Navalny’s death marks Putin path to unchecked power

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Navalny’s death marks Putin path to unchecked power

Sunday, 25 February 2024 | Makhan Saikia

Navalny’s death marks Putin path to unchecked power

As Russia's defiance of Western norms continues, engaging with Putin remains crucial. However, Navalny's death highlights the need for accountability and space for Opposition voices within the regime

Aleksei A Navalny, the fiery Russian Opposition leader and critic of President Vladimir Putin, passed away last week. He was regarded as Putin’s most significant political opponent to date and had sparked protests from the heart of Moscow to many other parts of the world.

His death appears to be shrouded in mystery, according to various media sources. However, the Yamal Directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service, where he was detained, issued an official statement regarding his sudden demise. It reads, “On February 16, 2024, in Penal Colony no. 3, the convict Alexei Navalny felt unwell after a walk, almost immediately losing consciousness, according to representatives of the department. Medical personnel from the institution arrived promptly, and an ambulance crew was called. All necessary resuscitation measures were carried out, but unfortunately, the steps did not yield positive results. The emergency medical team pronounced the convict dead. The cause of death is being investigated.”

Navalny died, leaving behind a legacy of resistance. It is worth knowing about the horrific prison he was kept in.

Michel Foucault, the great French philosopher, in his famous work titled “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” (Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison in French, published in 1975) strongly condemns the modern prison system. He argues that prison did not become the principal form of punishment solely because of the humanitarian concerns of the reformists. Probably, he is right; otherwise, the criminal justice system could have taken an ugly turn by now. Due to the continued fight of reformists, human rights activists, liberals, and many legal experts who advocated for alternative ways of punishment, capital punishment has become less prevalent. However, Putin’s Russia still maintains a century-old prison system located in the deep Arctic Circle. And this was where Navalny spent the last days of his life.

Commonly known as the “Polar Wolf,” Penal Colony 3 (IK-3) or FKU-IK3 was established in the 1960s. It is located in the town of Kharp in the Province of Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. It serves as a maximum-security corrective colony for men in Russia, although there are nearly 700 such prisons across the country.

Initially established as part of the Gulag System of forced labour camps, it was built by Gulag prisoners during the notorious Stalin Era. Situated about 1900 km northeast of Moscow and about 60 km north of the Arctic Circle, the town of Kharp experiences hardly any difference between night and day, as it is mostly covered by snow year round. Navalny wrote in one of his posts on X, “When I look out of the window, I can see a night, then the evening, and then the night again.” This was a real hell where convicts were subjected to mental and physical torment, and Navalny too became a victim of the system last week.

Navalny was first jailed in 2021 for 11 and a half years on fraud and other charges. In 2023, another term of 19 years was added to the previous ones for various offences, including funding extremism. The first known attempt by state agents to kill Navalny was in 2020 when he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, which was smeared inside his underwear, but he survived after receiving prompt medical treatment in Germany. Less than a year later, he flew back to Moscow to defy Putin, fully aware that he would soon be jailed. During his trial in 2021, he boldly said in the courtroom, “I have morally offended him (Putin) by surviving. He will enter history as a poisoner. We had Yaroslav the Wise and Alexander the Liberator. And now we will have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.” He fearlessly spoke out about all the plans Putin made to kill him but stood his ground and did not flee Russia.

As an individual, Navalny never embraced tragedies, and he was a fan of “Star Wars”. While in prison in 2021, he wrote, “Prison (exists) in one’s mind. And if you think carefully, I am not in prison, but on a space voyage… to a wonderful new world.”

At 47, when he passed away, he remained hopeful that one day Russia would witness a land of freedom. But alas! The dissident and born activist Navalny could not see and experience the light of that day. On the way to that blissful voyage, he departed from this world.

The saddest part of this tragedy is that so far Navalny’s body has not been handed over to his family. His mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, who immediately travelled to the remote IK-3 penal colony after his death, was barred from seeing his body.

Investigators gave Lyudmila three hours to agree to forgo a public funeral or else they will bury him immediately on prison grounds.

Meanwhile, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who vowed to continue the struggle against Putin, alleged that her husband might have been killed with a Novichok-style nerve agent. According to her, the authorities are delaying the release of the body because they want all traces of the poison to disappear. But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov completely rejects Yulia’s allegations.

Repression is at its peak in Russia as Putin prepares for the presidential election next month. He is virtually assured of winning the election as there is absolutely no Opposition in Russia today. He has been intensifying his efforts, either through his secret agents or by using state forces, since the beginning of his regime to eliminate almost all of his political rivals.

Putin has been in power since 1999. He became President in 2000 and has remained in the Kremlin ever since, firmly holding onto power by eliminating all of his rivals. He aims to restore Russia’s past glory in the face of the vast expansion and encirclement of the NATO-led West around his country.

The traditional inclination to highlight the uniqueness of Russia stems from the moral and spiritual background of the “Russian Idea”.

Thus, there has always been a debate within Russia about whether it should align with the West or with the East. However, with Putin, it is well-established that today’s Russia stands in opposition to the West (which is also strongly opposed to Russia) and aligns with the rest. In this prolonged and challenging journey, he has been striving to convey to Russians and the rest of the world the importance of his continued hold on power.

With the death of Navalny, Putin’s game plan has become clear to the world. He is not only seeking to maintain his rule but also to assert Russia’s glory against the West in the 21st century.

Moreover, the bloody war with neighbouring Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has put Putin and his system in crisis. This war has inflicted significant damage on him. The longer it persists, the more casualties and losses of resources he will incur in the days ahead. However, his objective is straightforward — “the capitulation of Ukraine”. He aims to restore the Russian Empire and its vast influence over Eurasia.

So, 21st-century Russia under Putin is entangled in myths and faces challenges from within and outside. It can be best described with the prophetic words of Fyodor Tyutchev, a 19th-century poet: “With the mind alone Russia cannot be understood,

No ordinary yardstick spans her greatness:

She stands alone, unique,

In Russia, one can only believe.”

It is evident that Russia, somehow beyond the rational understanding of a commoner, can no longer accept the geopolitical realities and global governance systems constructed by the West. Thus, the struggle continues between Russia and the West. However, it is better for the US and the rest of the West to engage with Putin.

While his vision of a new, powerful, and aggressive Russia may persist, Putin should provide a meaningful platform for opposition voices to point out the flaws in the regime. Whether natural or unnatural, Navalny’s death paints a grim picture of Putin.

(The writer is a Senior Faculty at the Department of Political Science in the School of Liberal Education, Galgotias University, Greater Noida.)

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