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Why Vladimir Putin Is Still Afraid to Say Alexei Navalny’s Name

Russia’s dictator lives in fear. He knows the Russian people don’t support him. He can’t even muster a street rally without bribes or threats. No number of fake elections will change that.

By Vladimir Milov

March 2024

Vladimir Putin lives in fear. He knows that the Russian people would never choose him if they had a free choice, so he holds fake elections, hoping to disguise his weakness. It is the same fear that prevented him from saying Alexei Navalny’s name, even as Navalny crusaded against Putin’s corruption and led rallies of thousands. Why does Putin fear Navalny so much that he still cannot mention his name, even after he had him killed in prison? The answer goes well beyond personal animosities and reveals Putin’s deep anxiety toward his own people.

Just compare the style of the two politicians. Putin probably has not seen a real Russian in about fifteen years; he usually meets with special-services agents dressed up as everyday people and carefully selected loyalists to avoid unpleasant questions about the reality of Russian life. Navalny, during his multiple political campaigns and regional tours, in contrast showed deep affection for meeting ordinary people and even answering unpleasant questions. In fact, he took delight in the latter, seeing it as an opportunity to convince people with his arguments through lively conversation. There’s nothing more effective in disproving propaganda than meeting people face-to-face. Unlike Putin, Navalny was an open, fearless politician.

He also loved Russia, the opposite of Putin. Navalny lived for many years in a regular Soviet-era residential building on the outskirts of Moscow, and he deeply understood and loved that ordinary hard-working panel-house Russia. He knew the people’s dreams and aspirations to build a better, normal, peaceful country, ruled by an accountable government that listens to its people. He always told me: “In a lot of ways, I’m doing all this for myself. I’m one of these people. I understand what kind of responsible, fair, transparent system of government they want, because that’s what I want, too.”

Russian people felt it. When Navalny traveled across the country during his presidential-campaign tour in 2017, he gathered enormous crowds in provincial capitals such as Murmansk and Orenburg, crowds that exceeded numbers ever seen in these cities before. He managed to create a YouTube-based television series where humorous treatment of serious subjects earned millions of viewers weekly. The people’s affection for Navalny was obvious after his death. Despite the personal risk of showing support for a dictator’s chief opponent, crowds showed up at Navalny’s funeral. He had managed to convince many ordinary Russians that a fair, transparent, democratic Russia is possible. And it was clear, in return, that Russia loved him back.

That’s everything Putin isn’t. Russians don’t love him — and he knows it. Opinion polls that dare to scratch the surface of Putin’s “popularity” — be it the Levada Center or Russian Field — show that once Russians are asked if they would vote for a candidate who might truly reflect their aspirations and ideals, Putin loses half his support. Putin has never managed to assemble a major street rally that wasn’t staged by convening people through bribes or intimidation.

Putin’s deep distrust in people defines his actions. He chose Ukraine as an enemy and target for subjugation after brave Ukrainians rejected the Russia-led efforts to install a puppet president in Kyiv in 2004. Putin’s failed attempt to subjugate Ukraine during the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 made him lose his mind completely. It wasn’t just about Ukraine: He deeply feared that the flame of popular revolution demanding freedom and rejecting a junta installed through fraudulent “elections” would spread to Russia. He saw that danger as an existential threat.

And he had reasons to fear it. Russian democrats were encouraged by the success of Ukrainian freedom fighters. Putin was never able to amass anything even remotely on par with the 2014 Peace Marches in Moscow against Russian aggression in Ukraine, when tens of thousands of Russians marched through the streets of Russian cities carrying Ukrainian flags. Putin murdered my friend Boris Nemtsov, the organizer of those marches. He was a charismatic leader of the democratic coalition that aimed to take on Putin in the 2016 parliamentary elections. But the banner was picked up by Alexei Navalny, who announced his presidential candidacy in December 2016. That was the moment when, according to the team of international investigators led by Christo Grozev, Putin’s murder squad began to follow Navalny, aiming to poison him with the Novichok nerve agent.

Navalny was poisoned in August 2020, but it was already too late. His campaign had already rattled Russia, giving people hope that an alternative to Putinism existed, right around the corner. It was a hope that we can be normal, we can be peaceful, we can be free — it’s all possible, it’s not a distant dream. Besides, many Russians said, “I just shook the hand of a man who came to my city specifically to talk to ordinary folks like me about making this happen.” It’s no coincidence that Navalny’s last campaign appearances before his poisoning in 2020 happened not in Moscow, but in the Siberian cities of Novosibirsk and Tomsk.

That’s the contrast, which can’t be any clearer. Navalny understood and loved his country, and, with this understanding and affection, had faith in its future. And the country — at least the part of Russian society that thinks and cares about its future — loved him back. Putin loves no one, and deeply despises and fears the Russian people. When he visits Russian cities, people are told to stay home and stay put. Unlike Navalny, he has nothing to say about Russia’s future. He is only capable of bizarre rants about insane interpretations of Russia’s past.

But Russians do have an interest in their future. They understand that Putinism has nothing to offer them. You saw a glimpse of that normal Russia in the faces of the people attending Navalny’s funeral — people representing different ages, genders, regions, social strata, all united by the universal ideals of freedom, peace, rule of law, and accountability. Simple ideals, but they are the hallmark of any prosperous country. Dictatorship? Russia has tried this many times, and they each ended in bitter failure and catastrophe. Under Putin, we’re swiftly sliding toward another one.

Luckily, Navalny helped to create a movement that will survive his death, and will be capable of building a normal, peaceful, and democratic Russia. This movement is neither a party, structure, nor a steering committee. This movement is the Russian people. Russians understand that normal politicians who care about their country, not just themselves, exist. That there are millions who support democracy and can make it happen, despite the repression and fear. If you think about it in historical terms, Putinism doesn’t stand a chance. Putin still has a lot of money and hard power, but he has no love for Russia and no faith in Russia. And that’s why he always feared Navalny. It’s also why he will lose to Navalny, even after Alexei’s death.

Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician and longtime ally of Alexei Navalny, is vice-president of the Free Russia Foundation.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images




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