The 44-year-old blogger has millions of Russian followers on social media – many in their early 20s or younger – and managed to get some of his supporters elected to local councils in Siberia in 2020.
His return to Moscow and immediate arrest on 17 January, after five months recovering in Berlin from a near-fatal nerve agent attack, triggered mass protests across Russia by his supporters. Police responded with force and thousands were detained for attending the unauthorized rallies.
He speaks the street language of younger Russians and uses it to powerful effect on social media. His Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) has made detailed claims about official corruption.
They include the recent “Putin’s palace” video on YouTube about a vast luxury Black Sea palace, allegedly gifted to Mr Putin by rich associates. Its comforts are said to include a skating rink, casino, and vineyard.
More than 100m people have viewed that video, published after Navalny’s arrest. The Kremlin (Grand Kremlin Palace, commissioned 1838 by Czar Nicholas I, constructed 1839–1849, today the official residence of the President of Russia) dismissed it as a “pseudo-investigation” and Mr Putin called it “boring”, denying the claims. Later billionaire businessman Arkady Rotenberg, one of Mr Putin’s closest friends, said it was his own palace.
A Moscow court has sentenced Alexei Navalny to two years and eight months in a prison colony in a landmark decision for Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the country’s leading opposition figure.
The move triggered marches in Moscow and the arrest of more than 1,000 protesters.
Navalny, who has accused the Russian president and his allies of stealing billions, was jailed for violating parole from a 2014 sentence for embezzlement in a case he has said was politically motivated.
THE FRAUD CASE
The case concerns alleged embezzlement from a Russian subsidiary of French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher and from a timber firm, Kirovles. His brother Oleg was jailed for three-and-a-half years and Alexei got the same term but suspended. That 2014 fraud conviction itself was condemned in 2016 by the European Court of Human Rights, which found that Navalny’s rights had been violated, and it ordered
Russia to pay him and Oleg compensation. But later the Russian Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
In 2012, Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused of overcharging Yves Rocher Vostok, a subsidiary of the French cosmetics company, for services with their transport company Glavpodpiska.
Prior to the sentencing, Yves Rocher admitted that it had suffered “no damage”.
But a Russian court in December 2014 nonetheless handed the brothers sentences of three years and six months apiece. While Navalny’s sentence was suspended, Oleg served his time behind bars.
Navalny and his allies believe the case was a ploy by the authorities to put pressure on him and his family for his political activities.
In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the Navalny brothers had been deprived of their right to a fair trial, denouncing the Yves Rocher ruling as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
Yves Rocher has defended itself, saying its Russian subsidiary “acted in accordance with the practices and procedures of all international and independent companies and the more general principle of business ethics”.
As part of his suspended sentence, Navalny was expected to show up for checks with Russia’s prison service (FSIN) twice a month up until December 30, 2020.
- On 2 February a Moscow court ruled that Navalny must spend two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for fraud.
More than a thousand supporters were arrested that night, as armored riot police cordoned off streets around the courthouse.
Surviving ‘Novichok’ poisoning
Navalny’s battle against Mr Putin, 68, is now intensely personal: he accuses the president of ordering state agents to poison him – and he repeated that allegation in court.
Underpants became a social media meme in Russia after Navalny carried out a telephone sting in December on a Russian FSB state security agent, who revealed that Novichok, a highly toxic Russian chemical weapon, had been smeared on Navalny’s underwear.
In August 2020 Navalny collapsed on a flight over Siberia and was rushed to hospital in Omsk. That emergency landing saved his life. A German-based charity persuaded Russian officials to allow him to be airlifted to Berlin for treatment.
In September the German government revealed that tests carried out by the military found “unequivocal proof of a chemical nerve warfare agent of the Novichok group“. The Kremlin denied any involvement and rejected the Novichok finding. The EU then imposed sanctions on six top Russian officials and a Russian chemical weapons research center, accusing them of direct involvement in the poisoning. Russia retaliated with tit-for-tat sanctions.
The case against Navalny was based on his failure to report regularly to police during 2020 – an absurdity, his legal team argued, as the authorities knew full well that he was getting emergency treatment in Berlin for the Novichok nerve agent attack. He reminded the court that for part of that time he was in a coma.
Navalny argued that between January and August 2020, before the poisoning, he had reported to police twice a month. He dismissed the fraud case as fabricated in order to silence him.
A judge in Moscow has ordered a suspended 3 1/2 year sentence that opposition politician Aleksei Navalny received in 2014 to be changed to time in a penal colony, adding that time previously spent under house arrest in the sentence would count as time served, thus reducing his incarceration to 2 years and 8 months.
The next big test is whether Navalny can still organize – from jail – big, unauthorized street protests against official corruption. The police have cracked down hard, detaining his wife Yulia and his top FBK assistants.
For years he has led nationwide protests, but in 2018 he was barred from challenging Mr Putin at the ballot box, because of his fraud conviction.
Navalny is familiar with the physical risks in Russia, having been attacked before the Novichok poisoning. And he has been arrested repeatedly.
His rise as a force in Russian politics began in 2008, when he started blogging about alleged malpractice and corruption at some of Russia’s big state-controlled corporations.
One of his tactics was to become a minority shareholder in major oil companies, banks and ministries, and to ask awkward questions about holes in state finances.
Tough tactics may backfire
“I think it’s only the beginning of problems for the regime because Navalny became not only a political force but a moral one, which makes him more attractive to those who weren’t previously his followers,” argues Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
“It’s not just the political opposition, but civil society that’s irritated by the cruelty – the behavior of the police and the courts.”
The Kremlin has long painted Navalny as an “agent” of the West bent on undermining Russia, whilst insisting that the courts are entirely independent and that angry protesters are “hooligans”. President Putin’s spokesman has praised the security forces for coming down “hard” on “provocateurs”.
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