The Cost of Courage: Unpacking the Impact of Navalny’s Death on the State of Democracy in Russia and Anticipating Putin’s Next Move

The tragic demise of Alexei Navalny on February 16th, 2024, Russia’s most fierce critic of President Putin and the face of the burgeoning opposition movement, sent shockwaves across the globe. The 47-year-old lawyer, known for his penchant for exposing the corruption inherent within the state, had been a target of the Putin regime from the beginning. Despite being taken in as a political prisoner on several occasions and even surviving a fatal poisoning from the nerve agent Novichok in 2020, he continued his fight against the suppression of dissent in the country. Serving a 19-year sentence, he spent his last days in a penal colony in the Yamalo-Nenets region, well above the Arctic Circle, where only those accused of the most heinous crimes were sent. The conditions were extremely harsh, with temperatures dropping to -20C in the winter. The inmates were often made to stand outside without any coats in the winter and, in summers, were forced to strip to their waists while being exposed to deadly mosquitoes. Navalny, who was kept in solitary confinement, developed various ailments like severe back problems and numbness in one of his legs because of deliberate medical negligence. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Prison authorities claimed that he fell ill after a walk and immediately lost consciousness. 

 Navalny passed away. 

Given Navalny’s growing popularity and the challenge it posed to Putin’s image, his untimely death eliminated any significant competition, clearing the field for Putin. The political conformists within the regime continued to support the repressive policies of the state. Still, Navalny’s vision and legacy continued to shape the pro-democracy movement, which had been hit hard by repression. This was proven by the fact that thousands came to pay him tribute as his coffin was being carried into a church in Moscow and chanted slogans such as “Freedom to Political Prisoners!” and “No to war!”. Many were arrested across Russia who attended such events commemorating his death. BBC Russia editor Steve Rosenberg reports that young and old people who queued in front of the church to see Navalny for one last time spoke of how he had given them “hope” for a much more radiant and prosperous future for the country. This is the accurate picture of a Russia which is not shown to the world by the state-run media: one that does not support Putin or the war in Ukraine and is very much in favour of freedom and democracy.

World leaders placed complete responsibility for his death on Putin.  Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, while attending the annual Munich Security Conference, commented that ‘’it’s obvious he was killed by Putin”, adding that Putin does not care who dies as long as he gets to hold on to his position. German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, stated that Navalny “stood up for democracy and freedom in Russia”. 

Many protests and vigils had also been announced by pro-Russian organisations across cities in Europe and the US. European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, called for unity in the fight “to safeguard the freedom and safety of those who dare to stand up against autocracy.”

Navalny’s death may have sounded the death knell on the immediate prospects of solid opposition, stifling the hopes for democratic reform and transparent governance. Still, his work immensely inspired young people to get involved in local politics. The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the non-profit organisation founded by Navalny, which carried out corruption investigations and exposed the malpractices of the political elite during his imprisonment, promises to fight against Putin until they win. Its YouTube channel, ‘Navalny Live’, is one of Russia’s most popular, and continues to reach millions. Despite the towering challenges and the shadow cast by his absence, the movement he ignited inspires a new generation of activists. With international pressure intensifying on Putin’s regime to be answerable for the egregious violation of human rights on various fronts, there is still a glimmer of hope that Navalny’s sacrifice will not go to waste.

On another note, American financier and anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder claimed that after the death of Navalny, Putin will now embark on a “killing spree” and will target his critics abroad, including those in the UK. He has a hit list of 12 targets and might go after high-profile individuals, like politicians. Browder also added that it’s essential to take action against Putin to avoid the recurrence of the 2018 Novichok attack in Salisbury, which targeted former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The mission failed, but it left an innocent woman named Dawn Sturgess, 44, dead. 

Browder himself has been a pain in the neck for the regime because he has been advocating for the Magnitsky Act, a piece of legislation which allows for sanctions against foreign governments involved in human rights abuses. He also highlighted the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a British-Russian journalist and political opposition campaigner, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a Russian penal colony and has survived two poisoning attempts. Kara-Murza worked closely with Browder to promote the Magnitsky Act. Despite facing death threats, kidnappings, and legal harassment from the Russian government, Browder continues to campaign for justice and accountability. The former British ambassador to Russia, Andrew Wood, has also warned that Alexei Navalny “won’t be the last victim of Putin’s Russia”. Only time will tell if Browder’s claims will come true or not. 

Thus, in the shadow of Navalny’s demise and faced with Browder’s alarming warnings, it becomes crucial for the global community to intensify its efforts towards justice and democracy, championing the cause of those who bravely oppose tyranny.

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