Russia protests: Is Alexei Navalny the man to take down Putin?
Alexei Navalny in 2013. “Navalny” by intelligencya (CC)

In recent months, Alexei Navalny and the rapidly unfolding political situation in Russia have been thrust into international headlines. Yet Navalny’s name has frequented headlines for several years now, as he remains at the centre of a power struggle with President Vladimir Putin. But who is Navalny, and why does he pose such a threat to the political stability in Russia?

Who is Alexei Navalny?

Alexei Navalny is a long-standing anti-corruption campaigner and arguably the most prominent face of Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Navalny has targeted Putin’s legitimacy on Russia’s political stage for over a decade, ceaselessly calling out the President’s acts of corruption and crime. Despite his inability to access any mainstream Russian media – particularly state-owned television companies, which have been painting Navalny as a western agent – he has successfully campaigned against Putin via word-of-mouth and, increasingly, over social media. This has specifically galvanised the younger generation in Russia, but in the wake of recent scandals, he has reached a much wider international audience.

A law graduate himself, Navalny is passionate about exposing the ongoing corruption in the Kremlin, and his recent attempts to do so have nearly cost him his life. In August 2020, he collapsed on a flight over Siberia, and, while recovering in Germany it was confirmed that he had been poisoned with Novichok, the same nerve agent used in the now infamous Salisbury poisonings, which has been linked to Putin’s government in several assassination attempts. While the Kremlin has publicly denied all accusations that they are behind this attack, Navalny himself was able to record one of the Kremlin officials admitting to orchestrating the poisoning. It is clear that Navalny is regarded as a threat. 

The events intensified upon Navalny’s return to Russia, wherein he found himself immediately detained under parole violations, in what he called a “mockery of justice”. The politically motivated arrest – alongside Navalny’s own vocal social media posts – sparked protests across the country. Despite widespread national and international international backlash, he received a politically motivated sentence of 2 years and 8 months in a penal colony. He also stands accused of slander against a war veteran in an attempt by Putin to paint him as an ‘enemy of Russia’. 

Now considered a political prisoner, Navalny joins the list of Putin’s enemies who were placed behind bars, which includes Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch famously imprisoned by Putin under allegations of fraud. In the courtroom, Navalny highlighted the ruthless extent to which Putin will go to maintain his power: his “only method is killing people”. 

Why does he pose the greatest threat to Putin’s power?

Currently, Navalny poses perhaps the most legitimate threat to Putin’s power in Russia. 2020 saw the shock departure of Dmitry Medvedev  – sometimes seen as Putin’s right-hand man  – from his position as prime minister, alongside his accompanying Cabinet.  This  resignation demonstrated a weakness in Putin’s government, arguably placing the Kremlin in its greatest position of vulnerability since the President took office. 

Moreover, Covid-19 and the summer revolution in Belarus created a hostile environment within the country, adding pressure to the already precarious status of the Kremlin. With this in mind, United Russia, Putin’s ruling party, is significantly vulnerable going into the upcoming State Duma elections in September  –  that’s to say Putin can’t risk further weakening his political position. Navalny has become somewhat of a figurehead for anti-establishment sentiment and social upheaval. Although Putin denies this, it’s clear that he recognises Navalny as a threat. 

Navalny first began blogging about the corruption of Russia’s state-controlled corporations in 2008. His increasing use of social media in his anti-corruption campaign reverberates both domestically and abroad. He calls for Western powers to aid him in cracking down on the state’s corruption and greed, and coined the phrase “party of crooks and thieves” in reference to United Russia. His use of digital campaigning helped him gain the support of the younger demographic, often more likely to view the Kremlin as out-of-touch.

The pair have a fraught political history. In 2013, Navalny first appeared as a potential political opponent during the mayoral elections, and since then has continued to establish himself as a charismatic and engaging politician, effective at organising and leading protests – qualities where Putin is perhaps lacking. His return to Russia in the face of arrest may have in fact earned him more support, as it demonstrates his commitment to the country in the face of imminent danger and threat of assassination. 

To this day, Putin refuses to speak Navalny’s name, or reference him in public. This may be to draw attention away from any opponents, or this could be a reluctance to recognise Navalny as a legitimate threat to his power. Indeed, he refers to Navalny as “that gentleman”, or the “patient”, a reference to his suspected poisoning. This omission demonstrates the extent to which the rivalry has become not merely political, but deeply personal. Navalny has faced a decade of attacks against his friends, his family and his own life, but remains committed and steadfast in the face of imprisonment and even death.  

Upon his imprisonment in January 2021, Navalny’s team released a documentary continuing his work in exposing corruption in the Kremlin. The video documented the building of an illicitly funded ‘palace’ which Putin has essentially made into a “separate state within Russia”, and was viewed over 22 million times in the first 24 hours. Moreover, it is clear that his words resonate with the population; the documentary ended with Navalny’s plea for those against corruption to “take to the streets”, and the following weekend saw significant protests in major cities across Russia. 

Are there any other threats to Putin’s power currently?

Navalny seems to be the greatest threat to Putin in the current climate. Since annexing Crimea, it’s clear that Putin doesn’t fear Western sanctions. NATO does pose significant opposition to Russia, but as long as Ukraine abstains from membership, the threat can be neutralised. The threat of Western politicians imposing sanctions is hugely distant from the reality of Putin’s control in Moscow. Even with the promise of the new Biden administration to impose far greater sanctions on Russia, Putin has been clear in his intention to retaliate and appears – for the most part – unfazed.

The threat from Navalny and his supporters, however, is far more visible. Protests have come from within the voting population and are perhaps the most legitimate threat to Putin’s power and position as president, particularly considering the fragility of the Kremlin in the current climate.

It is also clear that Putin recognises this, in all his attempts to discredit, imprison and silence Navalny. 

Will Navalny ultimately succeed in defeating Putin?

Currently, Putin’s position still remains strong. Despite anti-corruption campaigns and protest from the youth, he remains a popular voting choice amongst the older generations – even after watching Navalny’s Palace documentary, only 17% of survey respondents said it changed their view of Putin, and 88% said they viewed the subsequent protests unfavourably. Moreover, United Russia is still predicted to win a majority in the upcoming State Duma elections. Recently, he passed a constitutional amendment which allows him to extend his term until 2036, for which he faced little backlash. 

It appears Putin will remain in a position of power for a significant time to come. The levels of corruption, while perhaps more exposed, remain very much intact, as does his political standing – for now.

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This article has been written as part of a series on the protests in Russia.