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OPINION

Russia's last politician: Navalny's death is an important milestone, which shows that Russia cannot get rid of Putin's madness on its own

Russian opposition icon Alexei Navalny's death in a remote Arctic prison has elicited a plethora of emotional responses. The magnitude of this event is so profound that it requires us to contextualize his passing within the broader landscape of the political era in which he lived.

First and foremost, Putin's strategic maneuvers have become glaringly apparent. Whenever an obstacle or adversary emerges in the path of the Russian leader, a pattern unfolds: intimidation tactics precede genuine threats, followed by a period of «reconsideration,» ultimately culminating in a decisive strike.

In this context, Navalny's fate mirrors that of Ukraine: a sequence of warnings (suspended sentence/Crimea annexation), escalating tensions (arrests/incursion into Donbass in 2014), temporary calm (permission to participate in elections/the signing of the Minsk agreements), leading up to the brazen attempt on Navalny's life and direct military intervention in Ukraine. Even at the eleventh hour, alternatives were presented — Navalny was offered exile in 2020 after surviving an FSB assassination attempt, while Ukraine was presented with a peace proposal in April 2022 — yet in both instances, Putin remained resolute in his course of action.

Navalny's fate mirrors that of Ukraine: warnings, escalation, reprieve, and the final strike

The essence of such a strategy, in my view, lies in diverting the public's attention (of both the Russian and the international varieties) away from the target of destruction. In the years 2011-2013, tens of thousands of people rallied in support of Navalny. However, after what turned out to be his last arrest in 2021, only a few thousand turned out, with even fewer choosing to lay flowers following the announcement of his death yesterday. In 2022, there was a sense that the world had recognized the threat of Putinism and that it was poised to act decisively against the aggressor. Yet at this year’s Munich Security Conference, an event “tainted” by Navalny's death, a report is being circulated indicating that even in Europe, Russia is no longer perceived as the primary threat to peace.

It's undeniable that Putin’s tactics yield results. The Russian population is increasingly intimidated, losing all hope for the future. Over his quarter of a century in power, Putin has, in my opinion, achieved a remarkable feat (even if it is not an admirable one): suppressing his own people. Initially, his liberal reforms boosted living standards and «bourgeoisified» a significant portion of the urban middle class, which at the time was potentially sympathetic to Western values. These people amassed wealth, acquired property, and purchased homes and cars on credit, essentially becoming captives of their own prosperity — a stark departure from the freer atmosphere experienced by Soviet citizens during perestroika. Now the infamous confiscation law will underscore just how thoroughly material concerns trump idealistic aspirations, silencing millions.

Then came Putin's war with Ukraine. Though not immediately, it quickly and effectively pitted Russia against the West, thwarting the «exit strategies» of Russians who had sought «backup airfields» in Europe. Tourist visas are being revoked, borders sealed, and citizenship stripped due to sanctions. Emigration through political asylum has become so convoluted that it is rarely even pursued. Essentially, it was not Putin himself, but his Western opponents, who unwittingly erected an «iron curtain» that the Kremlin now exploits to its advantage.

It was not Putin himself, but his Western opponents, who unwittingly erected an «iron curtain» that the Kremlin now exploits to its advantage

As the «infrastructure» for targeted intimidation took shape, authorities began pursuing dissenters, albeit initially in a limited fashion. According to OVD-Info, Russia has initiated 3,600 politically motivated criminal cases since 2012. Furthermore, from March 2022 to October 2023, approximately 8,000 administrative cases were filed for «discrediting» the army. Despite increasingly severe sentences for increasingly trivial “crimes,” this approach achieves the desired effect: society lapses into a state of suspended animation.

Alexei Navalny tirelessly sought to rouse Russians, yet his aim was to tarnish the government's reputation, epitomized by the term «party of crooks and thieves» adopted even by quasi-opposition figures in the State Duma to refer to the ruling “United Russia” party. His intention was to lay the groundwork for removing the current Kremlin clique through elections. While this had some potential in 2012, it became less feasible in the 2020s.

In my view, this was due to two main factors. First, an opposition majority in Russia is unlikely to coalesce without the authorities' endorsement, as happened during Gorbachev's era. Secondly, a change in power through mass movements and elections requires a schism within the elite (as happened prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union with the emergence of Boris Yeltsin, and also in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison without de Klerk's involvement).

Navalny, however, chose to condemn the entire Russian leadership without seeking internal allies. Moreover, targeting corruption as the main issue may not have been effective, as it was pervasive in Russian society, often facilitating rather than hindering daily life. The opulent palaces of rulers were seen as a norm. Nevertheless, Navalny's primary achievement was sparking thoughts of injustice among Russians and reminding them of their right to vote. Sadly, his calls fell on deaf ears.

The events following Navalny's death undoubtedly raise questions about the prospects of the Russian opposition, of which Navalny remained the leader for at least a decade (even though he initially shared sway with Boris Nemtsov). These prospects do not seem too promising to me. Navalny's colleagues from the Anti-Corruption Foundation lack his charisma and vision, essentially serving as his «support group» in recent years. Meanwhile, the politician's supporters, starting from 2020, have been actively forced out of Russia or imprisoned, gradually disappearing from public life. Without a leader like Navalny, especially one who hasn't left Russia and is languishing in Putin's prisons, the political significance of the late Navalny’s organization had already been sharply declining.

Add to that the reality that, by the end of the second year of the war, a significant portion of the Russian emigrant community had unmistakably transformed from the Russian opposition into a support group for Ukraine, distancing themselves from domestic agendas and focusing on raising funds for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I don't rule out that this is precisely where dissidents can make the most impact now. However, in the eyes of the vast majority of Russians (not just «Putin supporters,» but even ordinary residents of regions bordering Ukraine), this makes them traitors, rendering any dialogue with them simply impossible. In my view, Alexei Navalny was the last major opposition politician who remained in Russia and did not predicate his future on the successes of the Ukrainian military. Therefore, his loss is a catastrophic blow to the anti-Putin forces, the depressing consequences of which we will all soon witness.

The loss of Navalny is a catastrophic blow to anti-Putin forces, the depressing consequences of which we will all soon witness

In conclusion, I'd like to emphasize that the recent events — and here I have in mind more than just the death of Alexei Navalny — signify a crucial milestone in the trajectory of modern Russia. They underscore the reality that our country cannot liberate itself from the grip of Putin's madness by itself. Russia has always functioned as empire, never fully embracing the concept of a nation-state. Its authoritarian apparatus has historically relied on natural resources rather than the ingenuity and labor of its people. Moreover, the notion of Russian exceptionalism has been deeply ingrained in the national psyche for centuries. Recent history has shown that these entrenched beliefs continue to shape the country. At one point the nonagenarian historian Alexander Yanov referred to “Weimar Russia,” and he was indeed onto something — Russia’s path to rejuvenation appears to necessitate radical measures. However, the challenge lies in the fact that the West lacks both the determination to confront Putinism and a cohesive strategy for integrating Russia into its fold. The process that once transformed Weimar Germany into the modern state it is today does not appear to be applicable to the Russian case in its current form.

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