Assassination of Alexei Navalny won’t thwart movement momentum, says Putin

It’s unclear how Alexei Navalny, 47, died, but it’s widely believed that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, was responsible for his torture and death in an Arctic prison camp.

Putin intentionally eliminates his enemies at his own pace.

This is a significant political development.

Without exaggeration, Russia only has two prominent politicians: Putin and Navalny.

With Navalny’s death, Putin now has no clearly visible rival.

In August 2020, Putin’s secret police poisoned Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok, but he was saved after being rushed to a hospital.

He was allowed to go to Germany for treatment.

Upon his brave return to Russia, he was immediately imprisoned and sentenced to 19 years for political reasons.

Navalny, a lawyer by training, has been politically active in opposing Putin since 2000, particularly as a liberal.

He rose to prominence during the December 2011 protests against rigged parliamentary elections. Navalny stood out for his youth, charisma, and eloquence.

Throughout his career, he appealed to the youth and represented the whole country.

In 2013, Navalny successfully ran as a candidate in the Moscow mayoral election, receiving an impressive 27% of the votes despite having limited media access.

After Putin cracked down on the 2011-12 protest movement, Navalny used his legal background to focus on high-level corruption.

His anti-corruption foundation exposed one top-level official after another for unfathomable larceny. Navalny’s associates even investigated official documents and filmed Russian officials’ palaces with drones.

They created engaging films to reveal the shocking corruption on YouTube.

Navalny’s group uncovered the widespread kleptocracy within Russia’s ruling elite.

His most significant success was a film exposing Putin’s billion-dollar palace funded by embezzled public procurement funds.

This film has been downloaded more than 120 million times.

Russia has blocked access to most social networks but surprisingly not to YouTube, as it is popular with the Russian elite.

Historically, Russia has honored political martyrs, from Ivan the Terrible to Peter I.

In December 1986, the prominent Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko died in his prison camp at the age of 48, sparking public outrage during the days of glasnost and perestroika.

Putin will no doubt resist, but he will come under some pressure.

The last major funeral of a political martyr that comes to mind is that of the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, a friend and ally of Navalny (and a great friend of the author).

Nemtsov was executed on February 27, 2015, outside the Kremlin walls, likely at Putin’s behest.

His funeral, according to Orthodox tradition, took place three days later and was attended by thousands of people, including some top oligarchs.

Will Putin allow Navalny a public funeral?

It seems unlikely.

Russians are not afraid to attend funerals, and a Navalny funeral in Moscow would likely attract tens of thousands of people, posing a potential challenge to Putin’s power.

Notably, when the popular coup leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was buried last August, the entire cemetery was closed to the public after Putin presumably had him killed.

On the other hand, if Putin does not allow a normal funeral for Navalny, it will demonstrate to the public what kind of leader he really is, which would not bode well for him right before the so-called presidential election from March 15 to 17.

So far, no one, including his lawyer, has been allowed to see Navalny’s body.

Since labor camps are usually closed to the outside world on weekends, it is unlikely that his lawyer will be allowed to see him until Monday, when a funeral may be held.

Russians are renowned for their sense of protocol, so these details should not be dismissed lightly.

Putin is likely satisfied to have the opposition leader in Russia killed, but his new dilemma is that his enemy has become a martyr, and martyrs cannot be tortured to death.

Anders Åslund is the author of “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.”

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