Navalny’s widow, the new voice seeking to unite Russia’s battered opposition

Yulia Navalnaya’s announcement that she will continue her husband’s fight has sparked a degree of hope in some dissidents, despite the fact that the Kremlin’s threats will prevent her from doing politics in Russia

Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s widow
In this image taken from video released by Navalny Team on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, Yulia Navalnaya, widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gives a video message.AP
Javier G. Cuesta

The new voice of the Russian opposition has received the express support of other dissidents, even those who had bitter spats with Alexei Navalny’s organization in recent years. Yulia Navalnaya, 47, announced in a video on Monday that she will continue the work of her husband, who died suddenly in an Arctic prison just a month before the Russian presidential elections. Sectors of the Russian opposition movement have applauded her message, seeing in Navalny’s widow a figure capable of uniting the different movements that oppose the Kremlin. Others, however, have remained silent.

“Today’s announcement means there’s still a leader in the Russian opposition. Alexei’s movement and everything he stood for, didn’t vanish into thin air,” stressed Maxim Katz, a controversial blogger and former Yabloko party member, whom Navalny told Katz “go to hell” in September after he proposed “a large opposition coalition” ahead of the presidential elections in March. “[The ruling party] United Russia and Putin have always stolen votes. The question was whether we would catch them. Now, thanks to electronic voting, it is impossible,” said Navalny, arguing that the Kremlin elections are rigged.

Despite the tense social media exchanges between Katz and other members of Navalny’s team, the dissident offered his support to Yulia Navalnaya in a video posted on his YouTube channel. Katz said that Navalnaya’s decision to continue her husband’s work “means that the organized resistance will carry on.” “The people will know there’s a person behind it. And millions of Russians who want to see an alternative to Putin will keep seeing it. Yulia is safe, reachable,” he said, arguing that she has the political experience of being Navlany’s wife for 24 years and also has “access to European politicians and media.”

Other Russian dissidents, with tens and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, also showed their unequivocal support for Navalnaya. “Yulia, strength and patience! You can count on my support!” said former State Duma deputy Dmitri Gudkov, who is now in exile.

Navalnaya’s announcement was applauded by the leadership of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “I think I’ve seen the video five times now. And each time it continues to be incredibly difficult, but it gives us hope,” said Georgy Alburov, the head of the investigation unit.

Anger in the Kremlin

In addition to taking up her husband’s cause, Navalnaya also accused Vladimir Putin of his murder — an accusation that has greatly upset the Kremlin. “Of course, these are absolutely unfounded and vulgar accusations against the head of the Russian state. But taking into account that Yulia Navalnaya was widowed just days ago, I will not comment,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday. “They are very offended,” said Navalny’s former spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh.

Within Russia, the liberal Yabloko party — from which Navalny was expelled in 2007 for his nationalist views — has not commented on Navalnaya’s announcement. The group — which has no seat in the Russian Parliament — tries to do politics from within Putin’s regime, which it accused of killing Navalny “in a prison under conditions that amounted to torture.”

However, a prominent member of Yabloko, Lev Shlosberg, warned against the comparisons being made between Navalnaya and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was chosen to stand as the Belarusian opposition candidate in the 2020 presidential elections after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested before the vote. The incumbent, Aleksandr Lukashenko, won 80% of the votes, sparking massive protests over electoral fraud.

“Political leadership is not inherited,” Shlosberg told the newspaper Holod, pointing out that Navalnaya may face arrest if she returns to Russia. “Yulia cannot come to Russia and carry out political actions here. She cannot create any political structure in our country, she would be arrested upon entering and deprived of her freedom, and her children would be left not only without a father, but also without a mother.”

Other opposition figures in exile, such as chess player Garry Kasparov and businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky — considered by Russians to be too removed from the country’s internal political reality — did not speak directly about Navalnaya’s video, although they both shared it on social media and advocated for the Russian opposition to come together. “Our reaction to his murder must be to join forces, carry on his work together, and ensure that hope for a democratic Russia does not die with him,” said Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company, said in a message on X.

Other opposition leaders who have been imprisoned by the Kremlin, such as Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, have not yet comment on Navalnaya’s video, as it often takes days for news to reach them. Both, however, lamented the death of their fellow dissident. “We must stop him [Putin]. Only Russian society can do this,” wrote Kara-Murza, poisoned twice in the last decade.

A great responsibility now falls on Navalnaya’s shoulders. “A lot depends on what she will have to offer,” political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya said in a post on Telegram. “Not as the widow of an outstanding politician who was tortured to death, but as an independent figure.”

Pressure on Navalny’s family

Navalny’s mother arrived last Saturday in the Arctic town of Harp, almost 1,240 miles northeast of Moscow, to collect her son’s remains and demand an explanation. But the Kremlin refused to hand over Navalny’s body. “Let me finally see my son,” Lyudmila Navalnaya cried in a video message on Tuesday, recorded in front of the IK-3 prison in the Arctic Circle.

“For a fifth day I cannot see him, they aren’t giving me his body and don’t even tell me where he is,” she said, hiding tearful eyes behind dark glasses. “I appeal to you, Vladimir Putin. Resolving this issue depends on you alone. Let me finally see my son. I demand that Alexei’s body be released immediately so that I can bury him humanely.

Hours after the video was broadcast, the Russian government responded by issuing another threat against Navalny’s family. The Ministry of the Interior included his brother, Oleg Navalny, on its wanted list for unspecified “criminal charges.” His whereabouts have been unknown since he left the country in the fall of 2021, after being sentenced to a year in prison on charges of violating coronavirus restrictions by participating in anti-Kremlin protests.

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