Speak when Spoken to: Corruption and Free Speech in Putin’s Russia

The man who rose to international prominence by organizing anti-government demonstrations, and running for office to advocate political reforms against corruption in Russia, Alexi Navalny has been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin for quite some time. Active in Russian politics for some time with heavyweight attempts under his belt for running for the mayor of Moscow and his attempt to run in the 2008 presidential election, he is a stark reminder of the fight that is going on to highlight Vladimir Putin’s “party of crooks and thieves” where Navalny has showcased the United Russia ruling party of being involved in widespread corruption, embezzlement and political suppression. Being a staunch critic of Putin does not go without its dangers and ironically Navalny himself has been accused, charged and found guilty of embezzlement, a tactic used for the intention to bar him for any further attempts to run in any election and wildly criticized as an unscrupulous and blatant attempt at silencing the staunch critic. Navalny was also convicted of embezzlement from a state timber company in Kirov in 2013 but was still allowed to run for mayor of Moscow while appealing against the ruling.

Creating trumped-up charges to prevent an official opposition is one thing but taken to the extreme Putin and the Kremlin are also accused of carrying out the poisoning of Navalny on August 20th, 2020 while on a plane travelling from Tomsk to Moscow with a deadly nerve agent placed in tea that he had consumed some hours before the flight. Had it not been for a quick emergency landing and attentive crew he would have surely died. After being transported to Belin to receive emergency medical treatment where it was announced that Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, from the same family of nerve agents that were used to poison Sergei Skripal, another prominent critic of Putin. Navalny was subsequently flown to Germany where he was put under a medically induced coma, an investigation thus ensued where it was discovered that a special unit of the FSB, which specializes in chemical substances, had been tracking Navalny’s movement for over three years. It has been speculated that the reasoning for this came from Navalny’s announcement in 2018 that he would be running in the Russian federal election as well as his ongoing critiques of Putin and his allies.

On January 17th, 2021, Navalny returned to Russia from Germany and was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport for allegedly violating the terms of his probation from those past embezzlement charges by leaving the country and on February 2nd, his suspended sentence was replaced with a prison sentence, meaning he would spend over two and half years in a penal colony. Navalny described the procedure as “ultimate lawlessness” and called on his supporters to take to the streets.

While in jail, an investigation and release of the documentary “Putin’s Palace: History of the world’s largest bribe” was released by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) on January 19th. Navalny alleged that an expansive property near Gelendzhik, a town in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, was constructed for Russian President Vladimir Putin with illicit funds of $1.35 billion, provided by members of his inner circle and that Putin is the real owner of the palace.

The reaction to Navalny’s attempted political assassination, imprisonment, and release of the information related to the report and documentary, widespread anti-government protests erupted around major Russian cities where it was estimated up to 40,000 protesters gathered in Moscow alone. Reactions to these protests have had an international impact which Navalny wanted all along from the Russian ruble dropping in value against the dollar and euro, to state departments world wide condemning the actions of the Russian government such as German chancellor Angela Merkle stating “Those responsible must be identified and brought to justice” and the U.S state department releasing a statement in which they “strongly condemns the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia. Before today’s events, the Russian government sought to suppress the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression by harassing protest organizers, threatening social media platforms, and pre-emptively arresting potential participants. This follows years of tightening restrictions on and repressive actions against civil society, independent media, and the political opposition.”

What this means for the future of Navalny and the the rest of Russia is unsure, this is not the first or last time we will hear of these clandestine operations to silence any criticisms of Putin’s regime and with a referendum on a constitutional change held in July that would let Putin run for election after his term ends in 2024 it does not look like he will be leaving anytime soon. But that does not mean that the rest of the world should ignore the struggle that Mr. Navalny and the rest of the Russian population are feeling in trying to combat what feels like a resurgence of a dictatorship like Russia and help steer Russia towards the path of democracy.

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