Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist was jailed on charges of embezzlement in February 2021, in a move widely believed to be politically motivated. He began a hunger strike on 31st March in protest of being denied medical treatment, and three weeks later, he was moved to a prison hospital notorious for its abuse of inmates.
Navalny announced on 23rd April that he is ending his hunger strike, after being examined by civilian doctors. Given his recent blood tests, as well as the lingering effects of his Novichok poisoning last year, his doctors have argued that he is in imminent danger of kidney failure or a heart attack. His request for access to his independent medical team, to address worrying numbness in his legs, continues to be denied.
Russian responses have varied from dismissing any issue with his condition, to Russia’s ambassador to the UK Andrei Kelin, accusing Navalny of attempting to gain attention.
Since his arrest, thousands of protestors have come out across Russia in Navalny’s support. Mass protests occurred on 21st April, the day of Vladimir Putin’s annual address; an estimated 1,500 people were arrested, including several of Navalny’s closest aides.
It appears that crowds were smaller than those seen earlier in the year. Many leaders of the movement have left the country to avoid arrest, limiting their ability to organise.
The price of protest is also growing: the Kremlin is considering classifying the Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist organisation, which would leave supporters vulnerable to criminal prosecution.
Many of those protesting in Navalny’s name are openly critical of his political views. He refuses to retract the controversial views he upheld in the early stages of his career, and espouses Russian nationalist sentiments, demonstrated recently over his ambiguity towards the annexation of Crimea.
An outspoken opponent of immigration, Navalny’s xenophobic comments caused Amnesty International to remove his status as a “prisoner of conscience”. However, Navalny’s treatment at the hands of the Russian government has rendered him larger than life. He is now a figurehead for a larger movement, a victim of torture, regarded on the international stage as he inches closer to death.
Navalny’s anti-corruption activism, coupled with his nationalism, amplify the threat that he poses to Putin. He cannot easily be dismissed as a Trojan horse for US influence; he embodies several mainstream Russian views, with a demonstrated commitment to democratic freedom.
Navalny’s demands to the Russian government have historically never ended as he hoped: for example, his findings of corruption by senior officials have been followed by the promotion of the accused, or at most their quiet transferral. The state is determined to not appear weak, thereby refusing to give in to popular demands. This may indicate that the ongoing protests will be fruitless; combined with the Kremlin’s crackdown on the Anti-Corruption Foundation, they may be forced to an end.
Described by Navalny’s team as the “final battle between good and neutrality”, the protests in Russia undeniably pose a significant challenge to Putin’s United Russia party, in an election year where they may struggle to maintain their two-thirds majority. Whether they can spark tangible change, however, is yet to be seen.
Image: Evgeny Feldman via Creative Commons