Opinion: Alexei Navalny suspected poisoning - why opposition figure stands out in Russian politics

Following the suspected poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition activist in Russia, Dr Ben Noble (UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies) explains why the ’charismatic, anti-Kremlin’ may have been targeted.

Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition politician and activist, has been hospitalised after a suspected poisoning.

Navalny’s spokeswoman suggested he was poisoned by something in tea he drank on the morning of August 20 before boarding a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. While on the flight, Navalny became ill, and the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk (another city in Siberia) so that he could receive medical treatment.

Navalny was in Siberia supporting candidates running in local elections on September 13. United Russia, the Kremlin-backed party of power, is expecting more difficulty than usual in securing victories in this upcoming set of electoral races.

High-profile critic

A lawyer by training, 44-year-old Navalny is a high-profile critic of President Vladimir Putin and the ruling political elite in Russia.

Charismatic and anti-Kremlin, Navalny stands out in Russian politics. His profile is a sharp contrast to the politicians that lead supposed "opposition" political parties with seats in the national legislature. These parties, led by the likes of 67-year-old Sergei Mironov, 76-year-old Gennady Zyuganov and 74-year-old Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are seen as largely co-opted by the Kremlin. They might make critical comments occasionally, but can be relied upon to support the Kremlin’s line when needed.

Navalny has attempted to achieve elected office. He ran in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, securing 27% of the vote according to the official figures. He claimed, however, that this figure did not reflect his true level of support in the capital, including due to falsification.

He was formally barred from running in the 2018 presidential election following criminal convictions, which some regard as being politically motivated.

Navalny has had more success away from electoral politics. In 2011, he established the Anti-Corruption Foundation to investigate and publicise alleged corruption by senior politicians and state officials. He branded United Russia the "party of crooks and thieves" - a phrase that has stuck.

A 2017 YouTube video by the foundation laying out details of a corruption investigation into the-then prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has had nearly 36 million views.

In July 2020, Navalny announced that he was closing the Anti-Corruption Foundation, following a lawsuit linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin’s.

Not the ’leader’ of the opposition

Although a prominent opposition figure, it would be wrong to call Navalny the singular opposition leader in Russia. For one thing, this might give a false impression of Navalny’s popularity and name recognition in Russia as a whole.

In an October 2019 survey conducted by the Levada Centre, 9% of respondents said that they related to Navalny’s activities "rather positively", with 25% relating "rather negatively". A further 31% said they knew nothing of his activities and the same percentage reacted to Navalny neutrally.

Quite how these figures, as well as election results, would change if Russia had a freer media and electoral landscape is not clear. But, as things stand, Navalny is the most high-profile Kremlin critic operating within Russia.

Another reason why labelling Navalny as an opposition leader is inappropriate relates to the fact that political opposition forces in Russia are fragmented. They often find it hard to coordinate their activities in a way that could mount an effective challenge to the authorities. And this certainly suits the Kremlin.

Navalny has, however, spearheaded an effort to help overcome the coordination problems facing the political opposition. Called "smart voting", the aim is to coordinate tactical votes for candidates who are not members of, or affiliated with, United Russia. The initiative appears to have had some success, including in the 2019 elections for the Moscow City Council.

Past attacks

It’s too early to say with certainty why Navalny has fallen ill.

However, he has been attacked before, including in a 2017 incident when he was covered in an antiseptic green dye that left him with partial blindness in one eye. Navalny was then hospitalised in 2019 following what could have been a poisoning during his detention for violating protest laws.

If Navalny has been poisoned, then the specifics of this incident share distinct similarities with past cases. In 2004, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and vocal critic of the Kremlin’s actions in the second Chechen war, was poisoned by drinking tea on a flight. Two years later, she was assassinated. And, in 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer, was poisoned with polonium-210 added to tea he drank at a London hotel.

Yet, even if Navalny has been poisoned, it’s far from certain - and unlikely, even - that this was directly ordered by the Kremlin. What is certain is that the Kremlin has not taken steps to ensure the safety of opposition figures in modern-day Russia. This was made clear in February 2015 when former Russian deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, was shot to death on a bridge next to the Kremlin in Moscow.

By many accounts, the assassination of Nemtsov shocked the Kremlin. But, insofar as this attack and others increase the perceived costs of political opposition to Putin’s rule, the Kremlin benefits from the chilling effect on critical voices in the country.

The Kremlin will want to distance itself from any suggestion that it was responsible for Navalny’s current illness. With protests in neighbouring Belarus after a disputed election and in the Russian city of Khabarovsk following the arrest of the sitting governor, the prospect of another reason for Russians to protest on the streets will be deeply troubling for Putin.

This article was first published in the Conversation on 21 August.


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