For the Kremlin, Aleksei Navalny Is a Threat It Cannot Speak Of

MOSCOW — A professional-Kremlin propaganda movie posted on-line earlier than Russia’s 2018 presidential election smeared Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition chief now mendacity comatose in a German hospital after a poisoning assault, as the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.

A former prime minister, the goal of Mr. Navalny’s most vivid exposé of corruption, denounced him as a “political con man.”

For President Vladimir V. Putin, nonetheless, the anticorruption campaigner looms like Lord Voldemort, a determine from nightmares who, like Harry Potter’s archenemy, “should not be named.”

Throughout greater than 20 years in energy, Mr. Putin has by no means publicly uttered the identify of his most high-profile opponent, in keeping with archives of his speeches and interviews on the Kremlin’s web site. When he did say his identify after prodding from an American interlocutor throughout a non-public occasion in 2013, it grew to become a nationwide information story.

Apart from references to Mr. Navalny included in official transcripts of reports conferences, the Kremlin web site deigned to make use of his identify solely final week — and thus acknowledge that Mr. Putin’s most relentless critic really exists.

“There’s a bizarre taboo. It is sacral, mystical,” stated Dmitri Belousov, a former scriptwriter for state tv who for years penned character assassinations of the Kremlin’s foes. Fearing arrest over previous non-public curiosity in anarchism, Mr. Belousov fled Russia final 12 months and is presently in search of political asylum in the Netherlands.

He stated the targets of his tv hit jobs — ordered up by officers in the Kremlin and produced with compromising surveillance footage offered by the safety providers — included Moscow’s former mayor, as soon as seen as a attainable rival to Mr. Putin, and the self-exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but it was Mr. Navalny who drew the most vicious fire.

“They really hate Navalny,” Mr. Belousov said, because “what he has done is completely out of their control. The Kremlin fights against any force that it cannot control, any opinion that it does not control. This is their guiding strategy.”

Another source of their anger, he said, was that the security services, despite years of hunting, could never find any compromising material on him.

“Of course, if Comrade Navalny gives his soul to God, then personally I do not intend to persecute him in this world,” Mr. Prigozhin added.

Even unconscious, Mr. Navalny has managed to needle the Kremlin and its allies. His organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, released a video on Monday that featured footage of Mr. Navalny denouncing corrupt pro-Kremlin politicians throughout a current journey to the Siberian metropolis of Novosibirsk. He named 18 native legislators who he stated had suspiciously intimate ties to a development business infamous for corruption.

On his flight again to Moscow from Siberia on Aug 20, Mr. Navalny fell violently ailing and would in all probability have died had the pilot not made a swift emergency touchdown in the metropolis of Omsk, the place he was hospitalized for 2 days earlier than being flown to Berlin for therapy.

German medical doctors say Mr. Navalny was poisoned. Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, dismissed this judgment as “empty noise,” and stated Russia noticed no motive to open an investigation into what had occurred to “the affected person,” a new moniker that just lately joined “the gentleman,” “the particular person you talked about,” “the defendant” and different phrases that the Kremlin makes use of to keep away from mentioning Mr. Navalny’s identify.

The timing of the poisoning, following mass protests in neighboring Belarus over a disputed presidential election and weeks of road demonstrations in Russia’s Far East, has generated a swirl of hypothesis. Why, after so many assaults over the years on Mr. Navalny’s character and, in no less than two cases, his particular person, did the threats out of the blue escalate to what appears to have been tried homicide?

One well-liked principle is that the Kremlin, spooked by the protests to the west in Belarus and to the east in Khabarovsk, wished Mr. Navalny out of the strategy to stop him from mobilizing discontent nearer to Mr. Putin and upsetting his plans for parliamentary elections subsequent 12 months.

An alternate principle, nonetheless, is that Mr. Navalny’s poisoning pointed to not the energy of a ruthlessly environment friendly system of repression however to the weak spot of a system whose response to potential threats has turn into so degraded that the state not features as a single unit however fairly as a jumble of rival clans and freelance enforcers with grudges, like Mr. Prigozhin.

“Each component of the system acts in keeping with its personal logic, not in the pursuits of the system as a entire,” stated Tatiana Stanovaya, the founding father of a political evaluation agency, R.Politika, and writer of a recent article calling the poisoning the “act of a sickly regime.” “Poisoning isn’t the best method of coping with an opponent. It is complete idiocy.”

