Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned a year ago today, falling deathly ill on a flight that had just taken off from Siberia where he’d been campaigning against corruption and against the party of power in Russia. Now he sits in a Russian jail for parole violations connected to a case the European Court of Human Rights has always called trumped up. Navalny has asked repeatedly how he was expected to make parole hearings when he was in a coma, having been airlifted while unconscious to a German hospital.
To mark the day, the opposition figure wrote on Instagram that he had a second birthday to celebrate, somehow, as he was effectively re-born after his near-death experience last year. He just doesn’t know if the extra birthday should be the day of his poisoning or the day he woke up or in fact the day he really came back to himself. Additionally, he wrote an op-ed piece this week, seizing the moment to focus on the subject of corruption, his cause celebre. Navalny originally made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner, not as a dissident or opposition leader, and his organization, now labelled “extremist” in Russia, is called the Foundation for Fighting Corruption. Navalny spoke of corruption in his article as the root of all the world’s problems, from the fall of the Afghan government, to uncontrolled migration caused by poverty, which he said is almost always caused by corruption, to aspects of climate change, suggesting as an example the “millions of hectares of Siberian forest that burn every year because of barbaric total clearance, violating the fire regulations for forest management.”
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Navalny, with his trademark irony, even said corruption crushed the Russian security services’ best-laid plans for him, allowing him to survive. “When a country’s senior management is preoccupied with protection rackets and extortion from businesses, the quality of covert operations inevitably suffers,” he wrote in the Guardian, among other papers. “A group of FSB agents applied the nerve agent to my underwear just as shoddily as they incompetently dogged my footsteps for three and a half years – in violation of all instructions from above – allowing civil investigating activists to expose them at every turn.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry marked the anniversary with a tweet: “The actions taken by German authorities over the past 12 months clearly show that a pre-planned provocation was carried out against Russia.” Russia is not investigating the poisoning because they deny it happened.
It was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who effectively hosted Navalny during his recovery. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted her today in Moscow to discuss a broad range of issues. Putin was asked about Navalny by reporters. True to form, he did not speak of Russia’s most famous prisoner by name.
“As for the person of interest you mentioned [Alexei Navalny], he wasn’t sentenced for his political activity, but for the criminal offense regarding foreign partners. As for political activity, no one should hide behind it for carrying out business projects, moreover, in violation of the law,” Putin said. Going on to blast “non-systemic opposition,” which is how he refers to Navalny and his allies, he continued.
“I don’t see the Yellow Vests or Occupy Wall Street being supported,” Putin said equating the pro-democracy protests in support of Navalny to the French and American groups before invoking the fate of some of those Jan. 6 Capitol rioters and suggesting the Western press is biased in its coverage of Russia.
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Meanwhile on the anniversary of the poisoning, the U.S. and Britain announced new sanctions against Russians deemed to have played a direct role in Navalny’s poisoning or Russia’s chemical weapons program. The two governments issued a joint statement calling on Russia to abide by its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The U.S. Treasury designated nine individuals and two entities and the State Department named two further entities. Navalny said in his op-ed that he believes it will take personal sanctions against oligarchs close to Putin to effect real change.
Navalny had been encouraging people to practice “smart voting” ahead of local elections when he was poisoned last August. Since he and his allies cannot run for elections themselves, they figure the next best option for their cause is to get Russians to vote for candidates who are not part of Putin’s United Russia to chip away at its legitimacy. Though banned and behind bars, he and his allies are still pushing for “smart voting” ahead of parliamentary elections next month. But Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, has said he thinks the authorities will block the website used to guide voters in the process.
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“We’re already seeing loads of [measures by the authorities] and the degree of hysteria is only going to grow in the coming month,” he said. Just today the last remaining independent television station TV Rain was labelled a foreign agent, the latest freewheeling and no-holds-barred media outlet to be squeezed by the Kremlin.