KABANOVSKY: Has Putin created a martyr?

KABANOVSKY: Has Putin created a martyr?
Opposition figure Navalny died in prison. What does that mean for Russian politics? / bne IntelliNews
By Alexander Kabanovsky in Berlin February 17, 2024

Killing Alexey Navalny may be a huge mistake as Putin tries to crush dissent.

It is a sad day for anyone interested in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Whether you are an idealist who believes that the only problem in Russia is Putin, or a realist who sees the fundamental flaws within the “Russian Soul,” Alexey Navalny, for all his flaws, represented a brave, unyielding voice in the wilderness refusing to succumb to fear of a merciless regime. Alexey Navalny died at a brutal penal colony, originally part of the notorious GULAG prison camp system, in Russia’s far north. He is yet another victim of naïveté and the belief that Russia is redeemable as a country and society. The difference between him and other “Russian Liberals” who propagate the idea of a redeemable, democratic Russia if only Putin were gone is that Navalny lacked the cynicism of his counterparts to do the smart thing, stay in the West and lob his political hand grenades at Putin from afar while making a buck in the process.

His conviction that Putin and his regime are not representative of Russia and that there is an alternative path forward blinded him to Russia’s reality and his role within it. Foolishly, he returned from his sojourn in Germany, convinced that the people would back his challenge to Putin’s rule. Watching the macabre CNN documentary on the FSB's attempted assassination and Navalny’s own investigation into his attempted murder, it's clear he believed he had captured the tiger by the tail. Tricking the FSB agent who led the team sent to kill him to admit their role in the assassination attempt seemed like the breakthrough Navalny thought could dethrone Putin. I truly believe that he convinced himself that, having proven Putin’s complicity, the decent Russian people would rise up to defend him should he be arrested upon his return to the motherland.

He was wrong. Contrary to his belief, Putin and oppression are not a bug in the system but a feature, and the Russian people were not prepared to have their skulls beaten en masse in Navalny’s name. As I have long-argued, liberty and democracy are not part of the Russian DNA. After the briefest of experiments with liberty and freedom of speech under Yeltsin, Russia returned to its statistical mean of repression and authoritarianism. The terror of the thirties under Stalin has crept back into people's lives and souls as people are jailed on frivolous or made-up accusations while the rest of society either cheered or cowered. All-encompassing fear has returned, and people prefer meek silence to moral positions that send them to the GULAG for years. Navalny fought the good but lonely fight, believing his country and countrymen to be better than they are.

Alexey Navalny's death came as a shock. Despite the brutal treatment he had been subjected to over the last four years in prison, it strains credulity that Navalny died of natural causes. Putin has wanted him dead for a long time and, apparently, finally pulled the trigger. While the actual cause of Navalny's death may never be known, the timing of his death may tell us quite a bit about the current state of Putin's regime. Unlike when he was originally arrested, Russia is two years into a debilitating and brutal war with no end in sight. This has changed the rules of the game and the regime’s perception of Navalny’s potential threat.

Putin is facing an 'election' for his fifth term from March 15-17. As in previous years, he is virtually unopposed, facing only sham candidates who, when asked about their seriousness in winning the presidency, start to stutter with fear. His victory is all but guaranteed. To give a patina of legitimacy to the rigged election, the presidential administration, headed by Sergey Kirienko, whether tacitly or directly, approved Boris Nadezhdin to run as an opposition candidate.

Nadezhdin seemed a relatively safe bet, known for being the token liberal punching bag on pro-government propaganda programs hosted by such pro-Kremlin pitbulls as Vladimir Solovyov, Olga Skabeeva, Andrey Norkin and others. A former Duma deputy, Boris Nadezhdin, worked with Boris Nemtsov and even Sergey Kirienko. Still, he was never a bright political figure who could coalesce a significant political movement around his persona. Until he did.

The 60-year-old critic of Putin announced an anti-war platform and, to the Kremlin's great surprise and consternation, quickly collected over 200,000 signatures from the Russian electorate in support of his candidacy. In an unexpected show of political engagement, people stood in long lines in cities across Russia to sign the petition supporting Nadezhdin. This came as a shock to the Kremlin. Ella Pamfilova, Putin's lapdog head of the Central Election Commission, refused to register his candidacy. Nadezhdin's two appeals to the Russian Supreme Court to have his candidacy registered were rejected on 15 February, guaranteeing his exclusion from the elections - which brings me to my point.

Putin, or at least the people responsible for keeping him in power, have underestimated the extent to which the Russian population is tired of the war and how widespread this opposition may be. The Kremlin is scared and, in its fear, is becoming ever more radical and ruthless. Navalny may have been held alive just for this type of moment, to send the strongest message possible. Putin, having relished watching Navalny tortured for three years, thought it expedient to extinguish the opposition's brightest star. However, in his effort to stamp out hope and send an unequivocal message that any pretense of tolerating even a hint of opposition has come to an end, he may have kindled the flame of whatever dignity the Russian people still have.

Killing Navalny shows that, for the first time, the Kremlin is truly afraid that the support for Putin and his war is crumbling faster than anyone could have imagined. Alexey Navalny may yet have the last word on Putin and his cronies. The price he paid certainly merits it. No matter the outcome, however, Navalny’s is yet another sad story of an idealist being ground into dust by a ruthless regime in a country that is unable to escape its legacy of inhumanity and unspeakable cruelty. Alexey Navalny may have been the most recognizable voice of the opposition to Putin, but the jails in Russia are full of people no less conscientious and dedicated to a brighter future, no matter how naive this dream may be. Let us not forget them.