Amy Knight is the author of Orders To Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.
The Kremlin’s heavy-handed response to Russia’s mounting public opposition seems more and more bungling and out-of-touch with reality, or, as democratic oppositionist Alexei Navalny would say, just plain stupid.
Sunday’s sudden hospitalization of Mr. Navalny, who was arrested last week for organizing Saturday’s unauthorized protest in Moscow, was attributed by the attending doctor, a representative of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, to “a severe allergic reaction.”
But Mr. Navalny’s personal physician, Anastasia Vasilyeva, who was allowed to examine him briefly in the hospital, suspects that he was poisoned, and has sent samples of his hair and T-shirt to outside experts for analysis.
Back in his prison cell on Monday, the intrepid Mr. Navalny managed to post a blog affirming Dr. Vasilyeva’s suspicions: “I have never had an allergy. Not to food, or pollen, or anything."
If it turns out that Mr. Navalny was poisoned, we should not be surprised. The Kremlin has a well-established reputation for killing or doing bodily harm to its perceived opponents, and Mr. Navalny is no doubt on the top of its enemies list. Not only does he draw thousands to his rallies against the government of President Vladimir Putin, his Anti-Corruption Foundation has been a constant source of devastating exposés – viewed by millions of Russians on his YouTube channel and at navalny.com – of corruption on the part of Mr. Putin’s ruling clique.
As much as the Kremlin may like to see Mr. Navalny dead, an outright killing of the popular 43-year-old activist, who achieved a remarkable second place in the 2013 Moscow’s mayoral race, would clearly ignite an unprecedented outcry among the increasing opposition movement. (Recall the outcry both in Russia and abroad when Russian democrat and Mr. Putin’s nemesis Boris Nemtsov was shot to death near the Kremlin in February of 2015.) Hence the authorities’ apparent decision to employ their time-worn tactic of an ominous warning – that further actions by Mr. Navalny, or other activists, to encourage protests could prove fatal.
Whatever facts emerge about Mr. Navalny’s illness, the Kremlin already entered into dangerous territory when its national guard troops used clubs and tear gas against protesters in Moscow on Saturday, arresting nearly 1,400 people. Such open violence is seen by many Russian commentators as a defeat for the regime, demonstrating that it has lost the ability to manage opposition.
Among the several thousand marchers (numbers are unclear because the police caused crowds to split as they approached major streets) were ordinary young people, mothers and even children. As Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, herself forced to flee Russia in 2017 after attacks of violence, observed: “Russia has declared war on the people, not on the opposition.”
Saturday’s protest arose because of the refusal by voting officials to allow several democrats to register as candidates for Moscow’s municipal elections in September, on the grounds that some of the signatures required to get on the ballot were falsified. The Kremlin’s critics were outraged further when police arrested some of the would-be candidates.
But the public discontent has deeper roots. As a result of economic sanctions and Russia’s sluggish, oil-dependent economy, the living standards of much of Russia’s population are declining significantly, while the country’s elite enjoys prosperity, largely because of rampant corruption.
As if to illustrate how out of touch Russia’s leadership is with its people, while the crisis was erupting in Moscow on Saturday, Mr. Putin staged another of his macho publicity stunts – a dive in an underwater craft to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland to inspect a Soviet submarine that was sunk in the Second World War. He apparently was unconcerned that the public would be reminded of his notoriously inept response to the tragic Kursk submarine disaster in August of 2000.
In Monday’s post, Mr. Navalny asks rhetorically why the authorities would be stupid enough to poison him in a place where suspicion would be only on them? But then, he goes on, weren’t they stupid enough to poison Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, not once, but twice, and Sergei Skripal in Britain, where it was bungled so badly that the whole world laughed? Weren’t they dumb enough to ban Saturday’s protest and then arrest 1,400 people?
Mr. Navalny concludes: “For now, I can say one thing with confidence: there are really rather stupid and foolish dudes in power in Russia. It may seem to you that in their actions you need to look for a secret meaning and a rational element. But in reality they are just dumb, angry and obsessed with money.”
While the Kremlin may continue to clamp down on protesters, the police violence and the allegations that Navalny was poisoned have only emboldened them. There are more protests scheduled in Moscow on Saturday where people will again take to the streets to show their support for the opposition.
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