By Caitlin Ayre
The poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader and outspoken dissident, is merely the latest in a line of Kremlin critics to have been targeted. Over many years several Russian political opponents have mysteriously fallen ill, many of them by the nerve agent Novichok. Although this incident is regarded as part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent, Navalny has expressed a desire to return to Russia and continue his mission. His strength and resilience is a symbol of hope for the Russian opposition but also serves as a warning sign to the Kremlin that he will not go down without a fight.
Navalny’s poisoning comes months after the referendum on constitutional amendments and last year’s summer protests in Moscow which were in response to the election authorities refusing to register opposition candidates in the municipal elections. The authorities’ refusal to allow opposition candidates to run sparked weeks of unofficial and official protests, the largest since 2011, and gathered more than 60,000 people a day. What was once normally an overlooked and disregarded local election quickly became a turning point for opposition politics, and spearheading this movement was Navalny. With support from his team, together they launched an initiative called Smart Vote, an online database that provided information to voters on how to increase the odds of defeating the country’s ruling party, United Russia. Furthermore, these protests arrived at a crucially important time as polls indicated that trust in the Russian government fell to an historical low of 33.4%. The results of the Moscow municipal election further highlighted this distrust and the growing demand for change. Twenty candidates endorsed by Navalny won seats in the Moscow Duma and United Russia lost almost a third of their seats. Most importantly, the opposition faction in the Duma increased from 12.5% to 44%. A few years ago these results would have been unthinkable and the results highlighted the cracks and discontent within the Russian voting system. In just a matter of weeks Navalny radically changed opposition politics in Russia and awoke the opposition out of their slumber.
So, who exactly is Alexei Navalny and why does he pose a threat to the Kremlin? Navalny first rose to prominence in Russian politics in 2010, bringing with him new ideas and strategies that have placed him at the forefront of opposition politics. He started his career as a lawyer combatting corruption and subsequently established the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is now considered a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin. Navalny took his anti-corruption one step further by calling United Russia a party of “crooks and thieves” and accused the President’s system of “sucking the blood out of Russia.” However, being Russia’s most outspoken opposition leader does come at a cost. Several of Navalny’s offices across Russia have been raided, he has been repeatedly arrested and jailed and has survived a previous poisoning, when in April 2017 he was blinded in one eye with a peculiar green dye.
What makes Navalny different to the countless other opposition leaders and Kremlin critics in Russia is his clever and innovative use of social media. Although he is banned from appearing on state television, this has not deterred him from spreading his message to the country. For example, his 2017 documentary released on YouTube which accused Dmitry Medvedev, the former Prime Minister, of corruption received more than 30 million views within two months of publication. Moreover, his use of popular social media sites such as Instagram and VKontakte, a Russian platform, have provided invaluable resources for thousands of people, particularly the younger generation. He has equipped his followers with the latest insights into Russian politics by creating weekly videos commenting on Russian social and political events. Navalny’s consistency and ever growing popularity on social media has captured the attention of young Russians and illustrated the effects of generational change. During last summer’s protests in Moscow a large proportion of protestors consisted of young students and activists who have grown up only knowing Putin as their leader. As an often-ignored proportion of the electorate, Navalny has ignited a political spark within young Russians which will be difficult for the Kremlin to extinguish.
As Navalny emerges from hospital, thousands of Russians are nervous but hopeful about the future. For both the Kremlin and the opposition parties, the municipal election in Moscow was a dress rehearsal to the State Duma elections scheduled for next year. Although United Russia won an overwhelming majority in the rest of Russia’s municipal elections, the Kremlin can no longer ignore nor underestimate the resurgence of the opposition. What happened last summer in Moscow acted as a wake-up call and caught the attention of both the Kremlin and the electorate. Navalny’s Smart Vote tactic proved effective and successful. This inventive method could change how Russians vote in future elections, especially in the 2024 Presidential election. Much to the Kremlin’s dismay, Navalny is a thorn in their side that they cannot pick out.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect
the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.