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Head shot portrait of Russian opposiiton leader Alexei Navalny
Died in prison: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. EPA-EFE/Maxim Shipenkov

Alexei Navalny: reported death of Putin’s most prominent opponent spells the end of politics in Russia

Reports of the death of Russia’s most famous opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, in an Arctic prison camp are shocking, but not entirely unexpected. It draws a line under Russia’s political development over the past two decades by highlighting that a challenge from within is no longer possible.

Navalny was the last public politician to pose a real challenge to the Kremlin, but his attempt to overthrow the regime failed long before what appears to be his untimely death in prison.

His unrealistic calculations about the impact of his return to Russia in 2021 led to the dismantling of the remnants of any organised opposition that was not sanctioned – and controlled – by the Russian state.

Navalny ended up in prison, his supporters arrested or fled abroad. As a result, when the invasion of Ukraine came, there were very few street protests against it.

Active in Russian politics for more than 20 years, Navalny’s main focus was identifying and rooting out state corruption, an issue with almost limitless material in modern Russia. He embraced new methods of bringing his investigations to as wide an audience as he could, notably the internet, particularly via his YouTube channel. Some of his most popular clips have tens of millions of views.

But corruption investigations and blogging were not enough to really challenge Putin’s status quo in Russian politics. That’s why Navalny increasingly turned to the direct action of mass street protests.

His big break came in 2011, when allegations of widespread fraud in the December 2011 Duma elections, coupled with the announcement of Putin’s return to the presidency the previous September, brought tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets of Moscow.

Although the protests were not organised by Navalny, his charisma and more radical rhetoric made him the most prominent face of the protests, overshadowing more established opposition leaders such as Boris Nemtsov. However, the mass protests of 2011-12 failed to prevent Putin’s re-election in March 2012, and eventually fizzled out.

But the protests prompted the Kremlin to change tack and experiment with allowing the opposition to stand in elections. Navalny was the main beneficiary, being registered for the Moscow mayoral elections in the summer of 2013. This was Navalny’s only real chance of winning power in Russia’s tightly controlled electoral system.

Russian politician Alexei Navalny gestures to the crowd while giving a speech -- his image appears on a big screen behind him.
Fighter: Alexei Navalny campaigning in the mayoral election in Moscow, September 2013. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

He campaigned enthusiastically and won a respectable 27% of the vote. But it also showed the limits of his appeal. Moscow was at the time one of the most opposition-leaning cities in Russia, one of the few regions where Putin got less than 50% in the 2012 presidential election.

If the opposition could really challenge the Kremlin, it was in Moscow. But turnout was extremely low at 32%, and the incumbent mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, won the 51% he needed to avoid a run-off with Navalny.

This was indicative of the opposition’s problem: reliance on restriction to a committed core of supporters whose passion for change didn’t spill over into the general population.

Last roll of the dice

Elections in today’s Russia are a foregone conclusion, but they are also a potential vulnerability for the Kremlin. There is a fine balance that the Kremlin has to strike between control of elections and their legitimacy. Too much control, or outright fraud, and the legitimising value of the elections is reduced.

This can lead to potentially destabilising results, as the mass protests in Moscow in 2011 or the protests in Belarus in 2021 showed, and as happened in the 2004 Ukrainian elections, which led to the first Orange Revolution.

Navalny understood this well, and made participation in the 2018 presidential election his main goal. His strategy was to cause enough trouble for the authorities in the run-up to the vote, particularly through various street demonstrations, to force the authorities to allow him to stand as an official candidate in these elections.

To this end, he set up a regional network of Navalny HQs that ran in parallel with his main anti-corruption organisation, FBK (the Anti-Corruption Foundation). This gave Navalny a potential nationwide reach, in contrast to the old Moscow-centred opposition.

This strategy didn’t produce the desired result of getting Navalny on to the ballot. But it seemed to rattle the authorities enough to want to take care of the “Navalny problem”.

Poison and imprisonment

In August 2020, Navalny fell ill on a flight and, according to the German doctors who treated him, escaped near-certain death from a Novichok weapons-grade chemical agent.

Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia posemfor a photo sitting on an aircraft.
Flight into danger: Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia at Brandenburg International Airport in January 2021 on an aircraft bound for Moscow, where they were both detained. EPA-EFE/Alexei Navalny instagram post

He returned from Germany in January 2021 and was immediately arrested on landing in Moscow. The mass protests that followed were unusual for their regional scale, but not enough to really challenge the Kremlin. Instead, the authorities banned Navalny’s organisations in Russia and either arrested or forced those who worked for them to flee Russia.

Read more: Alexei Navalny: Novichok didn't stop Russian opposition leader – but a prison sentence might

Navalny’s fate became the main point of contention for Moscow in its dealings with western governments and media. Navalny was the obligatory subject of high-level contacts with the Russian authorities, with Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan warning that Russia would suffer consequences if Navalny died in prison.

But all this paled into insignificance after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022. Overnight, Navalny’s fate seemed diminished against the backdrop of Europe’s biggest war since 1945.

Navalny’s own agenda of generating enough domestic protest to topple the regime became obsolete as the new anti-opposition laws were enforced and most of his most ardent supporters fled the country. Navalny tried to stay relevant by promoting his views from prison, including a call to end the war by handing over all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, and paying reparations to Ukraine. It’s not clear that he gained any supporters in Russia, but he certainly appealed to those in exile and to western governments.

With the West and its allies imposing an unprecedented level of sanctions on Russia and providing Ukraine with the military support to defeat Putin on the battlefield, there’s literally nothing else the west can do to punish Russia over Navalny’s fate.

The rest is dictatorship

Alexei Navalny was clearly a very brave and charismatic politician who posed the most significant domestic challenge to Putin’s regime in more than a decade. He never really came close to toppling Putin, and perhaps often overestimated his level of support within Russia.

With the news of his untimely death in prison, the question remains whether he could have done more from exile in the west. He would have joined a long list of Russian opposition leaders, from former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to chess champion Garry Kasparov, who have virtually no influence on what happens in Russia. But Navalny’s refusal to go down that road, and his belief in his own importance, is precisely what has made him stand out in Russian politics.

Ultimately, Navalny’s death draws a line under the era when politics was politics in Russia. Today there is only Putin’s own personal authoritarianism.

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