Instead of being intimidated, Navalny set this terrifying Russian state force show on a comic piano track in a March video accusing authorities of emptying his family’s bank accounts and seeking crowdfunding for his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Navalny, 44, was poisoned in Russia last month with a banned chemical weapon in the same group as Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, according to a German military laboratory. Such an agent is available only to state forces, according to analysts. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday there was a “substantial possibility”
Russia vehemently denies that Navalny was poisoned, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday called him “a person who has become in a coma due to causes that have not been determined”.
On Monday, German hospital officials said Navalny’s condition was improving after he was taken out of a drug-induced coma.
A decade ago, Navalny was like an annoying gnat buzzing at Russian President Vladimir Putin. Back then it was more like a terrier who wouldn’t stop barking. Now, he must appear to the president as a young lion ready to fight him for his territory.
Yet Putin and Peskov never recognize the opposition leader as a rival or even mention his name.
However, the Kremlin’s actions tell the real story. Navalny is enemy number 1, always under surveillance, even on family vacations. Over the years, officials have dipped into their authoritarian toolbox to stop him: unearth him, fabricate charges, incarcerate him, fine him, drain his family’s accounts and harass him with constant searches and kidnappings.
Nothing worked. In prison, he just read books and chatted with other inmates, including convicted murderers, he told an interviewer.
“They tried to pressure him by all possible means,” said Lyubov Sobol, a leading member of his team who has faced similar pressures in his 10 years of working alongside Navalny. “But he is fearless. You cannot buy him. You cannot bribe him. He is also dangerous because you cannot get compromising materials on him because he has never been involved in corrupt business or illegal activities. He is not interested in leaving Russia.”
The Kremlin is trying to portray him as a politically marginal figure, Sobol said: “That’s why neither Putin nor Peskov ever uses the name of Navalny.”
But his poisoning revealed just how significant a rival he is for Putin, analysts say.
“It was really a big and solid red line that Putin’s regime crossed, trying to kill him,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Russian analyst at Carnegie Moscow Center. “They are trying to prove that this figure is not serious. They themselves have indicated who is the main enemy, the most serious enemy “.
Since Navalny was hit on a flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk on August 20, Russia has released a tornado of warlike propaganda designed to sow doubts about what happened to it. Russian doctors say he was not poisoned. Russian diplomats darkly warn against foreign misconduct and accuse Berlin of having a “dirty political agenda”. The Russian media never refers to the Navalny poisoning, but to the “situation with Navalny”.
Recent constitutional changes have paved the way for Putin to try to stay in power until 2036, but neighboring Belarus has shown the limits of this strategy. The country’s longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is facing mass protests after a widely rejected election.
“The Russian leadership has realized that a strong dictatorship can be ruined within a month or two,” Russian opposition figure Dmitry Gudkov said, comparing Putin’s situation to that of Lukashenko. “Putin has been in power for 20 years and people are tired of him.”
Blocked by state TV, Navalny responded with two YouTube channels attracting 15 million views per month. It airs videos displaying lavish mansions of Russian politicians, fleets of luxury cars, yachts, horses and ponds filled with ducks or geese, all with a dose of edgy Russian humor.
It points directly to the long-standing Russian notion that massive corruption is intrinsic to the “Russian mentality”.
“Alexei challenges the very dangerous idea that it is somehow inevitable that Russia is corrupt,” said Matthew Murray, a Russian corruption expert at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who met Navalny in 2007 in Russia. . “And who benefits from that idea? I am the current president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the people around him who have perpetrated this myth that the Russians are dishonest and therefore only reflect your basic legacy. “
When Navalny began investigating Putin’s precious vanity project, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, he was very optimistic about the evidence of corruption: “It’s a 15-minute Google search,” he told his team.
The amount of grafts proved so staggering that the exposure took a month to complete. Its airing caused Putin considerable embarrassment abroad.
“He is a person with a great will. He has so many plans that at first glance they seem impossible, “Sobol said of Navalny.” But he is always right and we manage to complete the investigation. “
Navalny told an interviewer that, despite the years having exposed severe corruption, “it still makes me genuinely angry every time.” In addition to open source ownership records, the team combs social media to capture boastful photos of yachts, luxury vacation destinations and country homes.
Navalny holds a law degree and in the 2000s began investigating corruption at huge state-owned oil and gas companies, filing lawsuits and blogging about his efforts. In 2011 he emerged as a leader in the mass protests against election fraud.
Vladimir Ashurkov, a banker of the Alfa Group investment consortium, noticed this.
“What attracted me to him was that a lot of people were talking about corruption and he was doing something tangible,” he said. “He’s charismatic. He’s smart. He has a keen political sense. He’s been able to build an organization of like-minded people. Another layer is his courage and determination to continue what he’s doing even under pressure. against himself, his family and against his organization. These are the ingredients that make him unique in Russia “.
Ashurkov became executive director of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was established in 2011, and fled Russia in 2014 following allegations of embezzlement which he said were made up. Navalny announced in July that the foundation was due to be dissolved due to debts owing to what he called spurious libel cases, but promised it would be immediately relaunched.
Once Navalny emerged as a serious threat, he faced similar allegations. He was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement in 2013, but was released after mass protests. In 2014, he and his brother Oleg were convicted of another embezzlement case and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. Alexei’s sentence has been suspended, but Oleg has served his entire term, largely in solitary confinement. Alexei Navalny saw it as psychological pressure designed to stop him.
In 2013, Navalny shocked the Kremlin by coming second in the Moscow mayor election with 27% of the vote.
“He was doing what people in developed democracies were doing, which was new in Russia,” Ashurkov said. The Navalny mayor’s campaign, with three or four daily demonstrations, was “something no candidate in Russia has ever done”.
Russian authorities miscalculated in letting Navalny participate, Kolesnikov said: “They thought he would get two, three or five percent and show his weakness” and his strong demonstration “scared the authorities and decided to don’t let him participate. any subsequent election. “
A famous video from Navalny from 2017 claiming that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had accumulated $ 1.4 billion worth of property was a critical turning point that hammered into the extent of government corruption. It got 36 million views. But Navalny was prevented from running against Putin in the 2018 presidential election.
The only way to remove the regime, he argues, is through mass protests. Last year, it also launched “Smart Voting,” an app that targets voters who are most likely to defeat Putin’s United Russia party, such as in regional elections on Sunday.
Navalny’s future is unclear, given the uncertainty about the long-term health effects of her poisoning. But the attack has already amplified its influence.
“After the poisoning, he has simply become an increasingly recognizable figure in Russia and an increasingly important figure for the West, and especially for the European Union,” Kolesnikov said. “It is at the heart of the historical process.”
In 2017, Navalny told an interviewer that he had always been aware of the dangers he faced and the sacrifices of others, including his brother Oleg and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015 near the Kremlin.
“If I stop, it means all those sacrifices are useless, and they’re not,” he said. “I think my alternative is better for Russia.”