Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, an anti-corruption investigator whose exposés have targeted President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. His sudden illness on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow Aug. 20, which German doctors say was caused by poisoning, fits a pattern of what happens to critics of Putin. The Kremlin has been linked to several similar attacks over the last two decades that share another thing in common: nobody is held accountable. Whatever the Russian leadership did or didn’t know about what happened to Navalny, his critics say Putin shares the blame. The Kremlin dismisses that as “empty noise.”

1. Why is Navalny seen as a threat?

Navalny, 44, has resisted the kind of pressure — repeated jail sentences, house arrest, physical assault — that led many other Putin critics to flee the country. Until his poisoning though, his relative impunity inspired speculation that he was a known quantity and therefore an acceptable threat to the Kremlin. He was even allowed to run for mayor of Moscow in 2013. But that calculus may have changed. Navalny’s “smart voting” initiative, which encourages voters to coalesce around politicians most likely to beat the Kremlin’s favored candidate, led to the defeat of ruling party candidates in 2019 and again had some success in local races this September. His spokeswoman says he plans to return to Russia and his team has started planning the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2021.

2. Who would want to harm Navalny?

Any number of people might want to silence Navalny, who has a huge social media following that lets him deliver his message despite an effective blackout by Russia’s tightly controlled television networks. In a June survey by Levada Center, a non-governmental research organization, he was named the most inspiring public person in Russia other than Putin. His team has embarrassed many of the president’s top allies, producing YouTube videos that include drone footage to lift the veil on their lavish lifestyles. The head of Russia’s National Guard, General Viktor Zolotov, challenged Navalny to a duel after he was targeted. The exposés reached as high as former Prime Minister and one-term President Dmitry Medvedev, who was widely ridiculed for scenes of a floating duck house at one of his residences. Rubber ducks became symbols of protests against official corruption in dozens of cities that followed one 2017 report, seen 35 million times on YouTube. Medvedev denied Navalny’s allegations that he spent money from a charitable fund to build palaces in Russia and abroad.

3. How has the Kremlin tried to neutralize Navalny?

Navalny has been in and out of jail since 2011, often on charges of organizing unsanctioned protests, but has never served more than a month at a time. He was barred from running in the 2018 presidential election due to what the European Court of Human Rights labeled politically motivated convictions. The Kremlin learned its lesson in 2013 when Navalny was allowed to run for Moscow mayor against incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin loyalist, and received 27% of the vote. He had been handed a five-year suspended sentence in an embezzlement case in July of that year. Navalny also received a suspended sentence in 2014 while his younger brother, Oleg, was imprisoned for 3 1/2 years in a separate fraud trial involving the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Both men denied wrongdoing, and Navalny accused the authorities of effectively taking his brother hostage.

4. What else has happened to Navalny?

An assailant linked to a radical pro-Putin group threw chemical dye in his face in 2017. When jailed for 30 days following Moscow city council elections in 2019, Navalny was briefly hospitalized after what his doctor called “a toxic reaction to an unknown chemical substance.” His official diagnosis was an allergic reaction. Earlier that year, the Russian authorities started an investigation into the alleged laundering of 1 billion rubles ($13 million) by his Anti-Corruption Foundation, charges that Navalny and his allies denied. He dissolved the fund after it was blacklisted as a “foreign agent,” subjecting it to restrictive regulations. He said on Twitter at the time that the fund had never received foreign money.

5. What happened this time?

Navalny fell ill after meeting with local activists organizing for regional elections before boarding a flight to Moscow. A plastic water bottle picked up by activists from his hotel room would weeks later be found by a German military lab to have traces of Novichok, the weapons-grade nerve agent first developed by the Soviets. His shouts of pain could be heard in a video taken on the plane, which was diverted to the Siberian city of Omsk in a move that likely saved his life. Local doctors kept Navalny in a clinic there for two days before, under international pressure, they allowed him to be transfered to Berlin’s Charite hospital. The use of a banned chemical weapon in the attack has left German authorities with little doubt that the operation was ordered from the highest levels of the Russian government, according to three officials in Berlin familiar with the findings. The Kremlin says it found no proof Navalny was poisoned and has rejected German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calls to open a criminal investigation. Merkel has demanded answers, but Russia’s track record on solving instances of political violence typically results in cases either going unsolved or ending in a low-level prosecution.

6. Who has been poisoned in the past?

The highest profile poisonings were of former intelligence officers living in exile in the U.K.: Alexander Litvinenko was given a fatal dose of polonium 210 in his tea in a London restaurant in 2006, while Sergei Skripal survived an assassination attempt with a nerve agent, Novichok, in 2018. The chief coordinator for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia organization, Vladimir Kara-Murza, suffered kidney failure in 2015, and activist Pyotr Verzilov, who led a pitch invasion during the 2018 soccer World Cup final game to protest Putin’s rule, was treated for what doctors said were symptoms of poisoning later that year. Other Kremlin critics who have been killed include former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, journalist Anna Politkovskaya — who had earlier suffered a poison attack — and human-rights activist Natalia Estemirova. A number of Chechens living in exile have also been killed, including in Germany in August 2019.

7. What does this mean for Putin?

Navalny has drawn the attention of world leaders from Donald Trump to Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. However, with Russia’s relationship with the West already at a post-Cold War nadir, their leverage is limited. Merkel is coming under increasing pressure to ditch the mostly-complete $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline because of the poisoning, but such a move would hurt Germany too. More relevant could be domestic and former Soviet politics. There have been protests in Russia’s Far East about the arrest of a populist governor there who polled better than Putin, while a mass movement in Belarus has been threatening ally Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year presidential rule. Putin himself has spent 20 years developing an image of someone who controls even the smallest details of the state apparatus. As such, his critics say the buck stops with him.

8. Does the opposition have other potential leaders?

Navalny, who combines charisma with a sophisticated understanding of how to use social media to bypass the Kremlin’s blackout, is by far the most visible leader among Russia’s fractured anti-Putin bloc. He’s the only opposition politician who controls a nationwide network that could be mobilized for elections in 2021 to the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. Currently, the 450-seat body doesn’t have a single opposition member.

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