Today may be a day that in fact frightens Putin most directly. From Vladivostok to Moscow, thousands of Russians protested Navalny’s poisoning by a nerve agent apparently only in the hands or Russian autorities, his subsequent arrest by Putin’s police and against the notorious corruption of his regime. Police have arrested hundreds.
They are events that will be watched around the world. Will it be enough?
At his confirmation hearing at the US Senate last week, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken, mused that it is “extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man,” referring to Russian dissident and opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
It was hard to say whether Blinken meant that Russia’s president is so super-strong he can’t be challenged by any single, however determined, person, or whether Navalny, who survived a nerve agent poisoning ordered by Putin, is simply too insignificant to bust Putin’s iron rule.
Well, Blinken’s been around—he served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and as a deputy Secretary of State under President Barack Obama—and he’s surely familiar with how sensitive dictators are about rivals big and small and any kind of criticism.
Take Putin ally, China’s President-for-life Xi Jinping. Xi’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, a city of 7 million people, shows how fearful a leader of even a police state country of 1.4 billion can be.
He has purged any conceivable political rival, suppressed bad news about the coronavirus outbreak, limited information on all media and, recently, put internet commerce magnate Jack Ma on ice for the sin of having accused authorities of stifling innovation.
No slight or criticism is too small to provoke Xi’s ire. A couple of years ago, Xi banned images if Winnie the Pooh from the internet because some jokesters compared the plump character’s looks to his.
The fact is, despite the current craze in the US that says democracies are fragile, it is repressive regimes that are fragile, at least in the eyes of their leaders. Navalny’s saga is a case in point.
Last August, German medics rousted him out of Russia, ran tests on him in a hospital as he was in a coma and discovered he had been poisoned by a nerve agent known as Novichok. Novichok is apparently the assassination mechanism of choice of Putin’s henchmen. It has been used in assassination attempts on Putin adversaries as early as 1995 in both Mosocw and the United Kingdom.
Navalny was banned from running for president in 2018 elections and has faced numerous trumped up court cases against him in hopes that he would be silenced, or like many Putin opponents, flee into exile. Novichok was presumably an option that expressed frustration with the persistently courageous Navalny.
Navalny’s anti-Putin tactics center on highlighting corruption in and around the Kremlin. He has chronicled Putin’s rise to power, eased by the help of cronies in both the KGB, where Putin once worked as an agent, and in the nefarious world of Russian business. Last week, Navalny released a two-hour video that highlighted a bombastic example of Putinesque corruption: the construction of a huge, Italianate palace on the Black Sea funded by both tax payers and bribes from business people in private and state-owned companies. The palace belongs to Putin, Navalny asserts.
The palace is huge and designed in the style of mansions constructed from the 18th Century on in St. Petersburg, Putin’s home town. Many of those buildings were designed by Italians and so is Putin’s Palace. Moreover, hugely expensive gilded furniture, fashioned by two Italian elite producers, populates the place.
There’ s casino inside and a lounge featuring what appears to be a pole to, er, support for exotic dancers. The extensive grounds include vineyards, a church, a large greenhouse, a tea pavilion, two helipads and, according to Navalny, an underground hockey rink.
On YouTube, the Putin Palace documentary has garnered 58,000 views.
Navalny returned to Moscow from Berlin on Jan. 18 and was promptly thrown in jail. He called for protests to take place today. Supporters have been detained and others warned against attending the protests.
Navalny sent out a message from jail on Instagram urging his supporters to turn out and obliquely warning that his jailers may try to stage his death as a suicide or accident. “Just in case: I don’t plan to either hang myself on the window or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon,” he said. “I use the staircase very carefully [and] they take my pressure every day so a sudden heart attack is ruled out.”
Moscow Times’ running coverage of protests: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/01/22/as-its-happening-thousands-rally-for-navalnys-release-across-russia-a72705
Navalny’s palace documentary in full: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAnwilMncI&feature=emb_title
Hey, Putin doesn’t fear Navalny: https://tass.com/politics/1246487