Though not yet restored to full health, Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny is recovering in Germany from the poisoning that almost killed him and is preparing to return to Russia to continue his fight for democracy. As he shared on Instagram last week, with a photo of himself in a tracksuit, he was about to begin jogging again: “I’ll let you know how it goes. You should start running too…If they poison you with chemicals, maybe it will save you as well!”
Navalny’s recovery—which he attributes to his excellent physical shape before the poisoning—is remarkable considering that, at one point, he was not expected to survive. While flying from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow on August 20, after several days of campaigning for candidates in local elections, Navalny fell violently ill. The plane’s pilot made an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny was rushed to a local hospital and placed in a medically induced coma. Emergency room doctors immediately suspected that Navalny had been poisoned with a nerve agent and treated him with atropine, which works against such toxins as a blocker, although Omsk officials later denied this.
After two days in Omsk, Navalny was flown by an air ambulance to Berlin, Germany, where he was treated at the Charité hospital by specialists who subsequently determined that he had indeed been poisoned with a nerve agent, and one of military grade known as Novichok, which is produced only by the Russian state. Their findings were confirmed by specialists from Sweden and France, as well as by the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). After regaining consciousness on September 7, Navalny remained in the hospital until September 22, when he was discharged to an undisclosed location in Germany for further rehabilitation.
Not surprisingly, the Kremlin has refused to initiate a criminal investigation of the incident, instead offering alternative theories about what happened. In a September phone call to French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin suggested that Navalny may have poisoned himself, while authorities in Omsk said Navalny had suffered an attack of pancreatitis. In early November, the chief of Russia’s SVR , its foreign intelligence agency, Sergei Naryshkin, said it was possible that Western security services had poisoned Navalny in order to make Russia look bad. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speculated that Navalny had been poisoned after his arrival in Germany.
At a two-day conference of the OPCW this week, delegates from more than fifty countries, including the United States, condemned the attack on Navalny “in the strongest possible terms,” and the German delegation called on Russia to cooperate fully with the organization and disclose what it knows about the circumstances of the poisoning. The Russian delegation responded by accusing Germany and its allies of unleashing a “mass disinformation campaign” against Russia.
For his part, Navalny is doing more than jogging while he remains in Germany. In addition to posting on social media, he appeared last Friday via video link before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, along with three other prominent Russian oppositionists, to push for stronger measures against the Kremlin’s human rights abuses. Speaking in English, Navalny said that penalizing only the officials who are directly responsible for Russia’s criminal actions, as was done with his poisoning, will not be effective because these officials are colonels, generals, and mid-level operatives who do not travel abroad or own assets overseas. Instead, he advised, the European Union should target its sanctions at the wealthy oligarchs who have accumulated their fortunes under Putin’s corrupt rule. Navalny did not mince words: “Let me say it straight. As long as the most expensive yacht of Mr. Usmanov [Alisher Usmanov, a Kremlin-backed industrialist worth more than $11 billion] is anchored in Barcelona or in Monaco, no one in Russia or even in the Kremlin will treat European sanctions seriously.”
One of those who appeared with Navalny, the leading Russian oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has twice been the victim of serious poisoning, added that they were not asking the Europeans to interfere in Russia’s internal politics: “It is only for Russian citizens to bring political change to Russia…What we do expect is that you stay true to your values, that you stop enabling those corrupt and abusive officials and oligarchs who want to steal from our people.”
Navalny echoed the need for a similar distinction between “the Russians, who should be welcomed and treated warmly, and the Russian state, which should be perceived as a gang of criminals.” He also assured the European parliamentarians that such sanctions would have the support of 99 percent of the Russian population.
But some Russian political observers have expressed doubts about Navalny’s strategy. Independent journalist Sergei Parkhomenko said last week that Navalny’s efforts to galvanize European public opinion in defense of Russian democracy could be used by Kremlin propagandists to discredit him at home by accusing him of collaborating with foreigners whose interests are against those of Russia. That has already been happening: when, on October 1, Navalny gave an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel accusing Putin of ordering his poisoning, the Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, claimed that the Russian government had evidence that Navalny was working for the CIA. In response, Navalny filed a defamation suit against Peskov in a Moscow district court, which he mentioned on Instagram: “I usually don’t sue propagandists—I see no reason to waste time, but Peskov is not just a person whose job is to lie…. He is a high-ranking official. His boss gave the order to kill me. And Peskov should keep quiet about ‘abroad’…you can make a platoon of NATO soldiers from his children [who live in Europe].”
