Russia FlashREPORT: Alexei Navalny dies in prison

Alexei Navalny dies in prison FEB 2024

Alexei Navalny

Date: 17 FEB 2024
Analysts: Riley Team

Executive Summary

On Friday, February 16, 2024, at 2:17 PM local time, Alexei Anatolyevich Navalny, aged 47, was pronounced dead at a remote Arctic penal colony "Polar Wolf" in the town of Kharp, located in the Yamalo-Nenets region, where he was serving a 19-year sentence. The cause of death was named as "sudden death syndrome." He was an opposition leader and activist who fought against official corruption, leading massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin’s strongest opponent.

During his lifetime, Navalny won various international human rights awards. For many years, he faced court trials and house arrest for publicly criticizing the Russian president and his government, and calling for political change. Navalny had a large political network and led massive street protests in Russia. Given his claims that all processes against him were fabricated for political reasons, that he was tortured while serving his sentence, and that he survived a poisoning attempt back in 2020, many are questioning the circumstances surrounding his death, implying foul play and some blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin. In this concise analysis, we will briefly present the life and work of Alexei Navalny, analyze the circumstances and context surrounding his death, and determine the potential political consequences of his passing.

Context: Who was Alexei Navalny?

Alexei Navalny was born on June 4, 1976, in the western part of the Moscow region. He graduated from Russia’s RUDN University in 1997, majoring in law, and later earned a degree in economics in 2001 while working as a lawyer. In 2004, he founded a movement against rampant overdevelopment in Moscow. By 2008, Navalny gained notoriety for exposing corruption in state-run corporations, such as the gas giant Gazprom and oil behemoth Rosneft, through his blogs and other posts. Two years later, he founded RosPil, an anti-corruption project run by a team of lawyers that analyzes the spending of state agencies and companies. They expose violations and contest them in court.

In 2011, he established the famous Foundation for Fighting Corruption, which became his team's main platform for exposing alleged graft among Russia's top political ranks. Since participating in the December 2011 mass protests, sparked by reports of widespread rigging of Russia's parliamentary election, he has become more visible. He was arrested and jailed for 15 days for "defying a government official." In March 2012, following President Vladimir Putin's re-election and inauguration, mass protests broke out in Moscow and elsewhere. Navalny accused key figures, including then-Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Chechnya's strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, of corruption. His prosecution began in July 2012 after Russia’s Investigative Committee charged him with committing embezzlement. The legal proceedings continued for the rest of his life, with various charges brought against him.

Nevertheless, in 2013, Navalny ran for mayor in Moscow, finishing second behind Sergei Sobyanin with 27% of the vote. In 2016, he announced his intention to run in Russia's 2018 presidential election. However, the pressure on him increased, and in 2017, Russia's Central Electoral Commission barred him from running for president. After members of Navalny’s team, along with other opposition activists, were barred from running for the Moscow city council in 2019, sparking protests that were violently dispersed and led to thousands being arrested, Navalny’s team responded by promoting the “Smart Voting” strategy. They encouraged the election of any candidate except those from the Kremlin’s United Russia party. The strategy worked, resulting in the party losing its majority.

The following year, Navalny attempted to implement the Smart Voting concept during regional elections in September and toured Siberia as part of that effort. During a flight from the city of Tomsk, where he was working with local activists, he fell ill, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in nearby Omsk. Hospitalized in a coma, Navalny’s team suspects he was poisoned. In a comatose state, he was flown to a hospital in Berlin, where German authorities confirmed that the Russian opposition activist was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. After spending five months in Germany, Navalny was arrested again upon his return to Russia. Authorities alleged that his recuperation abroad violated the terms of his suspended sentence in a previous case. His arrest sparked some of the largest protests in Russia in years. After dismantling his political network and pressuring his close associates and team members to face prosecution or leave Russia, Navalny went through several court processes.

In 2023, he was ultimately sentenced to 19 years in prison for extremism, where he died the same year. During his lifetime, he won various international human rights awards, including the Yale World Fellow in 2010, the Knight of Freedom Award, and the Sakharov Prize in 2021. He is survived by his wife and two children.

Death and Consequences

Although Navalny's death was officially attributed to "sudden death syndrome," many question the circumstances surrounding it. According to the Federal Penitentiary Service, Navalny began to feel unwell after a walk on Friday and subsequently lost consciousness. Despite the arrival of an ambulance, he could not be revived. However, given that the entire process against him, including his imprisonment, was politically motivated, many argue that his death may not have been entirely natural. Since Navalny was imprisoned in 2021, he has repeatedly complained of torture in a Russian prison. Specifically, he accused Russian authorities of torture by depriving him of sleep, as he was woken up eight times per night by guards announcing to a recording camera that he was still in his cell.

