The Irish Times view on Alexei Navalny: a vital voice
The opposition figure’s persecution will encourage those who believe the foundations of the Putin regime are not as robust as it might claim
Alexei Navalny is ignored by Russian state media, but the internet has given him wide reach and allowed him to tap into widespread discontent over living standards and the failures of a remote, autocratic government. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/ AFP via Getty Images
Vladimir Putin feigns indifference towards Alexei Navalny, but his regime’s actions show just how rattled it is by the charismatic 44-year-old who has emerged as the Russian president’s chief critic and de facto leader of the opposition.
Navalny, who has been blocked from standing for election but leads a network of activists who have been performing unexpectedly well in local elections, survived an assassination attempt by state actors in Siberia in August, his life saved only by a pilot’s decision to divert his plane and by German medics who treated him for poisoning by Novichok – a banned chemical weapon. Last month Navalny humiliated the Putin regime by releasing a recording of a phone call in which an FSB agent admitted taking part in the assassination attempt.
Navalny could be forgiven for wishing never to return home. But in an act of extraordinary courage, he flew back to Moscow on Sunday in the full knowledge that he was likely to be arrested by the very regime that tried to kill him. And so it transpired: on landing in Moscow, his flight having been diverted to a different airport so that he could not be greeted by supporters, he was detained for breaching the terms of a previous suspended sentence on charges that the European Court of Human Rights says are trumped up.
Navalny is ignored by Russian state media, but the internet has given him wide reach and allowed him to tap into widespread discontent over living standards and the failures of a remote, autocratic government. Now Moscow’s heavy-handedness – a mixture of cruelty and farce – will further amplify both his voice and his cause while likely turning him into an international hero. His persecution will also encourage those who believe the foundations of the Putin regime are not as robust as it might claim.
For the European Union and the United States, the time for ritual condemnation has long passed. They must demand Navalny’s release, but they must also show themselves willing to use economic sanctions if those demands fall on deaf ears.