Russia: death of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny causes global outrage

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 20 February 2024

Reports of the death of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny first surfaced on Friday 16 February as most Russians were winding down for the weekend. The previous day the Russian opposition leader had been captured on camera in court. He looked thin, but, joking and laughing with the judge, appeared to be in reasonable health.

In a statement, the penal colony where Navalny was being held north of Moscow said he had fallen unwell after a walk and lost consciousness. An ambulance was called, but he died after efforts to revive him failed, said officials. Navalny’s spokesperson confirmed his death the following day.

The leader of the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, Navalny frequently denounced corruption in Russia, relating to both the Kremlin and Putin personally. He was barred from running for office in 2018 for what he claimed were politically motivated reasons.

In December 2020, Navalny accused Russia’s security agency, the FSB, of poisoning him with nerve agent Novichok after he collapsed on a plane. He was imprisoned in February 2021 on a range of spurious charges. Soon after, he staged a 24-day hunger strike until he received urgent medical care.

As prison life took its toll, it was well-documented that the 47-year-old’s health continued to decline. However, reports that Navalny’s family have been denied access to his body, which remains with official investigators, have only fuelled further speculation over the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of Putin’s most vocal critic.

‘My own guess is that within Russia’s enforcement system there was a promise made that he won’t survive [until] the end of Putin’s ongoing term in power,’ says Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, Director of the Russia Institute and Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London. ‘They tried various methods of weakening and perhaps even poisoning him earlier, too; but there was no more time for waiting or experimenting. So more brutal methods were used to deliver on the promise.’

Political prisoners in today’s Russia are being isolated and are being subjected to all kinds of torture […] to send a message to others who might follow suit

Evgenia Kara-Murza
Wife of political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, has called accusations that Navalny was murdered ‘unfounded’ and the Kremlin has denied involvement in his death.

Mark Stephens CBE, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute and a partner at Howard Kennedy in London, says the reports coming out of Russia so far are deeply concerning. ‘The two local coroners have declined to deal with the case, saying it’s too sensitive,’ he says. ‘This is indicative of state capture. In those circumstances, our thoughts have got to go to Vladimir Kara-Murza and other political prisoners in jail, who are causing irritation to Putin. We fear that Navalny may be the first of several Putin irritants who are dealt with through extrajudicial killing.’

Similar to Navalny, Kara-Murza survived two poisonings and is serving a 25-year prison sentence in an isolated prison cell. He was imprisoned in April 2023 on charges of treason after labelling the Russian authorities a ‘regime of murderers’ and discrediting the armed forces following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, spoke to Global Insight exclusively earlier in February 2024 about the threat political prisoners pose to the Kremlin. She says that ‘the regime is so scared of any sort of opposition and any sort of dissent that these people, […] these political prisoners in today’s Russia, are being isolated and are being subjected to all kinds of torture, to drive them into silence, to scare them into silence and to send a message to others who might follow suit.’

Navalny and Kara-Murza are just two of at least 700 people designated as political prisoners in Russia today. Since Navalny’s death, more than 400 civilians have been arrested for laying tributes to the politician.

Stephens believes his death could mark a turning point. ‘Increasingly people are seeing Navalny as a hero for standing up to Putin,’ he says. ‘People know that they are repressed by Putin. Now that [the authorities] can’t harm Navalny anymore, the idea of Navalny may well become much more powerful.’

Global leaders were quick to condemn the Russian authorities. US President Joe Biden said there would be ‘devastating consequences’ and that the tragedy should push the US Congress to send much-needed aid to Ukraine.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the politician’s sudden death have worrying echoes of the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who died in pre-trial detention in a Moscow prison cell in 2009 after exposing a large-scale tax fraud by Russian governmental officials. His death sparked a global campaign to bring sanctions against people who commit gross human rights violations. Following the passing of the US Magnitsky Act in 2012, 35 other countries have passed similar legislation designed to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses to account.

A number of governments are considering imposing fresh sanctions following Navalny’s death, but it’s unclear what impact these might have on Putin’s inner circle or the wider Russian economy. Previous sanctions imposed by the EU, the US and the UK, among others, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have hindered domestic production of many Russian goods and contributed to an overall decline in living standards within the country.

Foreign ministers from the G7 countries held a minute’s silence to honour Navalny at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, where his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, first learnt of her husband’s death. In a video posted online on 19 February, Navalnaya said she was in no doubt about who was responsible for her husband’s death, telling viewers that, ‘three days ago Vladimir Putin killed my husband, Alexei Navalny.’ She said she would continue her husband’s work and called on his supporters to share their ‘anger, rage and hatred for those who have dared to destroy our future.’

However, Sharafutdinova says the reaction to his death in Russia has shown that society remains deeply polarised. ‘The outpouring of emotions, tears, rage and anger revealed Navalny’s central place in the minds and hearts of those who believe in a different Russia from Putin’s Russia,’ she says. ‘But there was also silence among those millions of Russians outside the big urban centres: the silent majority that Putin now relies on; the majority that does not believe in collective action and the possibility of political power outside the Kremlin walls.’

Navalny’s death comes one month ahead of the country’s presidential elections. Putin has not yet commented publicly on the death, but all eyes will be on him when he gives his annual state-of-the-nation speech in the coming days.

Image: / Sergey Otroshko