According to Reuters, Russian authorities blocked access to Alexei Navalny’s website on Monday, July 26th, 2021, in the run-up to a Russian parliamentary election. This is the Kremlin’s most recent effort to sideline political dissidents portrayed by Putin’s government as “US-backed trouble-makers.” This strategy, part of an ongoing crackdown on Navalny and his supporters, also included the blocking of websites belonging to 48 other individuals and organizations with ties to Navalny’s opposition movement. According to Russian Internet regulator Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin blocked navalny.com, one of the movement’s most prominent hubs, at the request of the prosecutor general.
Alexei Navalny is an activist who has been working diligently for over 10 years to expose Putin and the Kremlin for their corruption and malfeasance. Navalny’s opposition platform is centered around creating slick videos, mobilizing the public, and openly challenging Putin. Having returned to Russia on August 20th, 2020, Navalny was arrested upon arrival for alleged and heavily disputed parole violations regarding a 2014 embezzlement conviction. Navalny has successfully united thousands of Russians to his anti-Putin platform in order to challenge the legitimacy and efficacy of Putin’s presidency. This recent internet purge reveals the frustration and concern the Kremlin has with Navalny and his allies.
Navalny’s present-day appeal can largely be attributed to his platform shift following Russian annexation of Crimea. According to Vox, this maneuver helped boost Putin’s image, since the majority of Russians approved of the invasion. Putin’s record approval ratings became instrumental in helping him navigate the economic turmoil Russia was facing. Navalny realized that it was difficult to garner support for his anti-Putin platform when most Russians were satisfied with their leader. Navalny began to tailor his movement to appeal to a broader Russian audience. He centered his platform around the core principle of anti-corruption instead of focusing on the hardline Islamophobia and nationalism that was favored by ethnic Russians. Nevertheless, it turned out to be extremely challenging for Navalny to promote his cause since the Kremlin had such a permeating influence on Russian media. As an alternative, Navalny began to harness the power of social media to promote his political campaign, developing the second core element of his movement. George Washington University’s Maria Snegovaya points out, “He [Navalny] saw the political utility of YouTube before other opposition leaders.” Navalny’s growing influence and presence on social media allowed him to form the third core element of his strategy: the creation of a national network of opposition politicians. Rather than campaigning in large cities like Moscow, Navalny opened offices around the country to provide support for local politicians striving to defeat candidates belonging to Putin’s United Russia party. Navalny and his team helped dissidents defeat Putin’s supporters in Russian regional elections by providing candidates with financial and strategic support.
However, last month a Russian court ruled that organizations associated with Navalny were “extremist.” Moscow’s top prosecutor accused Navalny and his supporters of attempting to incite a revolution by striving to destabilize Russia’s current sociopolitical environment. This ruling resulted in Navalny’s allies being excluded from the September election to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Navalny’s team condemned this action on social media and stated that they expected the authorities would soon target their “smart voting website” which guides citizens on how to vote strategically in order to unseat members of the United Russia party. “(They) have simply decided to purge from the Russian Internet,” tweeted Navalny’s associate Maria Pevchikh. Navalny further claimed that his resources on YouTube, in which he exposes alleged corruption among Russia’s elite, were under pressure as well.
Navalny’s arrest in January, along with the alleged poisoning he received from a nerve agent, has led to heightened tensions between Russia and the West; the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have all called for Navalny’s release. In particular, the Biden administration reiterated its support for both Navalny’s release and broader liberation of those detained for protesting Navalny’s arrest. The Biden administration’s condemnation of Navalny’s arrest could further tarnish already strained US-Russia relations. According to Foreign Policy, Russia’s relations with the United States since the Cold War reached their lowest point in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, marking its first significant land acquisition in Europe since World War II. US-Russia relations have continued to erode following allegations of election interference, cyberattacks, and US withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty. Russia’s treatment of Navalny is likely to advance this trend. President Joe Biden has stated that the potential death of Alexei Navalny would negatively impact Russian relations with not just the United States, but with the rest of the world. According to the RAND Corporation, some foreign affairs experts state that the US “must deal with Russia as it is.” RAND affirms that while this argument is logical in reference to negotiating arms accords, it is not sufficient when dealing with humanitarian issues. Western nations have frequently condemned instances of human rights abuses; in 1977, President Carter sent a letter to Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov wherein he accused Russia of carrying out a “campaign of oppression” against human rights activists. If we take lessons from history, the US and Russia will continue to butt heads over such issues.
It will be difficult for Navalny to find direct political support from the West without being perceived as a foreign puppet. According to Prospect, Putin has unchallengeable support from the Russian security apparatus and armed forces. Yet, these circumstances should not discourage Western powers. A strategic, non-combative counter to Putin’s regime could be achieved through Western amplification of Navalny’s platform. By increasing access to the information that led to Navalny’s widespread appeal, Western governments could divert attention to Russia’s rampant political and economic corruption and effectively challenge Putin’s regime. It is also imperative that foreign governments continue to impose sanctions not just on Russia, but on specific individuals who were involved in Navalny’s poisoning. Prospect states that putting the emphasis on “the personal responsibilities of individuals” makes garnering support for Navalny’s cause easier than applying broad measures. The OWP will continue to monitor the situation closely.
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