All who worry about the future of democracy in the Trump era should follow the story of Alexei Navalny, the latest Kremlin critic to be poisoned.
As Republican speakers toss around the words “freedom and democracy” at a reality-lite GOP convention, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader lies in a coma, after evacuation from Siberia to a Berlin hospital. Donald Trump has said nary a word about Navalny, in sharp contrast to Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, who demanded answers from Russia.
Trump’s silence is unsurprising, since he never criticizes Vladimir Putin, despite a long list of murdered Kremlin critics. When asked in 2015 about the killing of many Russian journalists, Trump replied, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.” In other words, the GOP nominee believes American democracy is no different than a Kremlin kleptocracy.
But Navalny would beg to differ about democracy. He achieved remarkable success in building grassroots organizations across Russia — which is why Putin fears him. His courage should inspire Americans daunted by Trump’s threats to undermine the 2020 election. It puts the GOP to shame.
I last interviewed the dynamic, then 41-year-old Navalny in Moscow in March 2018, in his sleek modern office, staffed by casually dressed young Russians who typify his legions of followers.
I arrived there after visiting the volunteer memorial at the spot where the leading liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down right under the Kremlin walls in 2015. It was an assassination that could not have happened without Kremlin approval and the most blatant in an endless series of killings and poisonings of opposition figures at home and abroad.
Banned from state-controlled media, Navalny campaigned against Kremlin corruption on YouTube, the Telegram messaging service, and other social media. His group put together astonishing videos revealing official corruption, including former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the head of Russia’s national guard, and other Kremlin favorites. The videos got millions of hits.
Banned from running in the last presidential election, or from forming a political party, Navalny was called a “fascist” and a “traitor” by Kremlin trolls. He was arrested, repeatedly jailed, and physically attacked.
But he never faltered, shifting his goal to convincing Russians that rigged elections didn’t mean their aspirations were fruitless. “We understood the basic decision of Putin is to be a lifetime president and die in the Kremlin like a tsar,” he told me.
“These rigged percentages are leverage to persuade people everything is fruitless, that resistance is impossible.” He tried to prove that wasn’t the case.
Was he afraid of being murdered, I asked. “Right now the cost is higher than they want,” he told me, adding with grim humor, “Maybe they are still saving this tool.”
So why would he Kremlin target him now?
Probably because Putin is getting nervous. Beset by low oil prices, and a stagnant economy, Russians in the boonies are getting restless.
Navalny had developed a “smart voting” system, urging dissatisfied Russians to vote for anyone but the Kremlin’s United Russia party, rather than split their vote amongst the several toothless opposition parties permitted to run.
“Navalny started building networks all across the country, trying to build support at the municipal, district, and regional level, building structures from the bottom up,” I was told by Yevgenia Albats, a leading Russian journalist and one of Russia’s few remaining independent commentators. “This has never been done before in Russia.”
The result could be seen in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, where “smart voting” elected a governor not from the Kremlin party who was responsive to local needs. Clearly this made Putin unhappy. When the governor was suddenly arrested, tens of thousands came to the streets, and demonstrations continue.
With local elections upcoming in Russia, and parliamentary elections next year, Putin may well have feared that Navalny’s “smart voting” would undermine Kremlin control of the country.
Add to that the demonstrations in Belarus, which borders Russia, where tens of thousands are protesting against an election rigged by Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. “Because Navalny is the only leader of the Russian opposition, they [the Kremlin] look at Minsk and see what Lukashenko did very successfully, totally eliminating leaders,” says Albats.
Navalny’s tea was apparently poisoned at an airport in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had been rallying independent candidates. This is a kind of Russia-wide campaigning to reach the average Ivan that no other critic has dared to do.
“Of course he will go home if he wakes up,” says Albats, “if the poison didn’t destroy his brain.”
But what should an American leader do? Albats notes that America’s all-important “soft power” lies in the “illusion that the American people really care about freedom and liberty. Do you really care about Navalny?” she asks.