Hard void to fill: Navalny’s death poses challenges for Russian opposition

Flowers and a candle are placed next to a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny following Navalny's death as people gather near the Russian embassy, in Paris, France, February 16, 2024 [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

The anti-corruption campaigner and leader of the Russian opposition leaves behind a legacy of ‘the struggle for Russia’s better future’.

Alexey Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most high-profile nemesis, has died in a penal colony inside the Arctic Circle.

He was 47 years old. The authorities’ seeming reluctance to let his family collect his body has aroused suspicions around the circumstances of his death.

The announcement was made by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service on Friday.

Navalny rose to fame as an anti-corruption campaigner, rallying massive demonstrations over the 2011 elections, which were widely believed to be rigged.

He and his team released exposés of officials and business figures close to Putin’s inner circle – even Putin himself, accusing him of hiding an extravagant palace by the Black Sea.

“It won’t be easy for the opposition to find someone who could stand in Navalny’s place,” said political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. “Nonetheless, Navalny’s political goal will survive and his name will remain as a symbol of struggle for Russia’s better future.”

A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
A woman lays flowers at a monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, in Moscow, Russia, February 16, 2024 [Stringer/Reuters]

Controversial, but undoubted opposition leader

Navalny was a controversial figure. Early in his career, he made hateful remarks about Muslims, immigrants and Georgians, and walked alongside the Russia March, an annual procession attracting monarchists, ultranationalists and far-rightists of all stripes.

He later took back some of his comments, was one of the few prominent Russians to support Black Lives Matter, and spoke out against systemic discrimination against Muslims in the prison system.

After a suspected poisoning attempt in 2020, Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment but nevertheless returned to Russia in January 2021, where he was immediately arrested and handed a 30-year term for “extremism” and other charges.

“Navalny was undoubtedly the leader of the Russian opposition,” said Alexei Krapukhin, a member of the Moscow branch of the centre-left Yabloko Party. “Even after he was poisoned, he remained the leader, and even after he wound up in prison, he maintained his irreproachable authority.”

Krapukhin attended Navalny’s rallies and campaigned for him during his bid for Moscow mayor in 2013 (Navalny also ran for president in the 2018 elections).

“He was a hero and he inspired me a lot,” said Arshak Makichyan, an environmentalist and anti-war campaigner.

“What happened just now is not about what he said 10 or 15 years ago, it’s what he’s been doing for the past three years. When he returned from Germany to Russia, it was very brave and inspirational for us in Russia to continue our struggles.”

What will the opposition do now?

So, what does Navalny’s death mean for the Russian opposition?

Opposition to Putin is broad. There are the ultranationalists and neo-Nazis with whom Navalny has flirted in the past, who believe that by welcoming Muslims and immigrants, Putin is a traitor to their ideal of a white Slavic ethnostate. Hundreds of them have volunteered to fight for Ukraine, though conversely, there are neo-Nazi militias fighting for Moscow as well, for whom the idea of a Greater Russia trumps any misgivings about Putin.

Leftists and communists are similarly split – the leadership of the Communist Party has cheered Putin’s invasion, alienating their grassroots members. While liberals are almost universally against Putin and the war, they are few in number, are mostly abroad, and squabble amongst themselves, with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky forming two separate camps.

Anarchist cells have proactively sabotaged the war effort.

Finally, there is dissent within Russia’s far-flung regions and ethnic republics such as the largely-Muslim Bashkira, where protests erupted in January after activist Fail Alsynov was jailed for inciting ethnic discord and discrediting the army, including questioning the war effort and its aims.

Nearly 20,000 Russians have been detained for anti-war activities and hundreds have been convicted following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

They include Navalny’s ally Ilya Yashin, imprisoned for eight and a half years for livestreaming about alleged war crimes in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, which the authorities deemed to be spreading misinformation, as well as the Russian-British Vladimir Kara-Murza, sentenced to 25 years for treason. Like Navalny, Kara-Murza has survived two suspected poisonings that have left him suffering from a rare nerve disorder, and his wife has voiced fears that he may not survive the harsh prison conditions.

While Yashin and Kara-Murza are liberals, Igor Girkin – aka Igor Strelkov – definitely is not. A former Russian intelligence officer, Strelkov arguably started the Russo-Ukrainian war by leading the original insurgency in east Ukraine in 2014, and had since reinvented himself as a blogger criticising Moscow’s war effort for not being waged fiercely enough. Last year, he was arrested on extremism charges and has since been handed four years’ confinement.

Russian prominent nationalist, former military commander and Kremlin critic Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, who is charged with inciting extremist activity, sits behind a glass wall of an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, January 25, 2024. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Russian prominent nationalist, former military commander and Kremlin critic Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, who is charged with inciting extremist activity, sits behind a glass wall of an enclosure for defendants before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, January 25, 2024 [Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

On Telegram, Strelkov’s wife expressed her fear of Navalny’s death setting a precedent, a sentiment shared by the Kremlin’s liberal opponents.

“Kara-Murza and Yashin and other anti-war, anti-Putin leaders are in danger, because now that Putin established the reputation of a politician who kills to stay in power, he has less to lose,” economist Konstantin Sonin told Al Jazeera.

“He can kill more, with no new damage to his reputation. Yet neither of them is an immediate threat to Putin as Navalny was because he was very popular.

“Girkin will be at risk if his ideas would become more popular, which I do not expect to happen.”

The outbreak of full-scale war was accompanied by a mass exodus of anti-war Russians and draft dodgers. However, even there they are not always safe from Moscow’s reach: dissidents who’d moved to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, have been harassed, arrested and even extradited back to Russia.

Between mass imprisonment and exile, there’s no one left of Navalny’s stature to rally around.

“I think Navalny was a uniquely popular Russian politician, more popular than anyone else, including Putin,” said Sonin. “For the opposition, his death leaves the void that will be hard to fill.”

One of the last remaining notable Kremlin critics neither incarcerated nor exiled is Yevgeny Roizman, the popular ex-mayor of Yekaterinburg, an industrial city in the Ural mountains, famed for his colourful social media tirades.

Last year, Roizman narrowly avoided confinement after being repeatedly convicted of “discrediting” the armed forces and was slapped with a 260,000-rouble ($3,250) fine instead. Since then, he has kept a lower profile.

“I’m certain there’ll be a new wave of repression now,” Krapukhin predicted glumly.

“The authorities will stop at nothing. The resistance will continue – some from abroad, some within Russia – but there is also fear, so it remains to be seen how active this resistance will be. Since 2022, the laws have become much tighter and many people are sitting in cells. Our duty is that one day there will be a statue to Navalny and his murderers are punished.”

“I think Putin gave us a reason to be more radical because peaceful protests, which Navalny was promoting, don’t work anymore,” added Makichyan.

“We need to be more effective against Putin’s regime,” he said, “and we need to change our strategy.”

Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gather to mourn his death, in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., February 16
Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny gather to mourn his death, in Beverly Hills, California, the United States, February 16, 2024 [Jorge Garcia/Reuters]

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