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Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries
Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries

Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries


Russia has always maintained a special relationship with power, seen as a sort of collective father, loved even when he showed himself, as often happened, to be tough and cruel.

(Demetrio Volcic, italian Journalist, Author and Politician, December 6, 2015)

Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries, An Unpredictable Past
Protests against the arrest of Alexey Navalny, the sign reads “One for all, and all for one” Photograph by Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Welcome back to Unpredictablepast.com,

some time has passed since the last article, but, for this particular issue, which, as you can imagine, is very important for me, I decided to take the right time to reflect and elaborate the matter: the time of the news has had its moment (although the situation is constantly changing, but by now it has taken a direction) and it is perhaps time to move on to history, offering some reflections on what is happening in Russia, but not only there. I had already mentioned some of these reflections in relation to Belarus, but in this case we can take the opportunity to explore them better. In order to do this work in the best possible way, the essay will be divided into (at least) two parts.

The attempted murder of Alexey Navalny

I think it is good to start from where we left off: for those who have not done so, I invite you to read the articles on the state of the Russian Federation that I wrote some time ago. Meanwhile, one issue in particular has affected the Western media (submerged by the daily update on the pandemic situation and, for a certain period, on the problematic handover between the administration of Donald Trump and that of Joe Biden). I am obviously talking about the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and everything connected with it.

For those unfamiliar with him, Alexey Navalny is a Russian opposition leader, politician, lawyer, and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for office to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia, president Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s government. Navalny was a Russian Opposition Coordination Council member. He is the leader of the Russia of the Future party and the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) who have published investigations detailing alleged corruption by high-ranking Russian officials, leading to mass protests across the country. He has been arrested several times by Russian authorities, cases that are widely considered to be politically motivated and intended to bar him from running in future elections.

As for the question itself, I think enough has already been said and written: the excellent investigative work carried out by a joint investigation between Bellingcat, The Insider and the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of the prominent Russian opposition politician, and also that the operation that took place on August 2020 in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia.

After that, under international pressure, Russian authorities allow Navalny to leave the country to be transported to the Charité Berlin hospital, where, having spent three weeks in an induced coma, he finally woke up in mid-September. Already on September 2nd, German authorities released Navalny’s test results. A toxicological examination, carried out by the Bundeswehr specialized laboratory, found unequivocal proof of the presence in his body of traces of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. The conclusions of the German specialists were subsequently confirmed by certified laboratories of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), as well as by independent experts in Sweden and France. Almost immediately calls for new sanctions against Russia were made in the US and the EU, even before the investigation into the poisoning had even begun.

Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries, An Unpredictable Past
A man holds a placard with an image of Navalny during the rally in support of the Russian opposition leader, in St. Petersburg. Alexander Galperin / Sputnik via AP

Needless to say, such an investigation never begun, nor in Germany or Russia, as the Investigative Committee proposed by Navalny’s colleagues to initiate it “on the basis of encroachment on the life of a public figure committed for the purpose of terminating such activity, or out of revenge for such activity and attempted murder” did not find sufficient grounds to satisfy this request, since Russian doctors had not found any poison in Navalny’s test results, there was no legal basis for an investigation.

Despite this, it is obvious that Vladimir Putin had to respond in some way to the accusations made against government agencies and his administration. He did it during the annual end-of-year news conference, with one of his typical catchphrases: “Who needs to poison him”, he said “If they’d wanted to [poison him] then they probably would have finished the job” and addressing Bellingcat as “the legalisation of the materials of American intelligence agencies“.

The modus operandi that contemplate the attempted murder of men linked to the Russian administration or hostile to it through the use of chemical agents is not new in the history of the country: the most recent case chronologically is that of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, the most famous one is certainly that of former FSB agent Alexandr Litvinienko, for whom a radioactive isotope, Polonium 210, was even used. Especially from the “Litvinienko Case” on, this mode of murder has entered mass culture to such an extent that the association is almost immediate to everyone.

