A sworn enemy of President Putin to the point where he had him poisoned, Alexeï Navalny is seen in the West as the man who could straighten out Russia. But only a tiny fraction of Russians see him as a savior, and the man's past raises more questions than it brings hope. Portrait of a man much more popular outside Russia than in it.
Alexei Navalny is seen as a leader of the opposition to President-dictator Vladimir Putin whose he denounces the regime's corruption, repression and lack of democracy.
The popular demonstrations he organized have earned him the regime's disapproval, court convictions and prevented him from to stand in the 2018 presidential elections.
Navalny becomes a world-famous figure when he narrowly survives poisoning in August 2020 with a powerful nerve agent used by the Russian secret service.
After recovering in Germany, he surprises the world returning to Russia in January 2021 where he is immediately imprisoned. Last March, he was sentenced to nine and a half years in a maximum security institution for corruption.
Since the poisoning, Navalny, a media and charismatic figure, has been the subject of numerous documentaries, notably by the BBC and CNN, giving him an international audience.
On August 22, 2020, paramedics brought back the stretcher designed to the transport of highly contagious patients after dropping off Navalny at the Charité hospital in Berlin.
Navalny made his appearance on the Russian political landscape in 2000 by joining the liberal Yabloko party. He resigned in 2007 for having participated the previous year in the Russian March, which brought together rather xenophobic ultranationalist sympathizers.
This passage from one extreme to the other on the political spectrum is not surprising Michel Roche, professor of political science at UQAC and specialist in Russia. He was in Russia in 2002, where he has visited almost every year since 1990, when the second round of presidential elections took place in France.
“Everyone (in Russia) wondered what was so appalling about Jean-Marie Le Pen's speech. Being liberal in Russia does not mean the same thing as here. Liberals backed the 1993 coup that gave most power to the president. Some call themselves liberals in the Western sense of the term, but many are (economic) liberals without necessarily adhering to respect for individual rights and anti-racism, ”says Mr. Roche.
Mr. Roche witnessed a demonstration in which Navalny took part around 2007. It was also at this time that Navalny made comments that still haunt him.
“We discover some fairly racist positions. He compares the Georgians to rodents that should be expelled from Russia. The Soviet regime officially would not have tolerated discriminatory speech. Things have changed quite a bit. Far-right movements were given free rein in those terrible years of decay after the collapse of the Soviet regime. Navalny did not escape this,” said Mr. Roche.
“He makes absolutely inadmissible, xenophobic remarks. He spoke of Caucasians like cockroaches, the Navalny of this period is not very recommendable”, thinks for his part Yann Breault, assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Saint-Jean and specialist in Russian foreign policy.
The opponent was arrested during a demonstration in 2012.
Mr. Breault adds that Navalny, in the 2018 elections, supported the candidate in each constituency who had the best chance of defeating that of United Russia, Putin's party, regardless of his allegiance.
In the CNN documentary, Navalny has no problem continuing to consort with ultranationalists.
“They want to fight Putin like me. I cannot ignore them if I want to become the country's leader. I'm comfortable associating with people whose goals don't seem good to me,” he said.
Since 2010 Navalny, the blogger, has embarked on the hunt for corruption which will become his battle horse. He will denounce several top Russian leaders, showing their official incomes which do not go hand in hand with their car or their luxury house. It was also at this time that his problems with Russian justice began.
“He will establish himself as a key figure in social media, having very skilful communication strategies. As a fine strategist, he does not directly attack Putin, who is so popular, but his immediate entourage, ”says Mr. Breault.
The latter draws a turning point in the Navalny phenomenon. In 2011, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would not run for a second term and that he would be replaced by his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.
“Medvedev mentions that it was the deal he made in 2008 with Putin. Voters who had dreamed of a reformist president, of a rapprochement with the West, felt betrayed. Vladimir Putin’s party then experienced its lowest support rate,” explains Mr. Breault.
A low rate despite proven electoral fraud.
“The American NGO Golos has well documented the cases of electoral fraud that had been committed with a little stuffing of ballot boxes here and there, filmed and posted on the Internet which was much freer then. A movement of demonstrations has taken on a lot of scope. Navalny has really emerged as one of the leaders of this opposition which denounces the lack of respect for democratic standards,” adds Mr. Breault.
