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As Russia rots, what way will Putin’s kleptocrats turn now?

TRAPPED: Russian opposition Alexei Navalny appears in court in Moscow - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Alexei Navalny has done his bit, but only the president’s corrupt inner circle have the power to topple him.

“I mortally offended him by surviving an attempt on my life that he ordered. That’s driving this thieving little man in his bunker out of his mind. Murder is the only way he knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner.” So said Alexei Navalny from behind the defendant’s cage as he was about to be jailed for several years for having had the temerity not to die.

“We all remember Aleksandr the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Well, now we’ll have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants,” Navalny added, before throwing a wry smile at his wife Yulia and tracing a heart shape on the glass wall separating him from the rest of the courtroom.

And so, another miserable chapter in Russian history began. Putin has entered the third decade of his rule; thanks to an ostentatiously-conjured constitutional change, he will be allowed to serve two more seven-year teams, taking him to 2036. He will try to stay for as long as he can, because he has nowhere else to go. He lives in his own cage, a gilded one. Thanks to Covid, very few people get to see him now. And when they do, guests are required to walk through a disinfection tunnel at his official residence in which they are showered with aerosol. Non-poisoning, one assumes.

Putin relies on the siloviki, the security apparatus, to keep him in power and to keep his people in check. He relies on the oligarchs to make him ever wealthier. They must refrain from dissent, but in return they are allowed to squirrel the spoils. It is the ultimate kleptocracy, but for those at the top, it works. That is why it is so impenetrable.

Navalny has become a political celebrity, a world-famous prisoner of conscience. He has been compared to Lenin and Trotsky, for his courage in coming out of exile to take on a regime. With her icy blonde, dark glasses and extraordinary cool under pressure, his wife Yulia is likened to Grace Kelly. “I am not afraid, and I urge you all not to be afraid either,” she told crowds at a recent protest march. A little later she filmed the front door of her apartment being kicked in by masked paramilitary police as they took her away, not for the first time.

To the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny is a CIA operative. What they cannot do is bring themselves to mention him by name. The paradox is that, if it hadn’t been for the attempt on his life – via Novichok smeared on his underwear – the opposition would have remained in the doldrums. It had been struggling for some time to make headway. Navalny had been subjected to repeated court cases; his brother had been arbitrarily thrown in prison. His wife had been followed and harassed. The family’s bank accounts had been frozen, something their son discovered when he tried to use his debit card to buy a pizza.

Then, last August, in one of his many more-in-hope-than-expectation campaigning trips to the Russian hinterland, Navalny fell violently ill on a flight from Tomsk back to Moscow. As the passenger screamed in agony, the pilot made an emergency landing in the nearby city Omsk. He was rushed to hospital. The German government persuaded the Russians to allow them to take him out for treatment. Putin agreed, assuming that Navalny would die on the long journey.

Thanks to extraordinary smart treatment, initially by Russian paramedics and then by German doctors, he survived. When asked later about the events, Putin stated with his characteristic disdain that his security services wouldn’t make mistakes like that; the “patient in Berlin” must have contracted something else. Putin appeared to forget that his military intelligence, the GRU, had similarly tried and failed to kill the former agent, Sergei Skripal, a few years earlier in Salisbury.

Poisoning is the Kremlin’s tool of choice, from cafes in Piccadilly (the successful murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006) to Siberian hotel rooms. Shootings take place too; the leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge close to Red Square in 2015. But for Putin’s security henchmen there is something temptingly symbolic about poison. It sends two messages – nobody is safe, and the perpetrators are happy to advertise their deeds.

The security services have tried to kill Navalny before; he lost much of the sight in his right eye after being sprayed with a green substance in 2017. It seems they tried to take out Yulia too. She fell ill with a mysterious disease while on holiday in the enclave of Kaliningrad a year ago.

The GRU and the FSB, the successor to the KGB, are not that fussed when their attempts fail. Intimidation and impunity are what matter. Which is why the Navalny case is so intriguing. Unlike others who have tried opposition politics – the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (in London after a long spell in jail) and the chess ex-grandmaster Garry Kasparov (in the United States), Navalny has refused to go into exile.

He knew that he would almost certainly be jailed. In the weeks before his public homecoming from Berlin, he issued a series of videos. In one, he impersonated an FSB official on the phone, luring a technical operative to spill the beans about the plot to spray his boxers with chemicals in Tomsk.

Navalny employed his trademark mix of intrepid journalism and acerbic wit. His main YouTube channel, Navalny LIVE, has millions of subscribers. Over the years his vlogs, blogs and films have contained funny memes and memorable lines. He repeats over and again: Putin’s party, United Russia, is “the party of crooks and thieves”. His tone is mocking, not righteous. It resonates, particularly among the young.

His piece de resistance, broadcast shortly before he returned to Russia, was a two-hour film about Putin’s palace in the resort of Gelendzhik, on the Black Sea coast. The detail – a mix of footage shot from a drone and computer-generated visualisations – was spellbinding: an estate 30 times the size of Monaco; 700 acres of vineyards, a helipad, a succession of Versailles-style reception rooms and not one, but two, acqua-discos. Nobody quite knows what they are for, but that didn’t stop various Russian rappers and vloggers from producing their own takes. Navalny broke another taboo, talking about two of Putin’s girlfriends, Svetlana Krivonogikh and the gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, and the property deals he said had been secured for them, and their mothers.

The film has been seen by 100 million people worldwide, including an estimated 70 million Russians – pretty much the entire adult population. Yet what is startling is that, according to a poll conducted shortly after, only 17% of respondents said that their opinion of Putin had fallen as a result of watching the video, while 77% said it hadn’t made a difference. There are two of looking at that: either nothing will shake their belief in him, or their opinion of him was extremely low to begin with. Either way that speaks to either complacency, apathy or despair.

Putin knows that the international community will go through the motions of more sanctions and other measures, but he is blithely indifferent. His targeted repression is working, in terms of keeping him in power.

Yet unlike other authoritarian regimes, such as China, he is failing to keep to his side of the bargain – delivering prosperity. Living standards among the poor and the middle class are falling, in full sight of a sliver of elite who are lining their pockets.

Navalny is likely to stay in prison for a long time. Other charges will be levelled against him and the courts will convict on instruction. Staying alive in jail will be an achievement in itself. His team will produce some media moments; more rallies will be held, but it will be hard to maintain the momentum of the past few months. Thanks to the internet, Russia’s young are more active, angry and knowledgeable than before, but there seems little they can do.

The only conceivable means of removing Putin might come from within his circle, from people who watch in frustration as Russia atrophies. Any coordinated action would be perilously dangerous. In any case, the only people with the means to move against him are those who have benefited the most from him and the most to fear from losing him. The kleptocracy has time and power on its side.

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