At this point, a question arises, which may seem a bit cynical, but which must be asked: why try to kill someone using a method so recognizable and immediately associated with the FSB or other Russian security apparatuses? Other personalities much more “uncomfortable” (pass me the term) of Navalny were shot and killed, later finding a convenient culprit, with never clear motives: Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Natalia Estemirova in 2009 and above all Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Why not do the same? Why a nerve agent that says “Made in Russia” in capital letters? Moreover, it is natural to ask oneself something else, taking up the words of Putin himself: why not finish the job?

Over the years and my studies, I have learned several things about the way that Russian power has to move: the first is that it has a malleable propaganda and is able to adhere to and control almost any situation, the second is that it has been a logn time that Moscow have renounced any ambitions of enter the forum of the “western” countries, well aware that they are well-disposed to turn a blind eye to many things, as long as the raw materials flow into the veins of the Old Continent. When Anna Politkovskaya was killed, for example, there were no great outbursts, and the only European politician who went to her funeral was Marco Pannella, then head of the Italian Radical Party and at the time a member of the European Parliament: he said that she “she had opened our eyes “, while instead all of us had already turned the look away, and the Kremlin knows this very well.

So why this time doing such a seemingly clumsy and ineffective job. True, it could be argued that the idea was to send a “signal”, to make pro-Navalny activists feel a sense of looming threat. It should also not be forgotten how Russia lives with this type of “symbols”, which closely resemble the Soviet period and which each time try to portray the Russian Federation as an entity worthy of the USSR’s heritage, a “collective father,” loved even when he showed himself, as often happened, to be “tough and cruel “. But, then, why let Navalny go and give him the opportunity to get away with it (even if by a nose, as stated by Ilya Yashin), and then return to Russia with a renewal aura of martyrdom? Especially an opponent who, among other things, although popular in the West, in Russia does not enjoy such a large following as to be actually dangerous.

Certainly, as we will see better in the next article, the regime immediately began a media offensive against Navalny and against “foreign interferece”, which also cost it the loss of a very important geopolitical partner, namely that “special relationship” that the Russian Federation had held up to that moment with Germany (remember that the issue of the joint production of anti-Covid vaccines is still at stake). As I have repeatedly reiterated when talking about the Russian power system, it never moves randomly, so why does it seem to have voluntarily exposed itself in this way this time?

Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries, An Unpredictable Past
Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel during a meeting in Moscow. FILE PHOTO

Is it possible that we are faced with something darker and more complex?

As we have seen, the granite appearance that Russian power tends to show is only a facade, underneath which all kinds of economic and political interest groups move. Was this assassination attempt a settling of scores? And, if so, between whom? Between Vladimir Putin and those who would like to see a change at the top? Among the high ranks of the “silovki” fighting to curry favor with the President or other members of his circle?

After all, the only one who found himself in a “Catch 22” situation was the President himself, in the aforementioned conference at the end of the year he found himself having to choose between which truth to admit: that actually the order to kill his political opponent had started with him, or much worse, that his grip on the state apparatus is slowly crumbling, and this was only one of the effects, the most visible. Recently, messages have been circulating about a possible “illness” of Vladimir Putin (during the Soviet period, “illness” was another way of saying “inadequacy”, and generally heralded the fall of the current CPSU secretary) and about political movements that should lead to a change of leadership, while remaining within the framework of “Putinism”, whether this is true or not (the sources are not always what one might call “safe”), something is happening behind the curtains.

But we will discuss this better in the second part, in which we will consider the most current events, that is, starting from Alexey Navaly’s decision to return to Russia and everything that followed. For now I leave you to reflect on these questions that I hope have aroused your curiosity.

Thanks for coming this far and if you want to share thoughts, opinions or insights, feel free to contact me.

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  1. Pingback: Who’s The Enemy at the Gates? | An Unpredictable Past

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