Photo: Time Magazine

Navalny Is No Mirror for the Venezuelan Opposition

The Russian politician, who survived a poisoning attempt last summer, has just returned to Russia, knowingly facing imminent imprisonment. He can be seen from afar as some kind of Guaidó, but his path and methods are different

January 19th is Epiphany Day for the Russian orthodox faith, hundreds of Russians plunged in cross-shaped holes at frozen lakes called “Iordans” on the belief that, during that day, the waters are holy. Another kind of plunge, in the strange waters of Russian internet, can lead not only to Kremlin-controlled media outlets, but also to eye-opening information of massive corruption schemes under the Putin regime. 

Both dives can lead to frostbite.

Arguably, the most viewed platform that publicly calls out government-sponsored corruption in the world’s biggest country, comes from a YouTube channel run by a 44-year-old man who starts his videos saying “Hello, this is Navalny.”

Alexey Navalny, a lawyer from Moscow turned politician and anti-corruption activist, rose to prominence by leading protests, denouncing corruption schemes and challenging the Kremlin in electionsuntil he was barred from running. He has become Putin’s biggest challenger in the past five years and the most popular figure of the Russian opposition, a title marked by death, after the suicide of Boris Berezovsky in 2013, an oligarch of the Yeltsin years who had been a fierce critic of Putin since he came to power in the turn of the century; and the shooting of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, who had anticipated that Putin wanted him gone due to his high profile.

Navalny is currently the man of the moment, as he has bravely returned to Russia after spending a few months in Germany recovering from a poisoning attempt against him during a flight to Moscow from Tomsk. He didn’t spend those months only recovering in bed; Bellingcat, a British investigative journalism website specialized in open source intelligence (which famously reconstructed the El Junquito massacre in a 3D interactive model) identified the FSB (the successor agency of the KGB) agents that poisoned Navalny. Passing as an FSB superior, Navalny, alongside the Bellingcat team, called Konstantin Kudryavtsev, the agent who failed to kill Navalny,  got clear confessions from him regarding the poisoning, and ridiculed the Russian security forces in the process. 

According to Navalny, Russia has invested over $17 Billion in Venezuela in the past ten years. He’s not the only one complaining about this.

Navalny has a YouTube show called “Future Russia” in which he denounces the massive corruption problems of Russia in a John-Oliveresque style. On his show on January 25th, 2019, Navalny dedicated more than half of his 80-minute video to Venezuela. He talked about the then newly sworn caretaker president Guaidó, expressed his support, and explained what was going on with the National Assembly, Maduro and all that jazz. 

After giving a Venezuela 101 to his Russian audience, he then began calling out the ties between the Kremlin and Miraflores, putting a special emphasis on the investments the Russian government has made in Venezuela through Rosneft (oil) and Rostec (infrastructure). And, as all roads lead to Rome, his mentions of Venezuela in his show and website came linked to a name: Igor Sechin, Rosneft CEO and former deputy PM of the Russian Federation. Mr. Sechin has been depicted as Darth Vader by the Russian press and is widely considered as Russia’s second most powerful man, after Vladimir Putin. 

According to Navalny, Russia has invested over $17 Billion in Venezuela in the past ten years. He’s not the only one complaining about this: Konstantin Sonin, professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, wrote that the debt that PDVSA and the Maduro regime had with Russia will never be paid, and that ten years of spending boosting have been completely pointless to the geopolitical role of Russia. Mr. Sonin’s column was taken down two hours after being published.

In March 2020, Rosneft sold all of its participation in Venezuela to Roszarubezhneft, a newly established shell company 100% controlled by the Russian government in order to avoid U.S. sanctions, freeing Rosneft of their tropical burden. Roszarubezhneft then switched all of Rosneft’s Venezuelan assets to a Rosneft security contractor called ChOP RN-Okhrana-Ryazan, which Francisco Toro explained in detail here. It’s not known if Rosneft kept their team and their office in El Rosal, but what we do know is that the biggest player in what’s left of the Venezuelan oil industry is an unpronounceable Russian security contractor.

Another Reality, the Same Failure

Many analogies have been made linking Navalny to Venezuelan opposition leaders. Watching Navalny being attacked on his return reminds of Guaidó after his international tour, and seeing the Russian practically turning himself to the regime can make you think of Leopoldo López back in 2014. But we must be careful in drawing similarities. Russia, unlike Venezuela, has never had a healthy democracy and since the turn of the millenium, there have been similar patterns of repression, censorship, kleptocrats and new oligarchs between Moscow and Caracas. The Russian opposition, currently spearheaded by Navalny, sees the Maduro regime as an endless pit where Russian money has landed, while the Venezuelan opposition see Putin as Maduro’s strongest ally, a friendship made of guns, oil and gold.

Although the playing fields are different, especially considering what Russia stands for and what it is in international affairs, the scenarios are highly relatable both for Slavs and criollos.

Navalny has supported efforts led by the Venezuelan opposition and its caretaker government, labeling Maduro as an idiot. Similar support for Navalny has come from the Guaidó camp. Although the playing fields are different, especially considering what Russia stands for and what it is in international affairs, the scenarios are highly relatable both for Slavs and criollos.

On Saturday, January 17th, 2020, hours after arriving in Moscow, Navalny was imprisoned under fabricated felonies. What followed was a script we’re all too familiar with: his lawyer couldn’t reach him, his wife has been under surveillance and the international community has demanded for his immediate liberation. Most recently, he issued a statement from the Matrosskaya Tishina prison, in which he made a cheeky analogy to his situation after being poisoned and also, in a more serious note, addressed his return as a rational choice, distancing himself from pity and sacrifice.

The future of Navalny is now anyone’s guess. Maybe he’ll spend decades in jail, to be eventually forgotten; maybe he’ll end up living in Madrid, close to Leopoldo López. Does Russia even have the same possibilities of getting to know democracy in the near future as much as Venezuelans have a chance to reestablish theirs?

Let’s wait and see who gets out of the Iordan first.