MOSCOW — An assassination attempt made Aleksei Navalny into a globally recognized dissident, a Russian opposition leader who courted Chancellor Angela Merkel from his hospital bed and collaborated with leading Western news outlets in investigating the near-fatal poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
But the man who for more than a decade has challenged President Vladimir Putin and deftly exposed corruption among officials, earning widespread support in Russia and sparking repeated waves of anti-government protests, has also faced criticism in the country and abroad for nationalist comments that he has repeatedly declined to disavow.
On February 23, the prominent NGO Amnesty International withdrew Navalny from its list of “prisoners of conscience,” a designation reserved for people imprisoned for who they are or what they believe. Amnesty said Navalny, who is in prison on what he and his supporters call trumped-up charges aimed at silencing him, fell short of its criteria because of past statements the rights watchdog perceived as reaching the “threshold of advocacy of hatred.”
Amnesty’s recent probe into Navalny, who has come under scrutiny for his association with Russian nationalists and statements seen as racist and xenophobic, was prompted by a wave of complaints that appeared part of “a coordinated campaign” to discredit him after he was named a “prisoner of conscience” in January.
One anonymous Amnesty employee told Russian media that a Twitter thread about Navalny by U.S.-based translator Katya Kazbek, which lists examples of objectionable comments made by Navalny, was cited by a wave of e-mails sent to the organization. (Kazbek, whose real name is Yekaterina Dubovitskaya, told RFE/RL she has “never been knowingly in touch with anyone connected to Amnesty International.”)
Amnesty maintains that Navalny’s persecution is politically motivated and says its recent decision “does not change our resolve to fight for his immediate release.” But its decision, influenced by strict classification criteria, prompted widespread criticism and shined a spotlight on the Kremlin critic’s supposed beliefs.
Much of the attention focuses on Navalny’s unabashed endorsement of nationalist causes in the late 2000s, including his appearances at the Russian March, an annual event that gathers ultranationalists of all stripes in Moscow but has dwindled in size in recent years.
In response, the liberal Yabloko party expelled Navalny from its ranks, but under the banner of a new group called the National Russian Liberation Movement in 2007 he released YouTube videos describing himself as a “certified nationalist” and advancing thinly veiled xenophobia.
In one clip, Navalny is shown in a dentist’s outfit as footage of migrants in Moscow is interspersed with his references to harmful tooth cavities. “I recommend full sanitization,” he says. “Everything in our way should be carefully but decisively be removed through deportation.”
In subsequent years Navalny publicly softened his tone but continued promoting conservative immigration policies, campaigning to introduce a visa regime with Central Asia, a major source of labor migrants to Russia, ahead of the 2018 presidential election from which the Kremlin ultimately barred him. He also railed against “Islamism” in posts to his blog as late as 2015.
Navalny has repeatedly stated in interviews that he doesn’t regret his past comments or videos, and suggested that an ability to engage both liberals and nationalists is part of his strength as a politician.
In the 2000s, a loose alliance with ethnonationalism was seen by some Russian opposition figures marginalized by an increasingly centralized system as a way to get a foothold in politics and ultimately create a unified movement to challenge Putin, who has also referred to himself as a nationalist and has played on nostalgia for the Soviet Union. In 2011 and 2012, for example, a huge wave of protests against Putin’s rule saw active involvement among nationalists.
Navalny hinted at this idea in an interview with Polish journalist Adam Michnik that formed part of a co-authored book released in Russian with the title Mikhnik. Navalny. Dialogues in 2015.
“The basis of my approach is that you have to communicate with nationalists and educate them,” Navalny said. “I think it’s very important to explain to them that the problem of illegal immigration is not solved by beating up migrants but by other, democratic means: a return to competitive elections that would help us to get rid of the crooks and thieves getting rich off of illegal immigration.”
More recently, Navalny’s political activism appears to have undergone a leftward shift, with the anti-corruption crusader championing new trade unions and promising to help Russia’s workers secure higher salaries after years of falling real wages.
“I see no contradiction in promoting trade unions while at the same time demanding a visa requirement for migrants from Central Asia,” he told the news magazine Der Spiegel as he recovered in Germany after being poisoned in Siberia in August last year.
Pro-Kremlin media have for years seized on Navalny’s nationalist past, and ratcheted up a campaign to discredit him and his allies ahead of protests he instigated after his January 17 arrest upon arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport from Berlin. On February 2, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating parole conditions while recuperating abroad.
State TV has sought to discredit him as a neo-Nazi, and comparisons with Hitler have been shown to university students during lectures and broadcast on government channels. The majority of such claims have exaggerated Navalny’s stance or twisted episodes of his past to besmirch his name.
But his opponents have been given ample fodder. Navalny’s controversial videos and statements are still easily accessible online, including the 2007 clips.
Employees of his Anti-Corruption Foundation in Moscow did not immediately respond to a request to comment for this article.
But Leonid Volkov, who heads Navalny’s network of regional political offices in Russia, told The New Yorker earlier this month that Navalny continues to advocate dialogue with Russia’s nationalists, and while he regrets the 2007 video about deporting migrants he hasn’t deleted it from YouTube “because it’s a historical fact.”
The ultimate aim for Navalny, Volkov suggested, is for opposition to Putin in Russia to achieve critical mass.
“He believes that if you don’t talk to the kind of people who attend these marches, they will all become skinheads,” Volkov said. “But, if you talk to them, you may be able to convince them that their real enemy is Putin.”