The long-running confrontation between the Kremlin and Alexei Navalny took a darker flip this week as Russia’s best-known opposition determine launched a starvation strike to demand correct medical consideration and protest his jail remedy.
Now his allies are overtly voicing fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin as soon as once more desires him lifeless.
Navalny, 44, barely survived a poisoning seven months in the past with a military-grade nerve agent, an assault Western governments blamed on the Russian safety providers. Now he’s serving a 2½-year sentence in a harsh penal colony east of Moscow, after returning to Russia in January from Germany, the place he spent months convalescing from his poisoning ordeal.
The Kremlin denied any accountability for Navalny’s poisoning, however his case has worsened Moscow’s already tense relations with the USA and the 27-nation European Union. It additionally triggered one of many broadest and most sustained outpourings of home anger but in opposition to Putin, who has been in energy for greater than 20 years.
However analysts say that regardless of a groundswell of road protests this 12 months to demand Navalny’s freedom — with extra such mass demonstrations doubtlessly within the works — neither the West nor his supporters at dwelling have a lot actual leverage in opposition to the state equipment presided over by Putin.
Even so, Navalny seems to have gotten underneath the Russian chief’s pores and skin in a means that few opponents have managed to do, daring to mock Putin personally and highlighting the difficulty of official corruption, a key driver of discontent. Assist for Navalny additionally faucets a youthful demographic that might be a harbinger of longer-term positive aspects for his political motion.
Right here is a few background about Navalny and the place the newest confrontation would possibly lead.
How critical is the hazard to Navalny?
By all appearances, it’s appreciable. Supporters have been alarmed when he was despatched to a maximum-security facility referred to as Pokrov IK-2, about 60 miles east of Moscow, which is infamous for harsh situations. This week, his Instagram account stated he had been denied painkillers or entry to a health care provider to deal with debilitating again and leg ache. He additionally advised of sleep deprivation as a result of guards shining a lightweight on his face each hour, ostensibly to make sure he had not escaped.
On Wednesday, the account maintained in his identify by aides posted a handwritten letter from Navalny asserting the beginning of his starvation strike, through which he requested: “What else might I do?” A sequence of Twitter posts on Thursday stated he had misplaced 18 kilos even earlier than his starvation strike commenced.
Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, talking at an internet panel Wednesday organized by the Chicago Council on World Affairs, cited a “grave, harmful and deteriorating” state of affairs for Navalny. American-born British businessman Invoice Browder, who has championed laws on sanctions in opposition to Russia, likened Navalny’s case to that of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian jail in 2009. “Putin is attempting to kill him in sluggish movement,” Browder wrote on Twitter this week.
The Kremlin has declined to touch upon Navalny’s situation, and jail authorities say his remedy has been in accordance with the regulation.
How is Putin enjoying this?
Analysts say the Russian chief runs a level of political danger by permitting Navalny’s situation to deteriorate to the purpose that his life is endangered. If he have been to die in custody, “there’s a hazard of him turning into a martyr and delivering a lift to his supporters as effectively,” stated Elina Treyger, a political scientist with the Rand Corp.
In launching his starvation strike, Navalny “simply upped the ante,” she stated. Anticipating the risks he confronted in custody, the activist beforehand advised supporters that if something occurred to him whereas he was imprisoned, nobody ought to consider any official declare that he killed himself.
U.S. and European governments have repeatedly referred to as for Navalny’s launch, citing his earlier conviction on fraud expenses, and the parole violation for which he’s at the moment imprisoned, as politically motivated. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron raised contemporary considerations over Navalny’s well being and rights in a video name with Putin this week. However a Kremlin readout on the decision stated Putin responded with an “goal rationalization” of Navalny’s state of affairs, suggesting he rebuffed their appeals.
Western stress can generally backfire, analysts say, as a result of Putin is so expert at utilizing Navalny’s plight to painting himself as a bulwark in opposition to outdoors meddling in Russian affairs. State media routinely describe Navalny as a international agent and his supporters as dupes of the West, a message that always performs effectively with the Russian public.
To outdoors eyes, the official Russian media offensive in opposition to Navalny can appear crude and heavy-handed, particularly in contrast with the expert use of on-line shops by the jailed activist and his staff.
Postings in his identify steadily make use of sly humor and have investigative blockbusters such because the “Putin’s Palace” video this 12 months — detailing an opulent Black Sea compound purportedly paid for by the president’s cronies — which has garnered greater than 115 million views on YouTube.
On Thursday, in what gave the impression to be traditional trolling by the Kremlin, former Russian agent Maria Butina, who grew to become a trigger celebre at dwelling when she served jail time in the USA, was dispatched to Navalny’s penal colony by the pro-government channel RT to report on his case.
Navalny’s Twitter account, describing her as a “wretched propagandist,” stated Butina was “shouting that that is the very best and most snug jail.”
What comes subsequent?
Navalny’s associates have stated he could revive road protests that have been referred to as off this 12 months after authorities responded with tens of 1000’s of arrests. To gauge assist, his staff has arrange on on-line instrument, with a purpose of half one million backers expressing willingness to participate. By Thursday, about 370,000 individuals had signed up.
However surveys recommend there’s most likely a numerical ceiling on such backing, partly as a result of even many Russians who dislike Putin see him as a supply of stability. Opinion polls about Navalny “are very combined,” stated Kadri Liik, a senior coverage fellow and Russia professional on the European Council on Overseas Relations.
“Some individuals assist him, some are detached, and a few consider he could be a Western agent,” she stated.
Within the meantime, Russian authorities have quite a lot of potent means to exert stress not solely on Navalny, but in addition on his associates and supporters.
Many members of Navalny’s staff stay in exile, however Putin’s authorities has proven willingness to make use of a well-recognized Soviet-era tactic of retaliation in opposition to relations. The daddy of Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Basis, was detained over the weekend, a transfer Zhdanov stated was aimed toward him.
Particular correspondent Vasiliy Kolotilov in Moscow contributed to this report.