The influential Moscow economist Vladislav Inozemtsev recently argued that, despite the adverse international publicity, the Kremlin’s attack on Navalny may not have harmed the regime much at home because it turned Navalny from a highly popular politician into a much less significant emigrant. “After being poisoned, Aleksei Anatolyevich’s rating soared, and in the list of public figures whom Russians trusted the most, he reached the fourth position,” Inozemtsev wrote. “However, everything—or almost everything—has changed a lot lately.” In a reference to Vladimir Lenin’s legendary 1917 arrival from exile by railway at St. Petersburg, which sparked the Bolshevik Revolution, Inozemtsev noted of Navalny’s planned return to his country, “this will not be another celebrated homecoming at the Finland Station.”
While acknowledging that the Russian audience for Navalny’s blog and YouTube channel, in which he regularly exposes official corruption, exceeded 4 million at one point, Inozemtsev dismissed the Internet as a real platform for political opposition in Russia: “The mobilization achieved by the Internet remains largely superficial. In Russia, ‘democracy’ or ‘a country without crooks and thieves’ [a favorite slogan of Navalny’s] are perceived positively as an ideal, but they do not generate readiness to fight for this ideal.” To illustrate his point, Inozemtsev noted that, in contrast to Belarus, there has been little public backlash against the increasingly repressive methods of the Kremlin regime to suppress democratic activism.
But Navalny is an astute political strategist with a keen understanding of the Russian political mood, even from afar. As Vladimir Milov, who appeared with Navalny before the European Parliament, explained recently on YouTube, Navalny is intent on differentiating himself from other Russian oppositionists who have been forced into exile. (Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who resides in London and has spent much of his fortune on efforts to discredit Putin, is one example.) Rather than making speeches to his supporters from abroad, Navalny will wait to speak directly to his people until he is back on Russian soil. In the meantime, Milov said, Navalny’s competent and dedicated team, part of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), continues the struggle in Russia, maintaining forty offices throughout the country.
The timing of Navalny’s return to Russia is uncertain, because he continues to require physical therapy. Navalny noted on Instagram that he is still experiencing some numbness in one leg. (As the March 2018 poisonings in Britain of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia make clear, Novichok’s effects on the body can be long-lasting. In a recent telephone call to her cousin in Russia, Yulia Skripal said that her father still has a breathing tube because his nasopharynx muscles were partially paralyzed from the poison, while she has continuing problems with her vision.)
But Navalny will be back in his country well before the pivotal September 2021 parliamentary elections, when he and his team will put all their efforts into defeating the candidates of the Kremlin-sponsored United Russia party. They will build on the same strategy of “smart voting” they used in the September 2020 elections, which involves persuading voters to rally around the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the United Russia candidate. Navalny’s team continued to campaign in Siberia after his poisoning, and two were elected members of municipal councils, in Novosibirsk and Tomsk. Overall, United Russia lost 10 percent of its seats in regional and city legislatures across the country. As The Economist observed: “They [Navalny’s team] showed that Mr. Navalny’s appeal extends well beyond Moscow and that the grip of the pro-Kremlin parties can sometimes be overcome.”
Veteran Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, currently a scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center, expressed her frustration on Monday with Americans who tell her that Navalny has the support of only a small percentage of the Russian population. “Opinion polls are meaningless under an authoritarian regime,” she pointed out, “not to mention that Alexei Navalny tried nine times to register his own party with the Ministry of Justice, and he was never allowed to do so.” As Navalny himself quipped, “we successfully win elections that they don’t even let us run in.”
How will the Kremlin react to Navalny’s return? Further attempts to harm Navalny physically would arouse an international outcry and draw more support for Navalny’s cause from the Russian public. But Russian authorities could well harass him legally, with arrests and spurious charges, as they have done many times in the past. Just this week, Russian law enforcement sources reported that they were considering charges of “extremism” against Navalny for comments he made last April in an interview on the Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy that allegedly implied the violent overthrow of the regime. (In fact, Navalny was putting forth a plan to address the coronavirus epidemic.)
The Kremlin has plenty of other means at its disposal to hinder the efforts of Navalny and his team. In October, a Moscow court fined Navalny’s lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, almost $400,000 for defaming a school lunch catering firm owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin (who is nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” an ironic title since he is better known for running Russian-backed mercenary operations overseas). And in early November, police raided the Moscow offices of the FBK and opened a criminal case against its director, Ivan Zhdanov. As Navalny said in an October interview: “The authorities now use ways to pressure us that we couldn’t imagine three years ago.”
Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who is with him in Germany, told an interviewer in October that she had no fear of their return to Russia, but that they should wait until her husband is completely well: “I told Aleksei: ‘I know you want to head back as soon as possible, but I want you to fully recover first, because I don’t know what is going to happen in Russia, and if you’re not fully recovered we may not be able to save you a second time.’ I think he heard me.” Unfortunately, the most convincing testimony to Aleksei Navalny’s effectiveness as an opposition politician is the threat he poses to the Kremlin’s political survival and the trouble to which Putin and allies are willing to go in attempting to destroy him.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the first name of the former oligarch Khodorkovsky; it is Mikhail, not Dmitry. The article has been updated.