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Navalny’s poisoning disrupts Russian “smart voting” process

Navalny’s defeat, at least for some time, seems to be a necessary and timely measure in the run up to Russia’s regional elections from September 11th to 13th: the ruling United Russia would likely need to undermine ‘smart voting’ by targeting the concept’s key ideologist with a substantial national network and strong media influence.

September 7, 2020 - Anastasiia Starchenko - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Oppositionist Alexei Navalny during a march in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov, who was killed in Russia Photo: Michał Siergiejevicz flickr.com

On August 20th, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s anti-corruption activist and high-profile Kremlin critic, fell dangerously ill on an early morning flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. After the aircraft made an emergency landing in Omsk, Navalny, who by then went into coma, was moved to an intensive care unit at the Omsk Clinical Hospital and was connected to a ventilator. Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokeswoman who accompanied him on the flight, announced on Twitter that he had been poisoned, likely by a toxic substance added to his tea at the Tomsk airport’s Vienna Café.

Following Navalny’s transportation to Charité hospital in Berlin, toxicological tests have indicated that he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, used in the Skripal poisoning in Britain two years ago. “Choosing Novichok to poison Navalny in 2020 is basically the same thing as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime,” wrote Navalny’s associate Leonid Volkov on Twitter, with an image of the president’s signature attached to the tweet. The incident came directly after Navalny’s visit to Siberia where he supported opposition candidates ahead of local elections from September 11th-13th.

Navalny has long had a target on his back. Known for his crusade against pervasive state and business corruption in Russia, Navalny is a staunch critic of President Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia, which he labels the “party of crooks and thieves”. Regardless of his high-profile name in Russia, it would be inaccurate to label him as Putin’s leading opponent for two important reasons. First, the Russian society’s attitude towards Navalny remains rather contradictive: while some express support for his anti-corruption activism, his anti-regime rhetoric prompts distrust and fear in others. Sympathy for Navalny remains a minority privilege among those dissatisfied with the political reality of Russia and advocating a change of power. To add to his controversy, Navalny identifies himself with Russian nationalism, endorses the annexation of Crimea and openly speaks against immigration, which makes it harder for the Kremlin to portray him as a pro-western puppet.

In 2019, research by Russia’s independent Levada Centre revealed that only nine per cent of Russians supported Navalny’s activity, with one-quarter of those having a negative view and over 60 percent of those either indifferent or unaware of his activities. On the other hand, another Levada Centre survey from early 2020 asked participants who among Russia’s famous contemporaries inspires Russians with their example and active civic position – eight per cent of respondents named Putin while four per cent mentioned Navalny (defence minister Sergey Shoigu and right-wing politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky received third and the fourth place respectively).

Second, one may hardly refer to Navalny as an opposition leader simply because the Russian opposition remains largely fragmented, if not a façade. Russia’s Communist Party of Gennady Zyuganov and Sergei Mironov’s Just Russia, nominally the main contenders for presidential bids, are in reality a “pocket opposition” – supporting the line of Kremlin. At the same time, much of Russia’s liberal opposition forces have always been divided over the agenda and unable to coordinate their strategies for electoral success. Navalny himself has never held public office, with the exception of a brief membership in the liberal Yabloko opposition party in 2000, and made his name as a blogger exposing massive corruption among Russian officials, including former president and former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Despite lacking a political career, however, Navalny has managed to cement his status as a challenger of Putin’s government by consolidating political activists and protest movements around common themes and new electoral technology known as “smart voting”. This is a strategy of uniting tactical votes around candidates not affiliated with United Russia and whose coordinated electoral support would be strong enough to challenge United Russia’s monopolists even if the candidate represents a party that protest voters dislike.

It appears to have successfully challenged the state’s tight control over the electoral process, particularly in the 2019 Moscow City Council vote and some of Russia’s Far Eastern regions. Just two weeks before Navalny’s poisoning, Vladimir Kara-Murza, an outspoken Kremlin critic and protégé of Boris Nemtsov, wrote that “pro-Kremlin candidates are losing to whomever else is listed on the ballot, even when genuine opposition leaders are barred from running (as they usually are)”. He refers to the gubernatorial race of 2018 in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, when a coordinated vote of the local residents removed the incumbent, Kremlin-aligned official. The system has been challenged; the winner’s political affiliation seemed of secondary importance.

Russia’s regional elections for legislatures and city councils will take place in September and prepare the ground for the future State Duma elections, currently scheduled for September 19th. In view of the uncertainty in Russian politics, the recent constitutional shake-up, and Putin’s plummeting support, the Kremlin might attempt to tighten control over political pluralism and accountability of the electoral process. One way or another, Navalny has joined the long list of Kremlin opponents who have experienced critical medical emergencies or have been assassinated by unknown attackers.

It remains unclear who has taken the direct steps in neutralising Navalny, but given atmosphere of hatred and impunity, created by more than two decades of Putin’s regime, the murder attempt comes as no surprise. It is safe to say that the Kremlin has deliberately avoided guaranteeing a safe environment for opposition figures in modern-day Russia, because it benefits from eliminating influential rivals. Navalny’s defeat, at least for some time, seems to be a necessary and timely measure in the run up to September elections: the ruling United Russia would likely need to undermine “smart voting” by targeting the concept’s key ideologist with a substantial national network and strong media influence. As a result, Russian regions face yet another voting test: Navalny may survive the poisoning, but will not be able to engage in political activism for the next several months.

Anastasiia Starchenko is an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe and a recent MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She has a BA in Law from the Ukrainian Academy of Banking and a BA in International Relations from Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia.


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