Future of Russian opposition: Is Yulia Navalnaya Putin's new enemy?

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After the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, his wife Yulia has vowed to continue his work. Now, a Russian arrest warrant has been issued for her and questions about the future of Russia's opposition movement remain unclear.

Alexei Navalny was probably the best-known Russian opposition politician. He was also controversial, due to his past racist statements about people from Central Asia and indigenous peoples within Russia at the beginning of his political career. Some still cannot forgive him for this to this day.

However, his actions have given hope to millions of opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, both within and beyond Russia, until his death in a penal colony in February.

At the beginning of June, a concert was held to mark Alexei Navalny's birthday, at which his wife Yulia Navalnaya gave a speech: "Please remember, we are strong, we are brave, we are many - and the most important thing that distinguishes us from the people who are currently taking over our country is dignity, honour, truth and love."

Russian arrest warrant has been issued for Navalnaya

The exiled human rights activist faced an arrest warrant after a Russian court accused her of belonging to an "extremist organisation.

A "preventive measure" of two months' imprisonment was imposed. According to the press service of the Moscow courts on Telegram, she has evaded preliminary investigations.

Navalnaya herself wrote on X: "Putin is a murderer and war criminal. He deserves to go to prison, and not in a comfortable cell in The Hague, but in Russia - in the same 2x3 meter cell where he killed Alexei [Navalny]."

Russian in exile Igor (not his real name) does not describe himself as a fan of Navalny, but Navalny has given him hope. Igor is from Russia, but left his country in September last year after the announcement of the partial mobilisation and now lives in the EU. He wishes to remain anonymous for fear that his statements will be used against him.

Igor explained why he liked Navalny despite his initial scepticism: "I don't necessarily support Navalny, but he has done something good for Russia. I found it impressive that he had no fear."

Igor doubted Navalny's sincerity for a long time but said "When the state killed him, I understood what the government was capable of".

Igor said he was particularly impressed by the fact that Navalny simply said what everyone knew: "Everyone knew that they [in the government] were lying, but Navalny said it and even proved it to some extent".

He refers to the videos released by Team Navalny, including the one exposing Putin's palace, which was published in 2021 while Navalny was already in prison. It has been viewed over 130 million times on YouTube.

Igor also elaborated on why Navalny was beneficial for the Russian people: "There is a kind of infantilism in Russia - for a long time the tsar said what had to be done, then the Soviet Union. I also had the feeling that many people wanted Navalny to tell them what to do - but he wanted the opposite: Navalny wanted people to choose for themselves how they wanted to live."

Igor was saddened by Navalny's death; he believes that Navalny had little power from prison. But he sees Navalny's death as a symbol "that Russia can wake up from its infantilism".

The question of whether there is currently a figure in Russia who can once again vocally oppose Putin's regime remains unanswered.

Who could become new leader of Russian opposition?

Anke Giesen is a member of the board of the German and international association 'Memorial,' which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 together with a Belarusian and a Ukrainian organisation, and has known Russia since the 1980s.

Giesen says she is pessimistic about a 'new Navalny'.

"I don't think a figure like Alexei Navalny can appear at the moment, because people tend to be in exile and then have no effect in the country or only a very limited effect." Giesen adds: "Or the pressure in the country and the surveillance and the laws and the arrests are so extreme that a figure like that cannot develop at the moment".

The democratic opposition that is still in Russia and those who are in exile are still connected as long as the internet remains free. Putin has already announced several times that he wants to build a cut-off internet for Russia based on the Chinese model. Even now, some international websites in Russia are already blocked and can only be accessed via VPN.

She would like to see the opposition in exile in action: "We can also see with Navalny that he was very convincing as a person. But that doesn't support democracy. A democracy is sustained by institutions that people trust. And I think that's something the democratic opposition in exile can also learn from. That institutions are helpful, that rules are helpful. Being subordinate can also be helpful, and that it can't always just be about pushing through personal agendas - that would be my wish."

'Opposition must unite for efficient work'

Manvel, a politics student who grew up in Russia and whose father was involved with the Russian opposition, observes the opposition's situation from a distant perspective. He sees the opposition divided into three groups: "In my view, there are currently three large groups that have potential effectiveness.

"On the one hand, there is the FBK, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was previously led by Alexei Navalny. The second large group is that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky with the funds he still had from his time at Yukos [a former large non-state oil company]," he explains.

"And the third group is the smallest, especially in terms of financial resources. These are public figures like the politician and blogger Maxim Katz, as well as various journalistic editorial offices like Ekho Moskvy and political scientists like Ekaterina Schulmann".

Manvel also says that the unification of the various groups is not wanted by some actors. But what unites the opposition? "The desire for a peaceful Russia, for a Russia with democracy and without disregard for human rights," he answers.

Manvel says: "My approach is that in order to shape an effective policy against Putin, these opposition members must first create a joint commission or council, as happened in 2012 with the Opposition Coordination Council." At that time, a committee of 45 people was formed to drive forward the protests against Putin's re-election as president and his United Russia party.

'Increase the brain-drain and money drain from Russia'

Similar to Anke Giesen from Memorial, who desires for the opposition in exile in the West to learn how to build democratic institutions, Manvel also has aspirations for the opposition, as well as for Western countries:

"I would definitely like to see coordinated work and ultimately pragmatic, rational policies. That the institutions in the West are called upon, so to speak, to increase the brain drain and money drain from Russia."

For Manvel, this is a question of what is to be achieved. "Because we have seen that the relocators who left Russia and then came back - there is a report from Bloomberg - they have guaranteed up to a third of the GDP increase in 2023. This is a very important economic layer in Russia that is just leaving Russia. And we need to motivate these people to come here, so to speak, to work for this economy instead of continuing to support Putin's economy. And the Russian opposition should demand this again and again and again."

Manvel says that the opposition should repeatedly "urge national parliaments, but also the EU Commission and the EU Parliament, to make it easier for people to leave Russia."

He knows that it might sound morally problematic, but for Manvel, it's a matter of focusing on the goal: "If the rational, pragmatic goal is to end the war in Ukraine and weaken the Putin system, then we must also influence his economy, using the instruments that are available to us here. That is brain drain and money drain - that is my appeal to the Western institutions too."

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