Aug 4 (Reuters) – Russia’s most prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny says he expects to see his prison sentence extended by nearly two decades on Friday when a court delivers its verdict on a battery of new charges against him. Who is he and how did he get to this point?
Navalny, 47, is by far the best known figure in Russia’s splintered opposition, with supporters casting him as a Nelson Mandela-style figure who will one day be freed from jail to lead the country. The Kremlin has tried to portray him as politically irrelevant, and President Vladimir Putin makes a point of never speaking his name. Navalny earned admiration around the world for voluntarily returning to Russia in 2021 from Germany, where he underwent treatment for what Western laboratory tests showed was an attempt to poison him with a nerve agent in Siberia. He was immediately arrested on arrival.
RISE TO PROMINENCE
A former lawyer, Navalny rose to prominence with blogs that exposed what he said was vast corruption in Russia. He says the country is ruled by “crooks and thieves”. He took part in Russian nationalist marches in the 2000s and voiced anti-immigrant views. In 2007 he was expelled from the liberal Yabloko opposition party. When demonstrations against Putin flared in December 2011, he was one of the first protest leaders arrested. In 2013 he ran for mayor of Moscow and won 27% of the vote despite getting little or no coverage from state media. Since then he has been barred on various grounds from running for office. Navalny and his team have lampooned Putin and produced slick videos, watched millions of times on YouTube, to expose the opulent lifestyles of Russia’s elite. Navalny has long forecast Russia could face seismic political turmoil, including revolution, because he says Putin has built a brittle system of personal rule that is reliant on sycophancy and corruption.
WHAT DOES THE KREMLIN SAY?
The Kremlin has dismissed Navalny’s claims about corruption and Putin’s personal wealth. His movement is outlawed and most of his senior allies have fled Russia. Russian officials portray him as an extremist and, without providing evidence, as a puppet of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Navalny has been detained countless times for organising public rallies, and prosecuted repeatedly on charges including corruption, embezzlement and fraud. He says the accusations and convictions are politically motivated.
In August 2020, Navalny fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. The pilot made an emergency landing, saving his life, and Navalny was flown to Berlin, where he was treated for the effects of a neurotoxin that lab tests in three countries showed to be Novichok, a poison developed in the Soviet Union. A joint media investigation said it had identified a team of assassins from Russia’s FSB security service. Navalny himself impersonated a Russian official in a phone call to one of the agents and got him to reveal details of the plot, including that the poison was smeared on his underpants – an episode that formed part of the Oscar-winning film “Navalny”. Putin dismissed the investigation as a smear, saying: “If someone had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off.”
Navalny is currently serving sentences totalling 11-1/2 years at the IK-6 penal colony at Melekhovo, about 235 km (145 miles) east of Moscow. He was convicted of fraud and other charges that he says were trumped up to silence him. At the colony, he has been repeatedly placed for long periods in a tiny cramped punishment cell for trivial misdemeanours such as washing his face at the wrong time. He has described having to either stand up or sit on an iron stool for 16 hours a day. Supporters have voiced fears for his life. The prison service says he is treated like any other inmate.
Navalny is married to Yulia Navalnaya. They have a daughter, Darya (Dasha), who is a student at Stanford University in the United States, and a son, Zakhar.
NAVALNY ON THE UKRAINE WAR
“This is a stupid war which your Putin started,” Navalny told a court hearing in 2022. “This war was built on lies.” “One madman has got his claws into Ukraine and I do not know what he wants to do with it – this crazy thief.”
NAVALNY ON PUTIN
“Corruption is the foundation of contemporary Russia, it is the foundation of Mr. Putin’s political power,” Navalny told Reuters in an interview in 2011. “Please consider and realize that by jailing hundreds, Putin is trying to intimidate millions,” he said on the eve of the verdict in the latest case.
ON FEAR AND DYING
“Why should I be afraid?” he said in 2011 when asked about the dangers of challenging the Kremlin. “If they decide to kill me then it means we are incredibly strong and we need to use that power and not give up,” he told CNN. “We don’t realise how strong we actually are.”