Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, has become the biggest thorn in the body of Vladimir Putin. Last year, Russian security forces tried and failed to kill him by poisoning him with nerve gas. Then authorities arrested him in Moscow in January. On June 9 – just days before Putin’s summit with President Joe Biden – a court banned Mr Navalny’s groups, ruling them as “extremist organisations”. Why is the Russian president afraid of Mr. Navalny?
For an answer, go back a decade. In 2011, when Putin’s United Russia party won a rigged parliamentary election, Navalny, then a popular blogger and fierce critic of the Kremlin, led tens of thousands of protesters to demand “a Russia without Putin.” They didn’t get their wish, but Mr. Putin has tried (and so far failed) to get Russia without Navalny — and many of his supporters.
Navalny is the first opposition politician since the collapse of the Soviet Union to mobilize a powerful opposition movement that brings together many segments of society, from working-class neighborhoods in districts to Moscow’s urban intellectuals. He is using the Internet (which is still relatively free) to blow up the state television monopoly and mobilize large street protests. It represents a generational shift, which has often been a driver of political change in Russia, and exposed the main weakness of the Putin regime: its moral and financial corruption and lack of vision for Russia’s future.
Although Mr. Navalny was never allowed to run for president – the Kremlin banned him from running and banned his party – his anti-corruption activism has attracted millions of supporters. Mr. Navalny has done this in part through judicious use of social media (he has 2.6 million followers on Twitter and 6.5 million subscribers on YouTube), mocking the Kremlin and exposing its flaws.
He has called on his supporters to vote for who is in a better position to defeat the Kremlin candidate, regardless of which party they represent, a tactic he calls “smart voting”. This approach contributed to the ruling party losing nearly half of Moscow City Council seats in local elections in 2019.
In March, Putin scrapped term limits that would have forced him to step down as president in 2024, but his ability to govern still depends on the ruling party retaining control. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next September. In an independent poll conducted in March, support for his party was just 27%. Trust in the president is also declining. With the economy stagnating and real incomes available for spending declining over the past six years, the desire to protest has grown.
Putin’s only concern is his survival. The Kremlin’s fear of Navalny leading a mass protest movement, of the kind that erupted in neighboring Belarus last year, has prompted the Kremlin to take more extreme measures, such as trying to neutralize Navalny by poisoning him with a nerve agent in August. 2020. Navalny survived the attack and was taken to Germany for treatment, where Putin likely hoped to stay and forget. Instead, Navalny identified who had poisoned him and returned to confront the Russian president. Officially, he is in prison for breaching probation terms (related to a previous trumped-up conviction) while recovering in Germany.
Now, the Russian security services have mobilized all their resources to crush Mr. Navalny’s movement and to purge Russian politics of popular opposition. They have banned Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, along with his regional network, in effect equating its members with terrorists and barring them from elections. A submissive Russian court, which kept its proceedings secret, ratified the decision. When corruption [becomes] The foundation of the state, those who fight it [become] extremists,” Mr Navalny wrote on Instagram, via his attorney.
However, banning Navalny’s organization is unlikely to halt the historic transformation he helped bring about. As he added on Instagram, “What difference does what we call our name make? … We are millions and we are not going anywhere.”