Alexey Navalny, corruption fighter who defied Putin, dies at 47

Connie Queline

Alexey Navalny, corruption fighter who defied Putin, dies at 47

Alexey Navalny, the Russian lawyer and anti-corruption activist who became the most potent voice in opposition to President Vladimir Putin, a calling that landed him in a maximum-security prison camp, has died, Interfax news service reported. He was 47.

Navalny fell sick during a walk and medical staff were unable to revive him, the prison authorities said Friday, according to Interfax. No cause of death was given.

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In December, friends and lawyers for Navalny raised the alarm on social media that they had lost contact with him. He later emerged in a remote Arctic prison camp ending nearly three weeks in which his whereabouts were unknown after he was moved from a prison outside Moscow.

In addition to eliminating Putin’s most charismatic and popular opponent, Navalny’s death is certain to further inflame tensions between the Kremlin and Western capitals, which were already at their lowest point in decades due to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Through his Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny published investigations into graft at state companies that spread widely across social media despite a virtual blackout among Russian state media. He almost won a bid for mayor of Moscow and tried without success to run against Putin in the 2018 presidential election.

He gained initial fame for capturing the public mood in a February 2011 radio interview in which he called the ruling pro-Putin party, United Russia, a party of “swindlers and thieves.” By the end of that year, as suspicions of massive fraud in parliamentary elections kindled street protests, Navalny emerged as the leading figure of the opposition to Putin and his rule.

Navalny continued to upset the establishment by creating slick YouTube videos revealing the luxurious lifestyle of top officials that got millions of views. He scored his biggest sensation in 2017 with the release of a video, viewed by more than 25 million Russians, showing lavish estates that allegedly belonged to then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. High-ranking rivals of the premier were suspected of leaking compromising information for Navalny to use against him.

Nerve agent 

In August 2020, Navalny barely survived a nerve-agent attack that he and Western governments blamed on Putin’s secret services. After being treated in Germany — and despite knowing he would be jailed — he returned to Russia in January 2021 and was immediately detained.

“This is my home,” Navalny said in his last moments of freedom shortly before Russian authorities took him into custody. “I’m not scared of anything.”

Navalny received three sentences totaling more than 30 years.

In prison, Navalny reported worsening health problems, blaming the authorities for denying him proper medical care.

Before he was moved, he was held at the notorious IK-2 prison about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Moscow.

His health became a concern in August 2022, as prison authorities repeatedly placed him in a punishment cell for minor infractions of the rules. Recently, his allies accused the authorities of slowly poisoning him, perhaps through prison food, causing him to lose weight rapidly.

Navalny, a 2022 film about the activist’s poisoning and imprisonment, was awarded the Academy Award for best documentary last March. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, and their two children, Darya and Zakhar, attended the ceremony in Los Angeles and joined the movie’s director on stage to accept the award.

“My husband is in prison just for telling the truth. My husband is in prison just for defending democracy,” Yulia Navalnaya said. “Alexey, I am dreaming the day when you will be free, and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love.”

The son of a Soviet army officer, Navalny was born on June 4, 1976, outside Moscow and grew up in a series of closed military towns.

Active in municipal politics early in his career, he participated in nationalist rallies and recorded anti-immigration videos that resurfaced as part of attempts to discredit him after his 2021 imprisonment.

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Fraud charge

In 2012, a year after creating his anti-corruption foundation, Navalny was charged with fraud for having stolen timber from a state-owned company. The off-and-on investigation traced to 2009, when Navalny was an adviser to the governor of the Kirov region. Navalny denied the charges.

After convicting Navalny, Russian authorities unexpectedly set him free on appeal. This allowed him to run for mayor of Moscow in September 2013, lending legitimacy to the election. He won 27% of the vote, almost forcing a runoff against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.

After months of house arrest, Navalny in December 2014 sidestepped imprisonment despite a second fraud conviction as the Kremlin sought to avoid turning him into a martyr.

Navalny’s political crusade against Putin intensified. He opened campaign offices across the country to try to register as a presidential candidate in 2018 elections against the long-term leader, a bid doomed to failure as officials said his fraud conviction — confirmed in a retrial in 2017 — made him ineligible to enter the race.

Still, the Kremlin’s perception of the threat from Navalny changed as he championed a “smart voting” tactic in elections by encouraging voters to support the opponent most likely to defeat the ruling party candidate. The tactic had limited success but unnerved a regime long used to controlling the outcome of elections.

A ‘blogger’

Putin and his top officials consistently tried to downplay the opposition leader’s significance, refusing to call him by name and dismissing him as a “blogger.”

Pressure on Navalny grew more intense and dangerous. He almost lost sight in one eye and had to seek treatment abroad in 2017 after an unidentified assailant threw a chemical substance in his face.

With the protest mood in Russia growing after Putin’s 2018 decision to back an increase in the retirement age followed by the economic fallout of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Navalny’s appeal continued to broaden.

Navalny survived his scrape with death by nerve agent on an August 2020 flight to Moscow from Siberia, where he’d been campaigning for opposition candidates. His survival hinged in part on the pilot’s decision to make an emergency landing, quick treatment from ambulance staff on the ground and specialist care in Germany. The apparent assassination attempt turned Navalny into a far more potent symbol.

His post-recovery return to Russia from Germany in the face of certain imprisonment, and a video released shortly after his arrest that highlighted a $1.35 billion Black Sea palace that Navalny claimed belongs to Putin, further fueled public anger. Putin denied any connection to the luxury residence.

“I don’t regret anything,” Navalny said in a 2021 letter from prison to a journalist friend, Yevgenia Albats. “Everything will be fine, and even if it isn’t, we can take comfort from the fact that we were honest people.”

© 2024 Bloomberg

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