Novichok

Nicolae Odagiu

 

“On a scale from one to ten, how would you grade the poisoning operation?” This was one of Alexei Navalny’s questions to Konstantin Kudryavtsev, one of the FSB agents allegedly involved in his assassination attempt. 

A later investigation by Bellingcat, an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and journalists that use open-source data and media in their investigations, confirmed that the FSB poisoned Navalny. Interestingly enough, this is not the first time when the Russian special forces fail during their operations. In 2018 Colonel Skripal, former Soviet/ Russian double agent for UK’s special forces was poisoned with a Novichok agent along with his daughter in Salisbury. They survived after a doctor and a nurse spotted them unconscious near a shopping center. In that case, it was also Bellingcat who confirmed that the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok. This was the first time when the nerve agent came into the public eye, creating an international controversy as Putin declared earlier in 2017 that Russia had destroyed the last remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. Furthermore, Russia was supposed to destroy all of its stockpiles by 2012 under an international agreement signed with the US, the Chemical Weapons Convention.

 

“This was the first time when the nerve agent came into the public eye, creating an international controversy as Putin declared earlier in 2017 that Russia had destroyed the last remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons.”

In an interview for The Insider, Vladimir Uglev, one of the creators of Novichok agents, believed that in the case of Navalny, the chemical was applied to his underwear. The Kremlin decided to neglect the examination results performed at Charité and chose not to investigate the case. Navalny, however, together with Bellingcat, exposed the entire operation, lapièce de résistance being the phone call between Kudryavtsev and Navalny, during which the FSB agent confirmed the entire operation and the fact that the poison was applied to Navalny’s blue trunks.

WHO IS NAVALNY?

Alexey Navalny is a prominent political activist considered to be the leading voice of the Russian opposition. He is widely known for his thorough investigations over the corruption schemes that stay at the basis of Putin’s oppressive regime. In 2018, he launched the project “Smart Voting”, aiming to deprive United Russia of winning elections by promoting the most potent political opponents on local and regional levels. The same year, Navalny announced his candidacy for the presidential elections; however, the electoral commission rejected his submission. In response, Navalny boycotted the elections, calling them a show-off, a fabrication of a democratic process.

 Since then, he has continued his political campaign by harshly criticizing the authorities and the Kremlin’s dictatorial intentions, one of the latest being the amendment of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Some of the controversial changes were the “supremacy of Russian law” over international law and the extension of presidential limits, that now would permit Putin to be constitutionally re-elected until 2036. These changes had to be implemented through a national referendum. According to the official results, almost 79% of voters supported the changes to the Constitution. However, during the voting process, hundreds of irregularities had been reported in electoral sections in the entire country. Despite this, the Central Electoral Commission stated that they did not receive any complaints worth investigating.

 

“the extension of presidential limits, that now would permit Putin to be constitutionally re-elected until 2036.” 

FUN FACT: the booklet with the changed terminology in the Constitution appeared in bookshops long before the actual referendum.

RUSSIA TODAY

On the 13th of January 2021, Navalny announced his homecoming later that week. He continuously mentioned that there was no other option for him, he had to return home. Before the take-off, in suspense of whatever was expecting them, Navalny posted a video on his Instagram, where he and his wife recreated an iconic scene from the 90s movie Brat 2, the moment when the protagonists Bodrov and Dasha fly back home: Мальчик, водочки нам принеси! Мы домой летим. On arrival, Navalny was greeted by a large crowd of supporters and the OMON, which arrested him almost immediately. He was transported to a police department, where a judge ordered a 30-day detention until a review of his parole conditions from the Yves Rocher case was carried out. In that case Navalny was given a 3.5 year probation sentence, which recently expired. The case was filed to the European Court of Human Rights, which condemned Russia for detaining Navalny for ten months, depriving the activist of his rights of liberty and expression, and urged Russia to pay him almost 23.000 euros, which it eventually paid. The case was reopened today as a pretext for ostracizing Navalny for the upcoming years. 

Was it even legal to organize the court session in a police station, that concluded with Navalny’s remand in Matrosskaya Tishina (Матросская тишина / Seaman’s Silence). Besides this, people noticed a symbolical detail in the online videos with the process. Hanging on the wall, behind the judge, there was a portrait Genrikh Yagoda, former director of the Soviet NKVD until 1937, the first years of the GULAG camps. In 37 Yagoda was arrested and shot one year later.

In response to his trial, Navalny’s team posted a video concerning Putin’s ultimate corruption schemes and his Gelendzhik palace worth billions of rubles. Besides exposing exclusive information about Putin’s entire career and personal life, Navalny creates a psychological portrait of who exactly is Putin, the people surrounding him, and why there is an urgent need for a change. He called people to go on streets to regain control over their country. Whatever the outcome, Ekaterina Shulman stated for TV Rain that Navalny’s homecoming would remain a memorable event in the Russian Federation’s history. It created disturbances in the political arena as well as in society.

What is next for Navalny? Many argue that after the 30-day remand, he will be sentenced for three years in prison for the Yves Roches case. There are also theories that he might be prosecuted in a second case regarding his latest investigations, accusing him of fraud and defamation of the Russian authorities. These decisions are strategical as it would limit Navalny’s access to the 2021 parliamentary elections in the State Duma and the presidential ones in 2024. 

Navalny indeed had a great impact on Russian politics in the last decade of his activity. It can be viewed through the series of laws introduced each year that impose more and more restrictions regarding the freedom of expression. Besides this are also the ways in which the Kremlin further retaliates with the rhetoric of the cold war – endlessly blaming ‘foreign agents’ for infiltrating into the internal state affairs aiming to destabilize the regime.’

 The main enemy of the regime is not Navalny, but the system itself. It has reached a point of no return, and it may be heading towards a dead-end. An entire generation has grown under Putin’s regime, a regime that has a tendency to tighten. The pressure continues to rise, but there will be a moment when it will collapse and Putin has stated this himself days before starting his first presidential term: “Всем кажется, что, если навести твёрдый порядок жёсткой рукой, то всем нам станет лучше, комфортнее и безопаснее. На самом деле эта комфортность очень быстро пройдёт, потому что эта жёсткая рука начнет нас очень быстро душить / It seems to all of us that if, I don’t deny that this my view at times, that if strict order is enforced by a strong hand then we will all start to live better, more comfortably and in greater security. In fact, this “comfort” passes very quickly because this strong hand starts very quickly to strangle us.

 

First published Online, January 2021. Volume 16, Issue 2. Image: The Economist