The end of Navalny confirms the fate of Putin’s critics: exile, prison or death

Russian authorities have opened at least 883 criminal cases against dissidents since the start of the Ukraine invasion. The repression not only extends to the democratic opposition, but also to sectors favorable to the war but dissatisfied with the president and the military leadership

Alexéi Navalni
A person kneels before the monument to the victims of political repression in Saint Petersburg after learning of the death of dissident Alexei Navalny, this Friday.STRINGER (REUTERS)
Javier G. Cuesta

“It is impossible to live in Russia, but dying is possible,” goes a well-known aphorism by the philosopher Dmitry Merezhkovsky, who died in exile during Stalinism. The sudden death of Alexei Navalny in prison brings his words to mind. Not only dissidents, but anyone who has raised their voice against the Kremlin and has not fled, is either locked up in prison or dead. In the case of the internationally best-known dissident, the causes of death have not yet been clarified, but in Russia, on the streets and behind the scenes, it is believed that Navalny was murdered. Without politicians who disagree able to speak in public, President Vladimir Putin has paved the way to his fifth presidential term in the elections to be held between March 15 and 17.

Navalny’s death on Friday mobilized some people who spontaneously laid flowers at the monuments to the politically persecuted in cities such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg — the largest city in the Urals — and Novosibirsk, the largest Siberian city. The police cordoned off the statues and at some points allowed bouquets and photos of the activist to be placed without any political message, while in other places law enforcement dispersed and arrested the attendees. No street demonstration is expected for Navalny: even an individual protest is persecuted in today’s Russia.

The population that does not support the president has been orphaned of the figures that represented it within the political system. The Central Electoral Commission has vetoed the two individuals to whom those dissatisfied with the war against Ukraine clung: the political scientist Boris Nadezhdin and the journalist Yekaterina Duntsova; the former is a regular speaker on Russian propaganda channels and the second is practically unknown.

Navalny was a member in the 2000s of the only remaining Russian opposition party, Yabloko. However, this party does not have representation in the State Duma and has not proposed any candidate after its founder, Grigori Yablinski, was summoned by Putin to his office in November.

Generation of opponents

After Yabloko, Navalny’s figure gained traction among Russians with the protests that began due to accusations of election fraud in 2011 and continued until 2013, when a generation of opposition leaders emerged who today are locked up in penal colonies far and wide. One of the best-known of these politicians is Vladimir Kara-Murza, 42, who was poisoned in 2015 and 2017 and later sentenced to 25 years in prison for an alleged crime of high treason for accusing the Russian army in international forums of having committed war crimes.

Kara-Murza has been closely linked to two politicians who were great rivals of Putin. On the one hand, he worked with former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in front of the Kremlin in 2015 shortly before his investigation into Russia’s participation in the war in eastern Ukraine was released. On the other hand, Kara-Murza was coordinator of the Open Russia platform, founded by businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky from exile. Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia until he was forced to flee in 2004 under accusations of tax evasion. The assets of his oil company, Yukos, were awarded to another company close to power, Rosneft.

In the previous presidential election, held in 2018, there were observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but there will be none on this occasion. The repression of dissent has intensified since 2020, the year in which Navalny was poisoned with the chemical agent Novichok, which almost cost him his life. A series of legal reforms led by the law on foreign agents and bans on demonstrations, even individual ones, have left dissidents no room to maneuver since then.

With the doors of parliament and the media closed, some opponents believed they had found a place in local councils. However, the invasion of Ukraine and the law “against discrediting the actions of the armed forces” changed everything. A total of 19,855 people have been arrested in demonstrations since the day Putin ordered an attack on Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, and authorities have opened 883 criminal cases against war opponents, according to the human rights portal OVD -Info.

Among those convicted are some of these politicians who had sought a place in the municipal councils. Among them, the veteran Alexei Gorinov, 62, whose health is of concern after he was sentenced to seven years in prison for criticizing a children’s contest that was organized while bombs were falling on Ukrainian cities; and Ilia Yashin, 40, who also rose to prominence after the 2011 protests and who was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for questioning the Kremlin’s version of the massacre in the Ukrainian town of Bucha.

Yashin, Kara-Murza, the leader of Yábloko and many other opponents showed their support for the historic non-profit Memorial when it was liquidated by the Kremlin at the end of 2021, months before Putin launched his war. “There is Memorial, there are the arrests of Navalny, of [filmmaker] Oleh Sentsov... The international reaction is very important because it reminds the authorities that what they do does not go unnoticed,” Kara-Murza then warned this newspaper.

Among those attending the trial of the closure of the organization, dedicated to investigating the crimes of Soviet repression and modern Russia, was Oleg Orlov, 70, one of Memorial’s most prominent human rights defenders — he was exchanged for Russian hostages during the Chechen war. “It has been a tragedy for everyone, I have no words,” the activist said this Friday about Navalny’s death outside the court where he is being tried—and could be sentenced to prison—for writing a column against Putin’s government. Orlov refused to allow witnesses to appear in his defense so as not to put them in danger.

Silencing the ultranationalists

The Russian opposition is not compact and part of it disagreed with Navalny and his team. In fact, there were public clashes between some members of the deceased politician’s Anti-Corruption Platform and other dissidents about how to act in the elections — whether to vote en masse for any candidate except Putin or to boycott them altogether — or whether or not to support the Wagner mercenaries’ rebellion in June 2023.

In any case, the Kremlin’s repression has not focused only on opponents considered close to the West. In Putin’s preventive detention centers there is also space for figures from the Russian ultranationalist sector and other political actors who are very critical of the West.

The latest case is that of the communist Sergei Udaltsov, 47, leader of the Left Front and an ally and friend of the French far left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “It is sad and insulting that the Russian authorities persecute patriots, instead of scammers and scoundrels, some of whom are in power,” lamented the politician, who despite supporting the illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine has been accused of “justifying terrorism” after encouraging criticism of the Russian high command for its conduct of the war.

For this same reason, a “former hero” of the pro-Russian camp in the war in Donbas in eastern Ukraine, Colonel of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Igor Girkin, better known by his nickname Strelkov, has been sentenced to four years in prison. His diatribes against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the president were tolerated until the middle of last year, when the Wagner rebellion led the Kremlin to take measures against the most critical elements within the pro-war sector.

Although the owner of the mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, focused his attacks on the defense minister and his chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, for mistakes on the front, Putin never forgave his public attacks. Two months after the plane in which the entire Wagner leadership was traveling, including his boss, mysteriously crashed, Putin claimed—without official investigation—that the accident was the result of mixing hand grenades and cocaine in the cabin. Even today one can see Wagner flags and insignia among veterans of the Ukraine war, but no one dares to raise their voice. If something unites all Russians who are critical of Putin today, it is fear.

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