Navalny: Kremlin critic fighting Putin from jail

Moscow (AFP) – Alexei Navalny, who was awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for human rights on Wednesday, is Russia's most prominent Kremlin critic and leading opposition figure who was jailed in January.


Over the past decade, the 45-year-old anti-corruption crusader has emerged as President Vladimir Putin's most tenacious domestic opponent despite never holding elected office.

In February, Navalny was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison on old embezzlement charges, becoming the country's highest-profile prisoner, but he has continued needling the Kremlin from behind bars.

Last August, the father-of-two barely survived a poisoning attack with what Western doctors and experts say was Novichok, a Soviet-designed nerve agent. Navalny pointed the finger at Putin; the Kremlin denies any involvement.

The poisoning ordeal drew global attention to Navalny and raised his international profile, with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting him while he was undergoing treatment in a Berlin hospital.

Navalny's decision to return to Russia in January despite the threat of arrest and jail has been seen as a direct challenge to Putin.

He has since seen his movement dismantled, with authorities launching a fierce crackdown.

In June his organisations were branded as "extremist" and banned, while all of his top allies have been arrested or have fled the country.

Last month, investigators opened a fresh extremism probe against the Kremlin critic, piling on potential charges that could see him spend decades in jail.

But Navalny has remained upbeat and continues speaking to supporters from behind bars on his social media accounts run by his team, often in his signature tongue in cheek posts.

"Don't worry, I'll be released no later than spring 2051," he wrote on Instagram last month.

- Putin 'fears me' -

Navalny over the years has built up a large online following with viral YouTube videos exposing corruption among the elite.

Trafficking in memes, the anti-graft campaigner has attracted a young audience that grew up on the internet and struggles to relate to a leader who shirks social media.

He has also grabbed attention with his uncompromising rhetoric, coining phrases like the "party of crooks and thieves" to slam the ruling United Russia party.

In winter 2011-2012 Navalny led the first mass protests against Putin's rule that attracted tens of thousands and were sparked by widespread claims of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.

He upped the ante in 2013 by running for Moscow mayor, finishing second to a Putin ally.

The next year he was found guilty on fraud charges in a case Europe's rights court deemed "arbitrary" and Navalny said was contrived to bar him from future elections.

It would also eventually land him in a penal colony outside Moscow.

Before he flew back from Germany in January, papers were filed with a Moscow court asking for that suspended sentence to be converted into jail time, a move Navalny's allies said was an attempt to block his return.

But Navalny is not known for having caved in the face of pressure.

In video investigations he has accused Putin and former President Dmitry Medvedev of mass graft, both times sparking new rounds of demonstrations.

In 2018 he was barred from the vote that handed Putin his fourth presidential term.

Putin "fears me and he fears the people I represent," Navalny told AFP at the time.

Expanding struggle

With the Kremlin tightly controlling the media, Navalny nonetheless remains a fringe figure for many Russians, who are exposed to the official portrayal of him as a Western stooge and convicted criminal.

Putin has refused to pronounce Navalny's name in public.

Even other opposition figures have kept their distance, with some pointing to his nationalism and anti-immigrant stance in the late 2000s.

This spring an independent poll found that nearly half of Russians believed he was rightfully imprisoned.

Navalny's struggle against Putin has expanded beyond Russia's borders in recent years.

In a column published in The Guardian and Le Monde newspapers this year, he called on Western governments to tackle graft, calling it a global problem.

Last month, after Russian authorities reportedly threatened to arrest Apple and Google's local staff, the companies removed apps from their stores that outlined candidates Navalny named as best-placed to defeat Kremlin-aligned politicians in parliamentary elections.

The jailed Kremlin critic said the Western tech giants had turned into Putin's "accomplices".

"They tell us about 'making the world a better place', but on the inside they are liars and hypocrites," he tweeted.