The Man Putin Fears Most
On March 26, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail, following protests across the country. Navalny and hundreds of other protesters were arrested and detained on counts of resisting police orders while they protested corruption in the Russian government. The arrests come at an increasingly turbulent time in Russia, where those in opposition to Putin find themselves arrested or, in a worrisome trend, dead.
This protest in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Tomsk, and several other cities, was driven by claims that Dmitri Medvedev, the current Russian Prime Minister, owns expensive luxury property--yachts, mansions--that cost far more than his supposed official salary. Protesters accused the Prime Minister of corruption and demanded governmental reform with an atypical display of rubber duck photos (meant to represent the accusation that Medvedev owns a special house for a singular duck on one of his properties) and green painted faces (referencing an attack on Navalny in which his face was hit with a balloon filled with green liquid). The visuals may seem bizarre, but Russian government officials were greatly concerned about the protests and termed them “propagandistic attacks.” Navalny used the arrests and charges to further call out the corruption of the government when, during a speech, he reprimanded the court for the total lack of even the “slightest semblance” of justice.
At just 40 years old, Alexei Navalny is the face of Progress, the top Russian opposition Party. He started as a Snowden of sorts, leaking confidential government documents to the public to shed light on the rampant abuses and corruption. He now fights in the streets and, possibly, in the government itself, as a contender for the office of President. Announcing his plans for the Presidency earned Navalny a year on house arrest and charges of embezzlement meant to put an end to his political career. But the outspoken upstart isn’t letting the trumped-up charges bring him down.
His followers are young and angry, faced with a country they have no say in and all the desire to change. Their chants of “Putin-thief” and “Russia will be free” spread quickly through crowds of protesters and rile up a populace used to silent acceptance. Navalny’s message holds great appeal and his social media strategy assures mass consumption. His Livejournal shows the beginning of a long social media campaign that plays to the strengths of his youth, passion, and eye-catching headlines like “Free Eugeny Vitishko!” “Political Botox Not Gonna Help Them,” and “Petty Creatures Abuse Freedom of Speech.” Each page has been translated into English by his followers in an attempt to spread the message of corruption and the solution Navalny longs to find. Beyond the blog, Navalny and his team release videos from his anti-corruption fund and live stream every protest and court hearing. The videos are banned from state television, but go viral on Youtube. Navalny is young and knows how to connect with Russian youth in a way the government has not managed to accomplish.
The Wall Street Journal has described Navalny as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most,” an unfortunate title for a man in Putin’s Russia. Dissidence is quickly stamped out amongst vocal Russians, and not through persuasive rhetoric. Since November, eight high-profile Russians have died. While some of those deaths seem to have been of natural causes, others, like that of Denis Voronenkov are more dubious in nature. Voronenkov, 45, was a vocal Putin critic against Russian influence in Ukraine, and he was shot down in Kiev on March 23. Ukraine’s President referred to the shooting as a “Russian state terrorist act,” an accusation that the Russian government firmly denies. The similarities between Navalny and Vorononkev have not gone unnoticed by Navalny’s supporters and there is fear that Navalny may be eliminated from the political stage beyond imprisonment and embezzlement charges.