Protests mark death of Russian opposition leader

Protests mark death of Russian opposition leader

Biden blames prison death of Alexei Navalny on ‘Putin and his thugs’

An image of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is projected on the Russian Embassy in London on Friday night. (Photo: Reuters)
An image of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is projected on the Russian Embassy in London on Friday night. (Photo: Reuters)

Hundreds of protesters, many of them Russian emigres, gathered in cities across Europe and beyond to express their outrage over the death of prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Gathering outside Russian embassies and consulates, they chanted slogans critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom they blamed for the activist’s death, holding up signs calling him a “killer” and demanding accountability.

In Moscow, police watched as some Russians came to lay roses and carnations at a monument to victims of Soviet repression in the shadow of the former KGB headquarters.

At least 177 people were detained at events in Russia on Friday and Saturday, according to the rights group OVD-Info. The hundreds of flowers and candles laid in Moscow on Friday were mostly taken away overnight in black bags.

Authorities in the Russian capital said they were aware of calls online “to take part in a mass rally in the centre of Moscow” and warned people against attending.

US President Joe Biden blamed Putin personally for the death and cited the case in pressing House Republicans to approve military aid to Ukraine in its war with Moscow.

Asked if Navalny had been assassinated, Biden said the United States did not have a full understanding of the circumstances. “The answer is, we don’t know exactly what happened, but there is no doubt that the death of Navalny was a consequence of something that Putin and his thugs did,” he replied.

Putin’s most formidable domestic opponent, Navalny fell unconscious and died on Friday after a walk at the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a three-decade sentence, prison authorities said.

Navalny’s mother and lawyer were told at the prison colony on Saturday that he had died of “sudden death syndrome”, Navalny ally Ivan Zhdanov said on X.

Navalny’s spokeswoman said on Saturday that his body was not in the morgue in Salekhard, the town near the prison colony where he died.

Kira Yarmysh said Navalny’s mother and lawyer had visited the morgue to find it closed. (Story continues below)

Police officers detain a woman during a gathering in memory of opposition leader Alexei Navalny near the Wall of Grief monument to victims of political repression in Moscow on Saturday. (Photo: Stringer via Reuters)

‘Putin to The Hague’

In Berlin, a crowd of 500 to 600 people, according to police estimates, gathered on Friday on Unter den Linden boulevard, chanting in a mixture of Russian, German and English.

Some chanted “Putin to the Hague”, referring to the international criminal court investigating possible war crimes committed in Ukraine.

Police used barriers to close off the road between the Russian embassy and the crowd.

“Alexei Navalny is the leader of the Russian opposition and we always kept hope in his name,” said a Russian man draped in a blue-and-white anti-war flag, giving his name only as Ilia.

In Lithuania, formerly run from Moscow but now a member of NATO and the European Union and home to a sizeable community of emigres, protesters placed flowers and candles by a portrait of Navalny.

“He was always with us, so it is all surreal,” said Lyusya Shtein, 26, a Pussy Riot activist who has lived in Vilnius since leaving Russia in 2022. “None of us yet understand what happened”.

In London, More than 100 protesters stood outside the Russian embassy, holding placards that called Putin a war criminal, while in Lisbon hundreds held a silent vigil. Pavel Elizarov, a 28-year-old Russian living in Portugal, said Navalny had been “a symbol of freedom and hope.”

Near the Russian embassy in Paris, where around 100 protesters gathered, Natalia Morozov said Navalny had also been a symbol of hope for her.

“It’s hard for me to express my emotions, because I’m really shaken”, said Morozov. “Now we no longer have hope for the beautiful Russia of the future”. (Story continues below)

Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, receives a standing ovation at the Munich Security Conference, where she learned that her husband had died in prison at age 47. (Photo: Reuters)

No obvious successor

Navalny’s death leaves the scattered groups that oppose Putin without a figurehead, and no obvious candidate to marshal any discontent over his demise into mass protests.

At a vigil outside the Russian consulate in New York City, Violetta Soboleva said she had volunteered for Navalny’s presidential campaign in 2017.

“I really believed that he’s the one and he can lead Russia to a better future,” said Soboleva, a Russian studying for her doctorate in New York. “And now we’ve lost this future forever.” 

Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, attending the Munich Security Conference in Germany, led calls on Friday for Putin to be held accountable.

Hundreds of politicians, military officers and diplomats were in the German city of Munich for the three-day annual conference dubbed the “Davos of Defence”.

Discussions were expected to be dominated by war in Israel and Ukraine as well as fears over US commitments to defence if former president Donald Trump is re-elected.

But participants were jolted by the reports coming out of Russia, and organisers rearranged the schedule on Friday to let Yulia Navalnaya speak.

“I thought for a long time if I should come out here or immediately fly to my children,” Navalnaya said, receiving a standing ovation as she came on stage.

“But then I thought what Alexei would do in my place. And I’m sure he would be here, he would be on this stage.”

Navalny had been by far the most prominent opposition leader in Russia since coming to international prominence during street protests in 2011. Some supporters had believed he would eventually walk free and become Russia’s leader.

The opposition is now in disarray as Putin prepares for an election in March which opposition groups call an “anointment” that will keep him in power until at least 2030.

Russian officials cast Navalny as a criminal and extremist who was a puppet of the CIA, which they say wants to sow chaos in an attempt to rip Russia apart and steal its vast resources.

Navalny earned admiration from Russia’s disparate opposition for voluntarily returning to Russia in 2021 from Germany, where he had been treated for what Western laboratory tests showed was an attempt to poison him with a nerve agent.

The Kremlin denied trying to kill him and said there was no evidence he was poisoned with a nerve agent.

“This death is about all of us,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre. “About an indifferent society. About a reckless cruelty. About the loss of hope.

“Now our supreme commander has no competition — he is now the Solus Rex, the lone king,” he said, referring to Putin.

A view shows the entrance to the IK-3 penal colony, where Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died on Friday, in the Yamal-Nenets Region of Russia about 1,900km northeast of Moscow. (Photo: Reuters)

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