The Irish Times view on Alexei Navalny: death of a dissident

The Putin regime has been heavily criticised for its treatment of Navalny and the EU and US have both said that they hold the Russian government responsible for his death

When Vladimir Putin’s most important domestic critic, Alexei Navalny (47), bravely returned home in January 2021 after treatment in Germany for poisoning, allegedly by the FSB security service, few thought that his now-international celebrity would protect him from a regime which clearly had him in their sights.

And sure enough, within months he was jailed, first in the Vladimir region and then dispatched to the Yamalo-Nenets region’s “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony, facing 19 years of imprisonment on extremism and fraud charges. Supporters denounced it as a set-up, political retribution for leading the anti-Kremlin opposition of the 2010s. He faced repeated bouts of solitary confinement but resolutely kept in touch with supporters, criticising the regime through his lawyers. In a video from the prison as recently as Thursday he had appeared gaunt, with his head shaved.

While the cause of death remains unknown, the Putin regime’s record of assassinating its opponents, both at home and abroad, has been extensively documented. It is certainly in the frame for its treatment of Navalny and the EU and US have both said that they hold the Russian government responsible. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, told leading western politicians at the Munich Security Conference that Putin’s friends and his government would be held to account for their actions.

A charismatic right-wing nationalist whose xenophobic views have troubled liberals, Navalny was a tireless campaigner against electoral fraud and state corruption and faced imprisonment on multiple occasions. His Anti-Corruption Foundation, forced into exile, operates out of Lithuania. In 2013 he won 27 per cent of the vote in a Moscow mayoral contest that few believed was free or fair. More recently he put together an online major expose of Vladimir Putin’s secret wealth, identifying among other things a massive Black Sea palace built for his personal use.

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That Putin will be re-elected as Russia’s president next month in a sham contest is not in doubt.