Prominent anti-corruption activist, opposition leader and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Alexei Navalny, is a hero to millions of Russians and supporters around the world. But he is a constant irritant to Russian president Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party which Navalny describes as the "party of crooks and thieves."
Navalny came to prominence around 13 years ago when he started blogging about corruption at state-owned companies. By 2011, his readership had ballooned, turning him into one of the leaders of anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow, some of the largest seen in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The purpose was to gain followers, influence and to finally run for national office himself, which Putin and his party had no intention of allowing to happen.
In 2013, Navalny launched an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Moscow, a bold move and one that would have positioned him as part of the power structure of the international city. But despite his courageous voice against corruption, Navalny has a complicated political side.
He ran on a nationalist platform, calling for highly restrictive (some say racist) immigration policies against Muslims in the Caucasus and Central Asia. He also supported Russia's 2008 war against Georgia. And though that's not why he lost the election, these views came back to haunt him as he saw his support erode with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Duke University's Irina Soboleva told VOX.com that Navalny's "hardline anti-immigration stances alienated members of his young, urban base."
In 2013 and 2014, Russian officials charged Navalny with embezzlement, accusing him of misappropriating about 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of lumber from a state-owned company. The move was designed to harass him and drive support away from his anti-corruption campaign. After the second charge, he was placed under house arrest and was officially only allowed to speak to his family. Navalny began a campaign to further expose corruption and weaken Putin and his government. He posted embarrassing videos of Russian officials on his YouTube channel (it currently has 6.5 million subscribers.)
A brilliant political strategist, Navalny focused on building his "brand" as a corruption-fighter, establishing a robust national network of regional politicians committed to anti-corruption and the defeat of the United Russia party. He also announced his intention to run for president in the coming years (which the government has since refused to allow.) But these actions put a target squarely on Navalny's back.
Putin's Personal Grudge
In 2017, the antiseptic, zelyonka, was thrown in Navalny's face and (according to him) cost 80 percent of his vision in his right eye. Two years later, he was detained by the police and put in jail. While there he suffered a severe skin reaction requiring medical attention at a hospital. He claimed he'd been poisoned and it seemed obvious that harassment from Putin's regime was escalating.
In August 2020 Navalny fell ill while on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. The plane diverted, making an emergency landing in Omsk, near Kazakhstan. Navalny fell into a coma before arriving at the hospital. Because of previous attacks and because his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, and other members of his team were barred from the hospital, speculation immediately arose that Navalny had been poisoned. After weeks in the hospital at Omsk, Navalny was stable enough to be transferred to a hospital in Berlin, Germany, to be examined, treated and hopefully to recover.
He was released on Sept. 23 and in October, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok, a lethal, military-grade nerve agent. Operatives learned that Novichok had liberally been spread on the crotch of Navalny's underwear. Naturally Putin and his cronies denied involvement, but evidence suggested otherwise.
Where Is Navalny Now and How Is He Doing?
Navalny flew back to Russia in January 2021 knowing that the Kremlin had placed him on the federal government's wanted list for "evading supervision" (a requirement of his probation in the 2014 embezzlement case) while he was recuperating in Germany from the poisoning. He was immediately arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, telling reporters at the scene, "I am not afraid. I know that I am in the right and that all the criminal cases against me are fabricated."
In early February 2021, Navalny was convicted of violating the terms of his 2014 conviction, and later sentenced to serve his sentence of at least 2.5 years at Penal Colony No. 2, also known as IK2 in the city of Pokrov in the Vladimir Region of Russia, east of Moscow. The prison is known for strict enforcement of rules, "a colony maximally isolated from the outside world ... in which convicts are 'broken,'" according to Mediazone.
On March 31, Navalny started a hunger strike protesting the lack of appropriate and independent medical care related to ongoing symptoms from the Novichok poisoning. The hunger strike continued for three weeks before his condition worsened to the point that prison officials hospitalized him for treatment, raising speculation that he might be force-fed. This led to outcry from leaders around the world including U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders of the G7.
Navalny's spokesperson posted on Facebook that "Alexei is dying ... it's a question of days." Physicians close to the dissident stepped in, persuading him to end his hunger strike, which he did on April 23, 2021, releasing a statement on social media:
"Doctors, whom I fully trust, published a statement yesterday stating that you and I had achieved enough for me to end the hunger strike. And I will say frankly — their words that the tests show that 'in a minimum time there will be no one to treat ...' seem to me worthy of attention."
Despite mounting international pressure to release Navalny, few expect that to happen. Instead, in a move designed to further silence Navalny and his organization, a Moscow court ruled to shut down the activities of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, pending a decision on whether the organization should be outlawed as an extremist group, even as thousands of demonstrators continue to march in the streets in support of Navalny and opposition to Putin.