RIGA, Latvia — Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is being tried on “extremism” charges in a case that could add decades to his sentence, sat in a courtroom following this weekend’s Wagner mercenary rebellion. He stared, thunderstruck, at news images of the crisis that his lawyers showed him.
As the rebels sped toward Moscow on Saturday and Prigozhin released audio messages declaring that he and his men were “ready to die,” and would shoot any forces resisting them, Navalny was in a grim prison colony with no access, he said, to the news either on radio or television or even from other inmates
“I can’t see other people, and when I do I’m not allowed to talk to them,” Navalny wrote in a thread that his team posted on Twitter.
So he had no idea that Putin was grappling with his greatest crisis since he took power in 1999 — the kind of upheaval that Navalny had long predicted was the only way a change would occur in Russia’s government, rather than through elections.
When his lawyers told him about the crisis, he wrote: “I thought it was some kind of new joke or internet meme that hadn’t reached me yet.”
“Instead the prosecutor came in and we continued the trial in which I stand accused of forming an organization to overthrow President Putin by violent means,” he wrote.
Navalny, already serving more than 11 years in prison, faces a lengthy term in the new trial, in which he is charged with setting up an extremist organization — his Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) — which for years has exposed the corruption that riddles the Russian state.
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In the trial, which is being held in secret, he faces other charges, including “rehabilitating Nazi ideology.”
“While listening to these accusations, I looked at the photo of a roadblock with a grenade launcher in Moscow’s Yasenevo district,” Navalny wrote, referring to sandbag barriers that were hastily built on the outskirts of the capital Saturday.
“While listening to how the ACF are extremists who are dangerous for the country, I read about how one group of Russian troops ‘took positions on the Oka River’ to defend themselves against another group of Russian troops.”
Russia last year banned the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Navalny’s political network as extremist, setting the stage for today’s trial.
One of the foundation’s most notable investigations, Putin’s Palace, in 2021 drew 127 million views, alleging corruption by the president. The Kremlin denied the report. It was released two days after Navalny was arrested in 2021 when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he recovered from poisoning with a banned chemical nerve agent. The State Department said the attack was carried out by the Russian state. The Kremlin denied that allegation as well.
In the deal with Prigozhin, Putin agreed to drop insurgency charges against Prigozhin, the Wagner leader, if he moved to Belarus and took along any Wagner fighters who did not want to either sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense or go home.
On Tuesday, Putin admitted for the first time that Wagner was “fully state-funded,” after years of keeping the private army, which is technically illegal in Russia, at arm’s length. Putin said Prigozhin and Wagner were paid about $2 billion in a year.
As Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on, Putin has cracked down mercilessly on critics of his government and opponents of the war.
Another prominent opposition politician and Washington Post contributor, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was convicted of treason in a closed trial in April and sentenced to 25 years in prison, for opposing the war and speaking about Russian massacres of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha. Other opposition figures have received terms of more than seven years.
Navalny blamed Putin for the Wagner crisis, saying he was to blame for allowing the mercenary group to flourish and to recruit convicted criminals from prison to fight in Ukraine, saying, “It is dictators and usurpation of power that lead to mess, weak government and chaos.”
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Navalny said it was not the Russian opposition, the Anti-Corruption Foundation or the West who shot down helicopters and brought the nation to the brink of civil war, adding that Prigozhin also threatened Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“It was Putin personally who did this, I remind you that he personally pardoned all those convicts who were on their way to assassinate Shoigu and whoever else they wanted to kill,” Navalny wrote, referring to Wagner’s recruitment of prisoners, who were pardoned by Putin if they survived six months of fighting.
“The fact that Putin’s war could ruin and disintegrate Russia is no longer a dramatic exclamation,” he wrote. “It is not democracy, human rights and parliamentarianism that make the regime weak and lead to turmoil.”
Navalny has been placed in punishment cells 15 times for minor offenses, such as undoing the top button of his prison uniform or washing his hands at the wrong time. As his health deteriorated and he lost weight, his team expressed fears that authorities were trying to break him or kill him.
He has been denied access even to pen and paper, but the Russian Supreme Court last week rejected his appeal to be given these items as a basic human right.
“I’m not asking for extra food, I’m not asking for a Christmas tree to be put in my cell,” Navalny told the court in that appeal last week, according to Russian independent news outlet Mediazona. “We’re talking about the basic human right to have a pen in the cell and a sheet of paper to write a letter or to the court.”