Including to the confusion is the indisputable fact that, in contrast to the victims of a number of different baroquely horrific poisoning instances linked to Russia, Mr. Navalny has by no means been categorized as a traitor, an enemy class that Mr. Putin holds specifically contempt and that he has stated deserves no mercy.

Aleksandr V. Litvinenko, who died in a London hospital in 2006 after being poisoned with a uncommon radioactive isotope, was a former intelligence officer who broke with the Kremlin. Sergei V. Skripal, who was attacked in Salisbury, England, in 2018 with a nerve agent, was a turncoat former spy.

However the border between treachery in service of a international energy and home opposition has grown more and more blurred of late. “All home politics at the moment are seen as a reflection of international threats,” stated Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and a former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council who was ousted from the physique final 12 months in a purge of independent-minded members. “This notion isn’t fully new, however has reached unprecedented dimensions lately.”

She added: “The view that the whole lot in the world is a battleground between nice powers is the perception and faith of Russia’s ruling elite at the second.”

Whereas a lot of the world recoiled at video footage of riot police officers in Belarus violently beating protesters, Mr. Putin last week commended the police for their “restraint” against people whom Russian state television routinely describes as Western stooges or worse.

But at least some of the numerous attacks on Mr. Putin’s opponents over the years seem to have caused surprise and even shock in the Kremlin.

One of these was the 2015 killing of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and prominent Kremlin critic, in the heart of Moscow. Investigators said a hit man and four accomplices from Chechnya had carried out the killing, but they never established, at least for public consumption, who ordered it.

The most likely culprit, many believe, was the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Kremlin ally who has nonetheless enraged parts of the security apparatus by repeatedly taking the law into his own hands.

Mr. Putin and others in Russia’s ruling elite don’t so much fear Mr. Navalny, Ms. Stanovaya said, as despise him as a disruptive interloper.

“They are like residents of a luxury residential neighborhood who want to get rid of a tramp who starts sleeping next to their beautiful fountain,” she said. “Navalny is not part of their world, and they want him gone.”

Ms. Stanovaya added that Russia’s ruling elite — particularly former K.G.B. officers like Mr. Putin and many of his close advisers — see the opposition leader “as an instrument” used by Russia’s foreign enemies, “not as a rival or even a person.”

“Our country is run by the logic of the K.G.B.,” she said.

During the presidential election campaign in 2018 — a race from which Mr. Navalny was barred — a candidate who was allowed to run, Mr. Putin’s goddaughter Ksenia Sobchak, asked the president why “being an opposition activist in Russia means that you will either be killed or imprisoned” and whether this indicated that “the government is afraid of fair competition.”

Mr. Putin replied: “I assure you, the authorities are not afraid of anyone and have never been afraid of anyone.” He was re-elected to a fourth term with 77 percent of the vote.

The landslide victory was preceded by an all-out offensive on Mr. Navalny in state-controlled outlets and social media. This included a crudely defamatory video, posted anonymously on YouTube, with the title “Hitler 1945 /Navalny 2018” — WE CAN REPEAT THAT!”

The video, which featured doctored photographs of Mr. Navalny carrying swastika armbands, was broadly shared, setting off a torrent of mockery from Mr. Navalny’s followers and applause from his enemies.

The Kremlin, broadly suspected of getting commissioned the movie, claimed that Mr. Navalny produced the video himself.

That Mr. Navalny has impressed such vividly unbelievable theories over the years is a measure of his success not solely in getting underneath the pores and skin of Russia’s governing elite however in messing with its head, stated Mark Galeotti, an skilled on the Russian safety providers.

His movies exposing the lavish existence and obvious corruption of the pro-Kremlin elite, Mr. Galeotti stated, have attracted big viewership not solely amongst rebellious youths and liberal intellectuals but in addition amongst members of the elite, who fear that a few of Mr. Navalny’s data was leaked by rival factions inside the management and that they could possibly be subsequent.

“No one evokes such hostility and concern as Navalny,” stated Nikolai Petrov, a senior analysis fellow at Chatham Home in London and an skilled on Kremlin decision-making. This, he added, means there’s a very lengthy listing of potential enemies who may need him lifeless, or least incapacitated.

However, he added, Mr. Navalny is such a high-profile goal that nobody with a private grudge would transfer towards him with out no less than the tacit assent of Mr. Putin.

“It is like the mafia: Nothing could be achieved with out the approval and assure of impunity of the boss,” he stated. “I’m not saying Putin gave a direct order to poison him, however no one can act except they’re certain that the boss will probably be completely happy and gained’t punish them.”

Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.

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