It works in Moscow
< p>In 2013, Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow and obtained an honorable 27% of the vote, good for second place.
“His supporters are essentially young professionals, liberals, urbanites who aspire to better standards of governance and who see in this character someone courageous who dares to denounce the financial embezzlement of a corrupt elite. But many Russians know that there is corruption, it always has been. As long as the government is efficient, that we have access to services and that the quality of life increases, we pretend not to be too interested in it, ”analyzes Mr. Breault.
Michel Roche abounds in the same direction.
“Corruption is very unpopular. In early 2020, I believe, there were protests in about 100 cities. But Navalny's personal popularity is low,” he said.”Let's just take a Levada survey,” continues Mr. Roche. It is an independent house to the point where it is now considered by the Russian government as a foreign agent. Navalny's approval rating was 2%. It galvanizes a small part of the youth, including the most politicized. His efficiency, he finds it mainly on social networks.”
The survey to which he refers was carried out in December 2019 and asked “if there were elections next Sunday, who would you vote for ?”. Putin finished first and Navalny fifth. Although 48% of those polled said they weren't going to vote or didn't know who to vote for, Navalny failed to stand out.
Another poll conducted by the same firm last July, before the introduction of laws punishing any statement against the Putin regime and its army, showed that Navalny was losing ground.
In 2013, 6% of Russians approved of Navalny's activities. The percentage jumped to 20% in 2020 right after his poisoning. But in January 2021 it was 19% and in June 14%. In this last poll, young people aged 18-24 only supported him at 24%.
Not a threat to power
“We always talk about Navalny as if he were very important in Russia. Whereas in Russia, even before his poisoning, it was not a threatening phenomenon for the power in place. Even with free elections, he would not have been able to get elected,” adds Yann Breault.
On the other hand, the latter is convinced that, in another context – and especially if he was not imprisoned – Navalny could have become a real threat to the dictator.
“There is still the face of the job, there is a good sense of humor, pleads Mr. Breault. What he says about corruption, it is quite plausible. But we destroyed his organization. For the past two years, a fairly strong repression has limited the ability of these people to present themselves as an alternative.
And while he now opposes war in Ukraine “because it is expensive,” he said, Navalny also does not seem like a long-term solution to peace with neighbor Russia. And maybe not even to restore bridges with the West.
“Is Navalny a more desirable option for us Westerners, who would have liked to see a more docile Russia in the face of an order economy dominated by the United States? I doubt it, because there is still a continuity in his speech. He remains a great Russian patriot. And when it comes to the future of Crimea, or the Ukrainians, he is pretty much on the same line as the Kremlin,” says Yann Breault.
After returning to Russia in 2021 following his poisoning, Navalny released a video of the palace built for Putin that resonated in the West.
“It was fun, but this video revealed absolutely nothing new, launches Yann Breault. This palace was built and then financed by people around Putin at the end of his second term in the mid-2000s. By the time the video comes out, it has already been almost 15 years since the castle was built. It has hardly ever been used and is already falling into disrepair in some places. It was poorly maintained and Putin, to my knowledge, never visited it.”
In fact, Navalny had published photos of the palace as early as 2015 on his social networks.
The opposition exists
Michel Roche ignites when asked if Navalny is the most important representative of the opposition to the Putin regime.
“What I deplore in our way of dealing with the Russian opposition is the fact that we stick to personalities like Navalny, while the opposition in Russia does exist.”
It adds examples.
“There are unions fighting there. There are movements for the protection of the rights of homeowners, consumer protection associations, the committee of soldiers' mothers to protect young people who are enrolled in the army. Because military service is compulsory and they are sometimes taken outright. There are all these social movements that are terribly neglected and I regret that when we talk about opposition in Russia, we say Navalny.”
But, continues Michel Roche, these protest movements do not materialize not in political opposition.
“It is very difficult to politically organize these oppositions. Becoming a recognized political party requires a very large number of signatures across the country. To get MPs elected, you need a microphone to speak in news reports. Winning an election against the president when he has the media behind him, when the rules are absolutely not fair, is not easy. And the parliament, the Duma, has no real power. The power is really in the hands of the president”, analyzes Mr. Roche.
Who is Alexeï Navalny?
