echoed by US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, speaking of behalf of Washington, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has labelled the Moscow court's ruling as 'pure cowardice'.
Navalny has received some criticism from other opposition parties for his 'Russian nationalism', especially regarding his support for the far right-wing annual 'Russian march'. Furthermore, he has expressed support for the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, labelling Georgians as 'rodents' and calling for their expulsion from Russia (a comment which he has since apologised for).
He has also spoken out in support for the Russian occupation of Crimea and stated that, if he were to become President, he would not return the territory to Ukraine. Navalny has also been criticised by a colleague from his time with the Yabloko party, for 'routinely using racial slurs and basing his relations with people on their ethnicity'.