In Case You Forgot, It’s Dangerous To Be The Opposition In Russia
On October 2nd, a Russian court sentenced opposition leader Alexei Navalny to 20 days in prison after he was accused of violating a law on organizing public meetings. The charges, which can carry a maximum sentence of up to 30 days in jail, were in response to a major rally Navalny had planned to hold in Vladimir Putin’s hometown of Saint Petersburg on October 7th, the Russian president’s 65th birthday. His sentence of 20 days will prevent him from being able to attend his rally, something he called “a gift to Putin for his birthday” while in a Moscow courtroom. On Saturday, when he planned to attend his rally in Saint Petersburg, Navalny’s supporters held protests in over 80 cities across Russia in response to his arrest. More than 250 people were arrested as protestors demanded that Navalny be allowed to stand in the 2018 presidential election.
This is not the first time Navalny has been charged with organizing unauthorized protests: he was already detained twice this year, on March 26 and June 12, before arriving to rallies in Moscow. He served sentences of 15 days and 25 days for each protest, respectively. At his first rally in March, he was detained alongside more than 1,000 other protesters in one of the largest protests in Moscow in recent years.
In 2017 he was the victim of two separate attacks in which antiseptic green dye was thrown in his face. A common tool in protests in Russia and Ukraine, Navalny had to travel to Spain for surgery after chemical burns almost left him blind in one eye. Navalny blamed the attacks on the Russian government, publishing a picture of the vice-speaker of the State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy with “the man who splashed me with acid.” Navalny’s doctor reportedly believed that the green liquid may have contained another substance which caused the burn.
The 41 year-old is a lawyer-turned-activist who founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), a watchdog group which conducts investigations into the wealth and corruption of Putin’s inner circle. In 2015, Navalny’s FBK alleged that Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov spent his honeymoon on one of the most expensive sailboats in the world and caught him wearing a limited-edition watch worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He accused deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov’s wife of flying her pet corgis around Europe in a private jet and has used drone footage to bring attention to the palatial residences and summer homes of various ministers and top officials, most notably Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Medvedev, who was once considered to be the beginning of a new liberal era for Russia, was discovered to control a virtual empire of estates, yachts, and vacation homes. According to Navalny, “everyone already thought Medvedev was pathetic and pointless, but it turns out he’s pathetic, pointless, and a billionaire.” It was the FBK’s Medvedev investigation which sparked the protests in Moscow in March, where Navalny received his first arrest.
Alexei Navalny rose to prominence as Russia’s leading opposition activist in the aftermath of the 2012 election, during which he participated in protests over alleged fraud. That year, he was charged with embezzlement from when he was advising a governor in the Kirov region in 2009. On July 17, 2013, Navalny registered as a candidate for the Moscow mayoral elections. The very next day, he was sentenced to five years in jail, although he was released the following day. Despite losing his mayoral campaign, he won a surprising 27% of the vote, almost forcing incumbent Sergei Sobyanin into a runoff. Later that year, his five-year sentence was suspended, although his conviction was not overturned.
Navalny has already stated his intent to run for president in the 2018 elections, and, although Putin has not yet officially announced his candidacy, it is widely expected that he will seek a fourth six-year term in office. Despite his multiple arrests, including a 3 and a 1/2 year sentence given to his brother at the end of 2014, Navalny continues to travel around all 11 of Russia’s time zones, campaigning on a platform built by his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Navalny is not the first to criticize Vladimir Putin, and many who came before him have died under suspicious and violent circumstances. Denis Voronenkov, a former member of the Russian Communist Party who began criticizing Putin after fleeing Russia, was shot dead in Kiev in broad daylight in 2016. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the shooting an “act of state terrorism by Russia.”
Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, was shot in the back four times within view of the Kremlin in 2015. His death came just hours after he urged the Russian public to join a protest against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Nemtsov also led massive street rallies in protest of the parliamentary election results in 2011 and wrote reports on official corruption. Putin assumed “personal control” over the investigation and the unknown killer remains at large.
Boris Berezovsky, a former member of Yeltsin’s inner circle, had a falling out with Putin and undertook a self-exile in the United Kingdom, where in 2009 he accused the Kremlin of killing whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko. In 2013, Berezovsky was found hanged in his locked bathroom in the United Kingdom of an apparent suicide, although the coroner’s office could not identify the cause of death.
Natalya Estemirova, a journalist who investigated the abductions and murders that were common occurrences in Chechnya, was kidnapped from her home, shot several times (including point-blank in the head) and dumped in the woods in 2009. Her killer is still at large.
Alexander Litvinenko, a fomer KGB agent who became a critic of the security agency Putin once ran, was poisoned with polonium-210 and died in his hotel room in London in 2006. A British investigation concluded that Russian agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun carried out the assassination and had acted on orders that had “probably been approved” by Putin himself. Litvinenko had accused the FSB (the successor to the Soviet KGB) of carrying out a series of apartment bombings throughout Russia in 1999 which acted as a pretext for an invasion of Chechnya later that year. Hundreds of people were killed, and Putin was elevated to national stage by his handling of the invasion, leading to his election as president. Two others who were investigating the apartment bombings also died under mysterious circumstances; former army colonel Sergei Yushenkov was shot and killed outside his home in Moscow in 2003 and journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died of a mysterious illness that same year, only days before he was scheduled to depart for the United States.
Alexei Navalny, a legitimate contender for the 2018 election, has already been attacked twice and arrested three times this year. He has been placed under house arrest (which he violated) and convicted of embezzlement for what he considered to be political motivations. If history tells us anything, we can expect more of the same as the fight for the Russian presidency approaches.