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The Economist
The Economist
17 Feb 2024

NextImg:Russia’s opposition has lost a crucial leader but gained a martyr
Europe | Russian politics after Navalny

Russia’s opposition has lost a crucial leader but gained a martyr

Alexei Navalny’s death is a sign of how Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship has transformed

“IF IT HAPPENED, if they decided to kill me, it means that we are unbelievably strong at that moment,” Alexei Navalny once told an interviewer, on one of the many occasions he was asked about being assassinated. The answer was vintage Navalny: ever hopeful in the face of existential terror. But now that it has happened, now that Mr Navalny has been pronounced dead in an arctic prison, it is Vladimir Putin, his longtime nemesis, who appears all too strong.

Throughout more than two decades in power, Mr Putin has waged a war against his opponents at home. Mr Navalny’s death on February 16th leaves the embattled Russian opposition without its most effective and charismatic leader in a generation. The tide also appears to be turning in Mr Putin’s favour in his war abroad against Ukraine. Early on February 17th Oleksandr Syrskyi, the new commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, announced a withdrawal from the embattled eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, handing Russia its biggest gain in nearly a year. Meanwhile, Republicans in America’s House of Representatives continue to block much-needed military aid for Ukraine. Mr Putin is poised to use a presidential election next month to claim a mandate for his leadership on both fronts.

For Russians opposed to Mr Putin’s regime, Mr Navalny represented hope. His death, although hardly unexpected, will make him a martyr. “Now Alexei Navalny will be with us for ever as an ideal role model,” wrote the author Mikhail Zygar. “There are so few unblemished heroes in Russian history—now we have one.” Crowds gathered to pay respect in cities as far flung as Los Angeles, London and Berlin. Makeshift memorials cropped up across Russia. In Moscow and St Petersburg residents placed flowers at monuments dedicated to victims of Stalin-era repressions. On social media, many Russians reposted a picture showing Mr Navalny holding up a sign reading, “I’m not afraid, don’t you be afraid either.”

Yet the fear that Mr Putin uses to rule is real, and growing. As Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think-tank, argues, the Kremlin’s treatment of Mr Navalny shows how Russia has transformed “from a dictatorship of lies, to a dictatorship of fear, and after the beginning of the war, into an open dictatorship of terror.”

Mr Navalny’s first conviction on trumped-up charges of embezzlement in 2013 brought thousands to the streets in Moscow; the Russian authorities suspended his sentence and allowed him to take part in mayoral elections that year. After Mr Navalny survived a poisoning attempt and returned to Russia in 2021, his nationwide organisation was declared “extremist” and its network of offices uprooted. Since Mr Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the screws tightened even further. Even three of the lawyers who were defending Mr Navalny are now themselves in prison. The protests that gathered after his death were a far cry from the massive crowds he once drew, and were quickly stamped out. By late afternoon on February 17th, more than 350 people had been arrested in 32 Russian cities, according to OVD-Info, a monitoring group.

The grieving opposition movement will have to reinvent itself from abroad. Mr Navalny’s foundation, which now operates from Lithuania, can still reach millions of followers through broadcasts on YouTube and posts on social media. But his personal charm and authority were unparalleled, and will be hard to replace. Virtually all other prominent opposition politicians are either dead, in jail or in exile: Boris Nemtsov, a liberal leader, was murdered steps from the Kremlin in 2015; last year Vladimir Kara-Murza, a protégé of Nemtsov, was sentenced to 25 years in prison over his criticism of the war in Ukraine; Ilya Yashin, a long-time ally of Mr Navalny, has been behind bars since 2022.

Some wonder whether Mr Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who made a moving appearance at the Munich Security Conference after the news of his death, will take up his mantle. Other prominent figures have called for building a coalition less dependent on a single leader. But there is a risk that the opposition to Mr Putin comes to resemble the Soviet-era dissident movement—scattered, fragmented and fighting for principles but not power, as encapsulated in the practice of toasting “to the success of our hopeless cause”.

Their first test will be to catalyse a show of opposition to Mr Putin at next month’s elections. Although the results are preordained, the vote remains a rare legal window to express dissent. That is one reason why Boris Nadezhdin, a little-known politician whose anti-war platform gathered signatures of support from tens of thousands of Russian citizens, was ultimately barred from running. In recent months Mr Navalny had been urging supporters from prison to vote “for anyone but Putin”. He endorsed a “Noon Against Putin” campaign, urging opponents of the regime to show up en masse at polling places at noon as a form of protest. “It’s impossible to prevent this protest. What can you do? Close the polling places at noon? Organise a counter-protest at 10am for Putin?” he quipped, in one of his last posts from prison.

Yet even a powerful midday showing will not be enough to prevent Mr Putin’s “election” to another six years in office. His regime has only become more brutal with time; the trend is unlikely to reverse. Beyond prominent opposition leaders, thousands of ordinary Russians have been charged under new laws aimed at critics of the war with Ukraine; even prominent nationalists who support the war, but have criticised the government’s handling of it, have landed in jail. This week Mr Putin signed a law allowing the state to confiscate the property and assets of those convicted under such laws.

With the elections behind him, Mr Putin will have a freer hand to further escalate his campaign of repression. “In Russia people love to say that it’s darkest before dawn. I think that’s true—only we probably haven’t come to know true darkness yet,” Greg Yudin, a political philosopher, wrote in Meduza, an independent Russian news site, after Mr Navalny’s death. “It looks like dusk is just beginning to fall. The sun is gone.”

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