Two years ago, Navalny's lawyer claimed that his health had deteriorated, resulting in back pain and leg problems. This raised suspicions that the opposition leader might be poisoned again. On January 11, 2023, over 400 Russian doctors signed an open letter to Putin, calling for an end to what they described as abusive jail conditions for Navalny. Reports indicated that he was denied basic medication after contracting the flu. His team expressed concern about his health, stating that he had acute stomach pain and suspected that he was being slowly poisoned.

Later, on April 13 of the same year, his spokesperson Kira Yarmysh claimed that the prison food was exacerbating his stomachache and added that authorities were not allowing him to purchase or consume other food. On the other hand, the deceased Russian opposition leader did not appear to have any health complaints when speaking via video link to a court on January 15, 2024. During the hearing, he even cracked jokes about the Arctic weather and inquired whether officials at his former prison had thrown a party when he was transferred. Navalny did not complain about his health and "spoke actively, presenting arguments in defense of his position," according to one court official. His German lawyer also mentioned that he seemed "fit and strong" during the hearing the day before his death. However, following news of his passing, the family of the deceased demanded that authorities hand over his body. Despite the efforts of his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, and lawyers to reclaim his remains, they struggled fruitlessly with officials. When the remains were not surrendered to his family, Navalny's spokesperson, wrote on X that "It’s obvious that they are lying and doing everything they can to avoid handing over the body," adding that his team "demand that Alexei Navalny’s body be handed over to his family immediately."

Essentially, Alexei Navalny's team stated that the Russian authorities are intentionally withholding his body in an attempt to "cover up traces," suggesting the possibility of poisoning. On the other hand, the official statement from the authorities was that they could not hand over the body until an official investigation was carried out, with the results expected to be released in one week. However, Navalny's lawyers were soon informed that the official investigation had been concluded and that “no criminal activity had been established”.

Nevertheless, his death has already resulted in some consequences. Following the news of Navalny's passing, people in 30 Russian cities gathered to pay their respects by laying flowers at monuments dedicated to victims of Soviet-era political repressions. Despite the peaceful nature of these gatherings, over 350 people have been detained in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, Krasnodar, and Rostov-on-Don. The highest number of arrests occurred in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

International Response

People across Europe also gathered to express outrage and denounce Putin. Hundreds of protesters, including many Russian émigrés, gathered in cities such as Berlin, London, and Rome to protest the death of Kremlin critic. Mostly congregating outside Russian embassies, they chanted slogans critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom many blame for the activist's death. Protesters held up signs calling him a "killer" and demanding accountability.

In addition to the aforementioned events, there were also political reactions that followed with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy being one of the first to comment, simply by stating, “It’s obvious that Putin killed him.”

European governments were also quick to suggest Putin's involvement in the death, with French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné remarking on Twitter/X "Alexei Navalny paid with his life for his resistance to a system of oppression," while Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský also stated that Navalny had been "imprisoned and tortured to death for standing up to Putin."

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron mentioned that "there should be consequences" over the death and US President Joe Biden has recently pointed the blame at Putin and the G7 foreign ministers have jointly called on Russia to provide a full explanation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Alexei Navalny. They expressed their shock and dismay at the tragic passing of the Kremlin's biggest critic, who, in their opinion, was unjustly sentenced for his legitimate political activities and anti-corruption efforts.

Italy, the current chair of the Group of Seven wealthy nations, also released a statement conveying these sentiments, with the Ministers also observing a minute of silence during a recent gathering in honor of the late Russian activist.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, the demise of Navalny marks a profoundly tragic event with far-reaching implications. Beyond the immediate loss of life, it serves as a significant political occurrence with potential ramifications. Although the fragmented and weakened state of the opposition may not precipitate widespread protests, Navalny's death has illuminated underlying discontent among the Russian populace. It has elicited condemnation from both the Russian diaspora and international political entities, casting a shadow over the Russian leadership by projecting an image of repression and corruption to the global community. Moreover, should the conjectures of the Russian leadership's involvement in Navalny's death hold merit—a notion that appears plausible—the timing is notably ill-conceived. With the impending Russian presidential elections, such an event could exacerbate the negative perception of Vladimir Putin, especially considering his history with Navalny. This incident undeniably sends a disconcerting signal to the international arena.

It is also imperative to acknowledge that coverage of Navalny's death in Russian state media has tended to overlook or minimize criticism of the government. The initial portrayal of Alexei Navalny's death conspicuously lacked contextual details about his identity or the reasons for his incarceration. Furthermore, an incident on a popular state television channel, wherein a liberal politician's attempt to express condolences for Navalny's death was met with interruption and dismissal by the host, underscores the media bias. Conversely, the narrative on platforms such as X and Telegram, where the topic swiftly ascended to a top trending status and posts about Navalny attracted views in the hundreds of thousands—sometimes surpassing a million—within mere hours, epitomizes the prevailing sentiment among the Russian populace. This phenomenon arguably offers the Kremlin a critical lens through which to assess and potentially recalibrate its stance towards and treatment of the opposition.


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