◆ Born on 4 June 1976 (45 years old) in Boutyn, 50 km from Moscow
◆ Married to Yulia (45 years old) since 2000
◆ They have a daughter Daria (2001) and a son Zakhar (2008)
◆ Lawyer, blogger and politician
Key moments   ;
- 2006: Takes part in the Russian March, an ultra-nationalist demonstration.
- 2010: First denunciation on his blog, an embezzlement of public funds of $4 billion for the construction of a pipeline. Justice is opening an investigation into him.
- 2011: Creates the Anti-Corruption Foundation, dissolved in 2021, which finances it.
- 2011: Detained 15 days for demonstrating after Putin's victory in the parliamentary elections.
- 2013: Finished second in the race for mayor of Moscow with 27% of voice.
- 2013: Sentenced to a 5-year suspended sentence after the 2010 investigation and a 3-year suspended sentence in another case.
- 2014: Spent 11 months under house arrest.
- 2017: Declared ineligible for the 2018 presidential election.
- 2019: 30-day police custody for a call to demonstrate
- August 20, 2020: Poisoned with Novichok
- August 22, 2020: Transferred to a German hospital
- December 21, 2020: He traps a member of the secret service who poisoned him
- January 17, 2021: He returns to Russia and is immediately imprisoned
- March 22, 2022: < /strong>Sentenced to 9 years in maximum security for defrauding his Foundation.
Difficult to establish his guilt or not
The day after his return to Russia, on January 18, 2021, he was taken to prison. He is still there, having received a 9-year sentence last March.
Outside Russia, Navalny is seen as a political prisoner. Explaining that this is plausible since there is no “strong separation” in Russia between the judicial and political systems, Michel Roche, specialist in this country at UQAC, is “not ready either to give Navalny the good Lord without confession. He needed a lot of money to finance all sorts of things. He was nevertheless for a year on the Board of Directors of the airline Aeroflot. He was also a little bit in this class of influential and very corrupt people. The problem in Russia is that there is hardly anyone who has been able to become rich without being corrupt. But if you're out of the regime's good graces, it's pretty easy to find evidence of corruption. »
He fears being tortured
In this tweet from May 4, Alexei Navalny expresses his fears of being sent to Melekhovo prison and being tortured there. According to Amnesty International, Navalny has no internet access in prison. He would pass his messages through his lawyers, who then forward them to his team.
In a tweet on May 4, Navalny discusses his fears of being transferred to the penal colony of Melekhovo, “where prisoners' nails are pulled out,” he wrote. “Navalny’s latest conviction takes his detention regime from general to strict, so he could be sent there. We do not have a report on Melekhovo, but the media have reported that torture, including sexual violence, is practiced there, and that at least one person is said to have died from the beatings. The prison administration is generally aware of these facts and often directly involved,” explained Camille Ducroquet, of Amnesty International.
Poisoned by the Russian secret services
On September 15, 2020, Alexei Navalny published this photo of him and his family members taken on his hospital bed in Germany.
On August 20, 2020, while on a plane to Moscow, Navalny writhed in pain. Hospitalized, he fell into a coma. His entourage suspect poisoning which will be confirmed after his transfer two days later to Germany. The Novichok poison, developed and already used by the Russians, is detected. In December, Navalny, CNN and Bellingcat media trap a Russian secret service agent on the phone who explains that the poison was placed in the blogger's underwear.
Rehabilitated by Amnesty International< /strong>
In February 2021, Amnesty International created a surprise by withdrawing Navalny's prisoner of conscience status. He will recover it in May of the same year. “Our concerns were due to the fact that he had in the past made comments that could amount to a call for hatred that could constitute incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. We fight racism and all forms of discrimination everywhere. But, regardless of his background, Amnesty International considers that Alexei Navalny is being unjustly detained for exercising his freedom of expression,” said Camille Ducroquet, Communications Manager for Amnesty International Canada.
Because of Chernobyl
Navalny comes from a politicized family, especially after the Chernobyl accident, he told CNN. His father's family comes from a village 10 km from the plant. Authorities asked residents to plant potatoes in the radioactive dust “to pretend that the situation was normal”. The population will leave the village a little later. As he spent his summers at his grandmother's house, he would have been a victim of the disaster if it had taken place in June rather than the end of April, he reported to Esquire in 2020 He tells CNN that Putin's lies remind him of those of Soviet-era leaders.
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