Poisoning Opposition: Medieval Tactic or Modern Russian Politics?

Who is Navalny and what was the response?

Alexei Navalny is often seen as the leader of Russia’s opposition to Vladimir Putin, and the corrupt government of which he is president. That government certainly consider him a significant problem as he was poisoned with a form of ‘Novichok’, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union before its collapse, while under government surveillance.

Navalny studied law and economics, then worked as a lawyer. Now he works mainly against corruption – he has founded multiple organisations that investigate Russian officials and government organisations. He is also involved in politics, running for mayor of Moscow in 2013 and trying to register as a candidate for the presidential election in 2018, which was rejected.

His opposition to the Russian government means that they have frequently harassed him, for example searching his apartment and putting him under house arrest. Multiple criminal investigations into him for obscure reasons are what barred him from running for president.

Navalny’s political focus is on cracking down on corruption in government while making life better for the average Russian. In his proposed policies as a presidential candidate, he suggests lowering taxes for small businesses, increasing the minimum wage and government spending on health care and education. He would give more power to regional governments in Russia and shorten a presidential term to four years. He would get rid of the loophole which allows a president to serve more than two terms if there is a gap in between.

Navalny’s politics are not problem-free – he has had associations with nationalist organisations. In the past, he attended an annual nationalist rally in Moscow regularly. In 2009 he wrote of the pride parade in Moscow as people ‘gambolling’ on a cordoned stadium. Recently, Navalny has been distancing himself from nationalist groups and gone back on such statements by suggesting regional referendums on gay marriage in Russia. These turnarounds may be a way to increase support among liberals and westerners – which matters little if it means that his current stance on issues such as gay marriage or Crimea become more mainstream.

His poisoning took place on the 20th of August, although where and how is unknown. He became ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, so that his plane had to make an emergency stop in Omsk. He was in intensive care there before being flown to a hospital in Berlin. On the 2nd of September, the German government announced that the traces of a Novichok agent that had been detected in his blood were also used in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in 2018.

Currently, Navalny is recovering in Berlin and has said that he wants to return to Russia. His poisoning has further soured the relationship between Russia and the West – the EU has imposed sanctions on certain Russian officials and the UK, Germany and France are threatening sanctions against Russia. Doubt has been cast over Nord Stream 2, a controversial gas pipeline between Germany and Russia. After constitutional changes made by Vladimir Putin earlier this year, allowing him to stay president until 2036, it seems unlikely that this relationship will improve any time soon. However, Navalny represents a vital opposition to Putin that could, eventually, herald better relations.