Navalny proves too hot for ‘poisoner Putin’

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On Feb. 2, the Moscow City Court sentenced Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny to two years and eight months in jail. Noted for its “telephone justice” (verdict dictated by the Kremlin), the Moscow court’s sentence revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin has concluded that Navalny is too dangerous to remain free. By returning to Moscow after being poisoned and flown to Germany for treatment, Navalny declared he would continue his campaign for a democratic and clean Russia, irrespective of the consequences for him personally. In his statement to the court, Navalny declared that, however much Putin “pretends to be a great geo-politician, he’ll go down in history as a poisoner.”

Navalny has long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side with his disclosures of high-level corruption by Putin’s inner circle. The Kremlin’s non-stop anti-Navalny media campaign has described him as corrupt, a foreign agent, a bombastic Russia-hating poseur. Sham court proceedings disqualified him from political office. Putin carefully avoided speaking Navalny’s name, referring to him instead as “the blogger” or more recently the “Berlin patient.” As a result of this drum beat, Navalny scarcely registered on Russian approval and trust polls in the past, but no longer.

Four recent events elevated Navalny from a pesky irritation to a formidable opponent of the Kremlin, who must now be isolated.

The first is the attempted poisoning of Navalny on Aug. 20, widely covered by international press and Russian social media. This was followed by Navalny’s telephone-scamming of one of his poisoners into a confession, the recording of which went viral on social media. The Russian people now know that the Kremlin routinely uses political murder to get its way.

The second is Navalny’s return to Moscow on Jan. 17 from treatment in Berlin. The last-minute diversion of his flight and his immediate arrest upon arrival showed that the Kremlin considered Navalny too dangerous to return to the old cat-and-mouse status quo.

The third event is the release of “Putin’s Castle,” a video exposing a mammoth luxury castle complex on the Black Sea, purportedly costing more than $1 billion and, supposedly, a present from Putin’s billionaire circle. The most notable feature is the fact that the YouTube video attracted some 100 million viewers.

The fourth, and least noticed, event is the release of Navalny’s “Beautiful Russia of the Future” — namely his plan to convert Russia from Putin’s power vertical (Moscow rules everything) to a parliamentary democracy in which deputies represent the interests of their constituents. According to “Beautiful Russia,” Russian voters are fed up with Putin’s regional viceroys and can be expected to vote for candidates independent of Moscow.

We lack Russian public opinion polls subsequent to Navalny’s return and arrest, but post-poisoning polls showed that 80 percent of Russians knew about the failed attempt on his life. Some have no opinion who did it, but almost 40 percent think it was the Kremlin or associated oligarchs.

The Kremlin has its internal public opinion surveys, and those surely show that, with the public mood shifting in favor of Navalny, the Kremlin must move to actively deflect his charges. Thus began an organized campaign to discredit Navalny.

Putin’s favorite apologist, talk show host Dmitry Kiselev, in his News of the Week, devoted 40 minutes to characterizing the “Putin’s Castle” video as a fake and a Western diversion. Per Kiselev, Putin has enough castles for his use as the president of Russia. Besides that, if the macho Putin needs relaxation, it would not be at a fancy-schmantsy Black Sea castle, but riding horseback in the wilds, searching for underwater treasure, or decking a judo opponent. Notably, Kiselev referred to Navalny by name as the “blogger Navalny.”

Next in line came Putin-judo-partner and billionaire Arkady Rotenburg who decided to claim that Putin’s Castle belongs to him. It is not what you think, however. Instead, Rotenburg declared the castle a business-hotel complex — a purely commercial undertaking, despite its $1 billion cost.

As a supposed clincher, Putin himself denied all ties to the palace in a call with students on Russia’s “Student Day.” He declared the palace video a “compilation and montage” which he found “boring.”

“Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” Putin told students, adding that he had watched only bits because his pressing schedule did not give him time to watch all of it.

The Kremlin counterattack on Navalny reveals that he has penetrated Putin’s most vulnerable spots — the gathering storm in Russia’s deprived and ignored regions, the people’s weariness with pervasive corruption, the lack of a political voice, and the indifference of Moscow’s appointed viceroys.

Moreover, Navalny offers a “Beautiful Russia of the Future” that can be gained, starting in September, by voting against any parliamentary candidate who sides with the Kremlin.

These are significant victories.

The outcome is far from certain. It seems time for the Nobel committee to take note.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

Tags Aleksei Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation Opposition to Vladimir Putin in Russia Poisoning of Alexei Navalny Politics of Russia Russia Russian protests Vladimir Putin

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