Thousands of protesters have been arrested after Tuesday’s widespread protests backing the jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. Such direct actions are significant and police response show, President Putin was certainly spooked by his most vocal critic.
On Tuesday, a Moscow court sentenced Alexei Navalny to 2 years and 8 months sentence in a prison colony. A guilty verdict was delivered for violating the terms of his probation in a 2014 money laundering case, despite being in a coma in Germany. For years, Navalny has been the most prominent opposition against Putin’s government.
Within the over 20 tumultuous years of Putin’s rule both as PM and President, Navalny has been jailed more than 10 times and has been held in custody for hundreds of days. In August 2020, he was flown out of Germany following a near-death poisoning, which he accused Putin of. On his return to Russia on January 17th, Navalny was detained at Sheremetyevo airport, and then sentenced on February 2nd. The judgment sparked country-wide protests leading to the arrest of over 10,000 people by the Russian police.
Navalny’s conviction and the mass arrests of protesters highlighted the Kremlin’s history of witch-hunting political opponents and critics. The long imprisonment of oil tycoon and once Russia’s richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and assassinations of many leading opposition voices are a testament to Putin’s decades of heavy-handed rule.
In a ruling many observers viewed politically motivated, Khodorkovsky was convicted of money laundering, tax evasion, and embezzlement. Critics labelled it as an excuse to imprison him through the 2012 presidential election.
It has been alleged that poison is Putin’s favoured weapon against his opponents. Navalny’s poisoning echoed several high-profile Kremlin critics who have suffered the same fate. The long list includes Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal who were poisoned in the UK in 2006 and 2018 in suspected assassinations, as well as the former Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yushchenko, in 2004. Each of them at on different occasions had a bitter feud with Putin.
Litvinenko, a former FSB secret service agent, was linked to his open criticism against Putin’s government. After leaving the security service, Litvinenko blamed the agency for masterminding various bombings in Russia in 1999 that led to hundreds of deaths and allowed Russia’s invasion of Chechnya. He was later poisoned by a dose of radioactive polonium which led to his death in November 2006.
Meanwhile, Navalny has described the allegation against him as fabricated and called Putin ‘underwear poisoner’ during the court hearing on Tuesday.
‘There was Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Now we’ll have Vladimir the Underwear Poisoner,’ referring to his claims that Federal Security Service agents placed Novichok in the lining of his blue underwear. He referred to his trial as an attempt to intimidate the public. Navalny’s lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, also described his client’s poisoning as a ‘political Chernobyl.’
Putin has also been accused of using state power and cynical manipulation of the law to consolidate his stay in power. In 2004, he signed a law allowing him to appoint regional governors. Also, in 2008, the country’s legislators, who have been labelled as ‘rubber-stamped’ extended the presidential term from 4 to 6 years.
During his time, the country’s digital space has been subjected to heavy regulatory scrutiny, empowering government’s communications watchdog to block websites that publish “extremist” content. This has led to the blacklisting of several opposition sites. In 2012, he signed the foreign agent law, which targeted foreign media houses and civil society groups that receive funds from outside Russia. On December 30, 2020, the foreign media law was updated to include bloggers and individual journalists, requiring them to report their activities and present frequent financial audits.
Navalny has never held any political office and is even barred from ever vying for one, yet he poses the greatest threat to Putin. This is due to his wide popularity in Russia, having pulled the largest anti-Putin rallies ever witnessed. Over time, he has gathered a large followership ready to protest against the government’s intimidations.
In a note sent from jail on Thursday, Navalny urged people to overcome their fear and ‘free’ Russia from a ‘bunch of thieves.’ He also called his conviction personal revenge for overcoming the poisoning and exposing the attempted assassination. Sharing his experience, Navalny said: ‘Iron doors slammed behind my back with a deafening sound, but I feel like a free man. Because I feel confident I’m right.’
The arrested pro-Navalny protesters have reported various inhumane treatments by the police, including spending long hours in police vans and being put in overcrowded cells. One detainee, Almir Shamasov, said he spent 20 hours in a police vehicle flooded with fumes. “When you sit inside a police van with engine and heat on, the smell of gas or diesel fuel is unbearable. When it’s off, the steam comes out of your mouth,” he said.
When asked about the harsh treatment, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that the arrests were a necessary response and protesters had to bear responsibility for joining the unauthorized protests.
Navalny’s conviction has also been condemned by the international communities, as many world leaders demanded his release. The Russian government has lashed out at criticisms, warning the international community not to ‘interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.’ However, the world is watching with keen interest hoping Navalny somehow prevail.