Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Putin’s alleged $1.7 billion palace spark outrage across the nation
Two-week demonstrations continue in Russia in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. With over 10,000 arrests since Jan. 23, the Russian nation is in the midst of a major battle against the Kremlin and its corruption.
Almost 40,000 protesters took to the streets of Moscow on Jan. 23 after Navalny got detained as soon as he returned to Russia earlier that week. He was arriving from Germany, where he had been recovering from serious poisoning which took place last year on Aug. 20 — an alleged assassination attempt from Vladimir Putin’s government.
From Siberia to St. Petersburg, Russians held mass protests across the entire country in solidarity with Navalny. The most recent pro-Navalny rally took place on Tuesday, when a Moscow court sentenced the opposition leader to over 2.5 years in prison for breaking parole conditions during his recovery in Berlin.
“I’ve offended [Putin] so deeply by the fact that I have survived,” said Navalny to the prosecutor. Since the Kremlin’s critic miraculously survived a chemical attack by a nerve agent (which was reportedly planted in his underwear), Navalny believes that Putin’s only choice was to push for his imprisonment.
The protesters calling for Navalny’s release have been met with brutal resistance from Russia’s specialist riot police over the past two weeks. Peaceful demonstrators suffered from electric shocks, were beaten with batons, kicked in the stomach, and dragged into crowded police buses.
Navalny’s wife and brother have already been arrested since the protests began. While there have been no casualties, the press also fell victim to police brutality with over 100 journalists either injured or detained since Jan. 23.
On behalf of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Navalny’s imprisonment on Feb. 2, the day of his sentencing.
“We call for his immediate release, as well as the release of the peaceful protestors and journalists who have been detained in recent weeks. The justice system must never be abused for political purposes,” stated Trudeau on Twitter.
U.S. President Joe Biden also publicly denounced “the politically-motivated jailing of Alexei Navalny and Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Navalny is perceived as the biggest political threat to Vladimir Putin and his presidential reign of almost 17 years. Putin first came into power in 2000, serving as the president of Russia for two terms until 2008, and then again from 2012 to this day.
As the Russian constitution does not allow one to be president for more than two consecutive terms, Putin served as the prime minister from 2008 until 2012. In reality, he still possessed the majority of political influence, with 60 per cent of Russians believing he “still held all the power in the country” in 2008 despite his lower-ranked position.
Unwilling to give up his power, Putin ordered constitutional changes last year which would allow him to be president until 2036. With the legal system working in his favour, Putin’s only major threat became Navalny himself.
In fact, Russians were not only outraged by the jailing of Putin’s most outspoken critic. These country-wide protests were also sparked by major corruption allegations spread by Navalny.
Upon his arrival to Russia, Navalny posted a two-hour video on his YouTube channel titled “Putin’s palace. History behind world’s largest bribe.” This sophisticated investigation by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) was viewed over 110 million times on the platform in just three weeks.
The documentary revealed an Italian-style palace valued at $1.7 billion, which was allegedly built for Putin on the coast of the Black Sea in Southern Russia. The castle has a no-fly zone over its property and a private border checkpoint, and its staff are not allowed to bring cellphones with cameras onto the premises.
“It is the most secretive and well-guarded facility in Russia, without exaggeration,” said Navalny in the documentary. “This is not a residence. It’s an entire city, or rather a kingdom.”
The estate’s area is 39 times larger than the country of Monaco, according to the documents and 3D-models provided by a construction subcontractor. The palace consists of a casino, an underground hockey rink, a church, an amphitheatre, several vineyards, and a tunnel leading to the waterfront.
Beneath the luxurious 11-bedroom residence, the entire complex reportedly goes as deep as 16 floors underground. Currently being under construction, Navalny’s FBK states that this is the most expensive palace in the entire world.
Putin denied all allegations regarding his ownership of the estate. “Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” stated the Russian president in a press conference.
As of now, opposition supporters have not been able to achieve Putin’s resignation and Navalny’s unconditional release. After protesters took a stand against corruption in the Kremlin and the lack of political freedom, Putin is still holding onto his power.
Going forward, Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov asked all of his supporters to avoid demonstrations in the coming weeks, as the main focus should be on the upcoming parliamentary elections set to take place in September 2021.
Volkov believes foreign leaders must play an important role in achieving justice in Russian politics. He is counting on EU leaders to seize all assets belonging to Putin and his close affiliates, thus pressuring his government to finally grant freedom to Navalny.
Collage by Lily Cowper