Alexei Lavalny Alexei Lavalny. Source: Denis Mironov - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

States that clamp down on basic freedoms betray their true nature, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Days away from the second anniversary of Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, the Russian media reported that the country’s best-known opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, had died while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges at the remote penal colony at Kharp, north of the Arctic circle.

The widely reported version of his death in Russian media was that the 47-year-old went for a walk, felt unwell and quickly thereafter died. Some speculated about a blood clot. Like the charges against him which led to his arrest, the reported cause of death sounds like a sham.

Long a thorn in President Vladimir Putin’s side, Navalny had exposed corruption at the highest levels in Russia. Already in August 2020, he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent and flown to Germany for treatment. 

When he returned in January 2021, he was immediately imprisoned. He would never get out again. Even though he was a Russian nationalist, who said he would not return Crimea to Ukraine if he were in charge, Navalny opposed the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which probably condemned him to death.

Whether he was assassinated for political reasons, or died under the strain of an incredibly severe prison system, in which he is reported to have served more than 280 days in isolation, placed in solitary confinement at least 27 times, we probably will not know for some time.

Repression

But what has been increasingly obvious that the Kremlin was unprepared to tolerate dissent. Last week, a court barred Boris Nadezhdin, an anti-war challenger to Putin in the forthcoming presidential election, from running. This was on spurious grounds that several thousand signatures he had collected for his run were invalid, making him just short of the necessary 100,000.

Just a few days ago, too, a well-known socialist, anti-war campaigner, Boris Kagarlitsky, was jailed for over five years. He had already been arrested in July last year, but then released under domestic and international pressure, in December, although a court fined him and restricted his internet access for two years. But, on appeal, the court has now ruled that the previous judgement had been too lenient.

Under the weight of its war against Ukraine, and its proxy battle with the West, the Russian regime is becoming ever more repressive. Already one of the most unequal societies in the world, in which 500 of the richest people own two fifths of financial assets in the country, Russia sees opposition driven underground, while social protest is forced into unofficial and apolitical channels.

According to sociologist Pyotr Bizyukov, neoliberal legislation from the early 1990s has made it very difficult to go on strike in Russia, leading to officially very low strike statistics, even though unofficially many workplace protests occur: a record of 437 protests occurred in 2020. Almost three quarters of such labour protests occur without official trade union participation.

What the current situation in Russia is like is unclear, but polling towards the end of 2023 suggested that those satisfied with their living standards had fallen from 57 percent to 49 percent during that year, indicating that though the wartime Russian economy is growing, defying Western sanctions, people’s everyday lives are getting harder.

The Kremlin is clearly bent on snuffing out organised opposition in a fight to ensure that protests remain partial and never become a generalised, articulated opposition to the regime. The grim fate of oppositionists like Nadezhdin, Kagarlitsky and above all Navalny shows why the left in Russia has every interest in fighting to an end to the oppressive and undemocratic regime running the country and fighting war abroad.

Freedom

Socialists everywhere have a duty to fight against the limitation of democratic rights and for their expansion. This is why we should condemn the appalling attacks on freedom of speech, strike and assembly everywhere we find ourselves. 

Indeed, it has been nauseating to watch the hypocrisy of Western leaders, who have rounded on Putin’s regime after Navalny’s death, while literally simultaneously enabling the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians at the hands of Israel, which also holds nearly 7,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories in jail for alleged security offenses.

The US and UK, too, keep prisoners in conditions not unlike Navalny’s in Guantanamo Bay and Belmarsh Prison. The most egregious example is surely the appalling treatment of whistle-blower Julian Assange, who has been kept at Belmarsh since 2019. In May 2023, his wife Stella talked to the press about how the Wikileaks founder had endured 1502 days of brutal isolation in a small cell for ‘publishing the truth’ while fighting his potential extradition to the US.

Democratic rights to protest and strike are under attack across the advanced capitalist world, as we have witnessed in the UK in recent months with attempts to criminalise pro-Palestinian protest or to restrict further the right to strike. In this context, it may be apposite to remember the words of the great Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin: ‘without political freedom, all forms of worker representation will remain pitiful frauds; the proletariat will remain as before in prison, without the light, air, and space needed to conduct the struggle for its full liberation’.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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