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In Alexei Navalny’s death, Putin cements new era of Russian dictatorship

In Alexei Navalny’s death, Putin cements new era of Russian dictatorship
In Alexei Navalny’s death, Putin cements new era of Russian dictatorship

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Among Alexei Navalny’s friends and admirers, there’s a heartbreaking hope that his legacy will live on. Navalny, 47, was Russia’s Nelson Mandela, an inspiring advocate for freedom and reform who chose state captivity in 2021 over a life in exile. Charismatic and indefatigable, he had investigated President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime, lampooned its corrupt, incompetent apparatchiks, and, through a network of independent activists and journalists, offered to countless Russians a vision of a civic future that transcended the authoritarian demagogue whose rule seems set to stretch into a fourth decade. His popularity spread far beyond the liberal-minded elites in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

For that, Navalny perished while in the hands of the state. Disappeared to an obscure Arctic prison, the celebrated dissident suffered ill health for months and died Friday, according to Russian authorities. His wife accused Putin of murder. President Biden said what befell Navalny was proof of “Putin’s brutality.”

Navalny’s death was simultaneously shocking and unsurprising. He joins a long, tragic history of Kremlin opponents swallowed up by the gulag, but his message was so potent and his skills as a messenger so incomparable that it was easy to imagine he could share in Mandela’s story of eventual liberation and political victory. That was not to be.

Over the weekend, mourners searched for meaning in his loss. “Navalny dreamed of a free Russia,” wrote Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, in a Washington Post op-ed. “Barbaric dictators such as Putin can kill men, but they cannot kill ideas.”

“Even behind bars Navalny was a real threat to Putin, because he was living proof that courage is possible, that truth exists, that Russia could be a different kind of country,” wrote the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum.

Alexei Navalny, imprisoned Russian opposition leader, is dead at 47

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, died on Feb. 16. People all around the world paid tribute to the Kremlin critic. (Video: HyoJung Kim/The Washington Post)

Russia, for now, is undeniably Putin’s country. Entering the third year of his full-blown war in Ukraine, the Russian president has withstood international sanctions, geopolitical isolation from the West and a prominent mercenary’s brazen insurrection. The edifice of his power remains intact, while those who threaten it face even harsher consequences than in an earlier phase of his rule.

Vladimir Putin, riding high before Navalny’s death, seems unstoppable

“It’s tempting to see Navalny’s apparent murder, as some American analysts have, as a sign of weakness on the part of Putin,” wrote Masha Gessen in the New Yorker. “But a dictator’s ability to annihilate what he fears is a measure of his hold on power, as is his ability to choose the time to strike. Putin appears to be feeling optimistic about his own future.”

Indeed, Putin is set to secure a new presidential mandate in a farce of an election next month where any meaningful challenger has been disqualified. The opposition is cowed, suppressed and scattered; fewer Russians are willing to risk taking to the streets than in years past. Putin also has cause to smile watching politics to the west, as the United States’ Republican lawmakers stymie new U.S. funding for Ukraine and sympathetic far-right parties surge across Europe.

“Putin now remains alone,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior research fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centers, told my colleagues. “He is solus rex, the lonely king. No one can stop him triumphing.”

Even after his death, Russian authorities aim to repress support for Navalny

Analysts saw a link between Navalny’s death and the 2015 assassination of leading Putin critic Boris Nemstov, who was gunned down while walking along a bridge in Moscow. Nemstov’s killing seemed to accentuate a shift in the nature of Putin’s rule; the despot in the Kremlin could no longer satisfy himself with only fraudulent elections and a judiciary operating under his whims. Nemstov was a well-regarded advocate of reform and an opponent of Russia’s seizure of Crimea in the year prior, as well as its launching of a pro-Russian insurgency in southeastern Ukraine.

“In the years since Nemtsov was murdered, Russia has transformed — to use the language of political science — from a dictatorship of deception to a dictatorship of fear and then, after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, into an outright dictatorship of terror, akin to the one that exerted an iron grip on the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century,” wrote Alexander Baunov in the Financial Times.

Navalny’s health in harsh prison system was major concern before death

Public grieving for Navalny is itself a risky act. At least 366 people have been arrested in 36 cities across Russia for displaying their sympathies, my colleagues reported Sunday, citing a watchdog group. By the bridge where Nemstov was murdered, which has become a sort of unofficial memorial, pro-regime vigilantes ripped up flowers and candles left in vigil by Navalny’s supporters.

“People are just constantly scared out of their wits,” a 24-year-old mourner in Moscow who identified herself as Yulia told my colleague Francesca Ebel. “This is a dictatorship where you cannot express yourself.”

Widow of Alexei Navalny, Yulia Navalnaya, posted a video statement on YouTube on Feb. 19, where she promised to “continue the work of Alexei Navalny.” (Video: YouTube @Alexei Navalny, Photo: YouTube @Alexei Navalny/YouTube @Alexei Navalny)

It’s hard to imagine anyone mobilizing the massive rallies that Navalny himself organized in earlier years. “Street protests can only work if millions come out,” Gennady Gudkov, a senior Russian opposition politician now in exile in Paris, told my colleagues. “But because people are not organized and don’t have any resources, or newspapers, or political leaders or parties or trade unions, there is nothing.”

This state of affairs is by design, the conclusion of Putin’s relentless tightening of his fist. “In a way, Navalny’s death marks the culmination of years of efforts by the Russian state to eliminate all sources of opposition,” wrote Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan in Foreign Affairs. “For more than two decades, Putin has made political assassination an essential part of the Kremlin’s toolkit.”

And still Navalny has left an indelible mark. Millions of Russians turn to his allies in exile for news and accurate information about their country. Social media — a realm where Navalny was both pioneer and king — abounds with forums and discussions on matters otherwise silenced by the state. “Even now,” Soldatov and Borogan concluded, “the forces that Navalny unleashed are unlikely to go away.”

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