Putin critic in coma after tea is poisoned

Silenced: Alexei Navalny was heading home to his family from Siberia when he fell ill. © AP

Could there be another Russian revolution? Some say Alexei Navalny is a martyr whose fate will spark a mass uprising against Vladimir Putin. Others say the president will crush all dissent.

Yesterday morning, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny grabbed a cup of tea at the airport, posed for photos with fans, and then boarded a plane to Moscow. But soon, he was howling in agony and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing.

By the time he reached hospital, he was already unconscious. He is now in a coma on a ventilator in intensive care. According to his spokesperson, there is no doubt that he was “poisoned with something mixed into his tea”. An air ambulance has begun its journey from Germany to take him to Berlin for specialist treatment.

Many opponents of the Russian government have been poisoned since President Putin came to power in 2000, but the attack on Navalny may be the most significant. Analysts say he was the biggest threat to Putin: a genuinely popular figurehead of a grassroots revolt. The president rarely even mentions his name.

But who is Navalny? The lawyer-turned-campaigner rose to prominence in 2008 with a blog investigating corruption within Russia’s political elite. Banned from national media, he gained a massive audience online, where he branded the government a “party of crooks and thieves” who were “sucking the blood out of Russia”.

The Kremlin hit back, declaring his Anti-Corruption Foundation a foreign agent and investigating him for embezzlement. He has been arrested and jailed several times, but he has refused to back down. Disqualified from running for president, he stood for election as mayor of Moscow in 2013 and won 27% of the vote.

That was a surprising result in a country where opposition candidates struggle to be heard. Navalny has gained a following among the young, urban middle class, who like the way he mocks the elite. Campaigning in Siberia this week, he said, “These crooks won’t kick themselves out of office.”

But will the people remove Putin? In a referendum in June, they voted overwhelmingly to change the rules to allow him to serve until 2036. Navalny described the vote as a “coup” and there were widespread reports of electoral fraud.

Research shows Putin’s popularity has fallen to a historic low and a majority want an age cap of 70 on running for president. Putin is 68. Meanwhile, there is growing anger over the government’s handling of Covid-19 and large anti-Kremlin protests in Russia’s far east. Political analyst Kirill Rogov says Russia is “now at a crossroads”.

The country has a long history of uprisings overhauling the status quo. The 1917 Russian revolution brought down the tsar and mass protest reversed a military coup in 1991. But so far under Putin, all attempts to change the government have failed.

Some believe 2020 is different and the mood has changed. The poisoning of the most prominent face of opposition may be the moment Russians decide they have had enough.

But will there be another Russian revolution?

Last straw

No. Putin is a survivor and has 20 years of experience at holding on to power. Even if Navalny’s poisoning sparks protests, the Kremlin is skilled at controlling the narrative, cracking down on dissent and distracting the public. Putin feared Navalny whilst he was attacking the government, but he will worry less now Navalny is in a coma.

Yes. Navalny’s poisoning is a tipping point. He was a charismatic critic of Putin’s government and he will be seen as a martyr by his supporters. His remarks often divide opinion, but – as a victim – he will unite the opposition. The worsening economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic only make another revolution more likely.

You Decide

  1. Would you risk your life for something you believe in?
  2. Can peaceful protest remove a government from power?

Activities

  1. Design a campaign poster for a cause you feel passionate about.
  2. Research the causes of the 1917 Russian revolution. Then write a page comparing the situation in Russia then to the present day.

Some People Say...

“You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price.”

Alexander Litvinenko (1962-2006), former Russian secret service officer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Putin has been very successful at staying in power and preventing the emergence of organised opposition. He has achieved this by dominating the political stage, controlling the mainstream media, and preventing critics from voicing opposition. Many activists have been imprisoned or have fled the country; others have died in suspicious circumstances.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is the extent of opposition to Putin. Opinion polls are very unreliable in Russia, where people are wary of criticising the government. Some argue that opposition is divided between liberal and conservative factions and is focused around local issues, with little appetite for revolution. Others argue there is strong opposition to Putin in the key cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. Historically, revolt in these two cities has led to national change.

Word Watch

Alexei Navalny
This is the third time he has been attacked. Last year, he had an acute allergic reaction to an unknown chemical whilst in jail. And, in 2017, a green dye thrown at his face left him with partial blindness in one eye.
Poisoned
Tea laced with poison is suspected to have killed Putin’s former bodyguard Roman Tsepov in 2004, and been behind an attempted assassination of the journalist Anna Politkovskayat. The most notorious poisoned drink was the green tea sipped by Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. It contained radioactive polonium, and the vehement critic of Putin died three weeks later.
His name
Putin refuses to mention Alexei Navalny by name in order to delegitimise him and to lessen his political power. Writers compare his treatment of Navalny to Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort.
Massive audience
One of his documentaries accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption was viewed more than 30 million times in two months.
The Kremlin
The official residence of the president of the Russian Federation, the Kremlin is used as a metonym for the government, in the same way as the White House and Downing Street refer to the US and UK governments.
Foreign agent
Russia’s list of foreign agents includes many charities and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and is meant to prevent what the government views as foreign interference or espionage.
Embezzlement
Navalny has twice received suspended sentences for the theft of funds. He denied the accusations and his convictions sparked large-scale protests.
Referendum
In a revealing move, online influencers refused to support Putin, saying that it would damage their reputation to be associated with him.
Electoral fraud
Independent election observers reported an “unprecedented” level of fraud whilst people claimed they had been offered prizes if they voted.
Far east
Residents of the city of Khabarovsk, on the Chinese border, have been staging weekly demonstrations against the government in Moscow in some of the largest protests Russia has seen for years.

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