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The Week In Russia: 'An Enforced Disappearance'

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has been imprisoned for almost three years. His relatives, lawyers, and allies have not heard from him in 10 days. 
Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has been imprisoned for almost three years. His relatives, lawyers, and allies have not heard from him in 10 days. 

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

As a confident President Vladimir Putin spoke at a four-hour event that marked a step toward a new six-year Kremlin term, there was no mention of his most prominent foe, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whose whereabouts have been unknown for 10 days.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

No Question

For years, Putin has seemed to take great care to avoid mentioning Navalny by name.

At a closely watched, carefully choreographed event billed as a combined press conference and question-and-answer session with the Russian people, Putin had no trouble adhering to that policy, tradition, superstition, or whatever it is. Nobody asked about Navalny or any other prominent Kremlin opponent, for that matter, and Putin barely brought up politics at all, even though an election that's all but certain to hand him a fifth presidential term is just three months away.

The fact that Putin's most prominent foe was not mentioned in a performance that lasted over four hours may be part of a deliberate effort to keep him silent as the campaign, or what passes for a campaign, gets under way.

Navalny, who has been behind bars since he returned to Russia almost three years ago following treatment for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service, has not been heard from by his relatives, lawyers, or allies in 10 days.

'Flagrant Violation'

The Russian penitentiary authority indicated on December 15 that Navalny is in the process of being transferred to a different prison, but supporters do not know where he is -- and they're worried.

"What is happening with Alexei is, in fact, an enforced disappearance and a flagrant violation of his fundamental rights," wrote Maria Pevchikh, head of investigations and chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is banned in Russia. "Answers must be given."

The absence of any mention of Navalny at the December 14 event was also an indication of how severe Russia's clampdown on dissent has become, particularly since Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and how his confrontation with Kyiv and the West has changed the landscape.

In past years, at Putin's almost-annual press conference, journalists from Russia and the West frequently asked questions about the state's actions against the opposition. This time, only two reporters from the European Union or the United States were called on, and neither asked about domestic critics of the Kremlin.

Journalists Held

A New York Times correspondent, in fact, asked about a colleague who under different circumstances might have been asking Putin a question. But Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been in a Moscow jail since March, when he was arrested by the Federal Security Service and accused of espionage, a charge that he, the Journal, and the United States vehemently deny.

Along with Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL, Gershkovich is one of two American journalists being held in Russia. Minutes before Putin started speaking, a Moscow court rejected his appeal against a ruling that extended his term in pretrial detention until January 30.

The closest Putin and his interlocutors came to a discussion of the pervasive clampdown on dissent in Russia was when a reporter asked him about a case in which prosecutors had asked a court to sentence a journalist accused of extortion to 14 years in prison and suggested that calling for such a long term for a nonviolent crime might be considered a "witch hunt."

Putin dismissed the notion that it was a "witch hunt" and added, "Who is hunting for her? What is she, some kind of major opposition figure?"

The Truth Will Out

Kremlin critics took that as a substantial slip-up by Putin, an admission of something that he invariably denies despite what is now decades of evidence: that his government targets political opponents for prosecution.

"A rare moment of sincerity in an hours-long speech by a deceitful and hypocritical pharaoh," activist and commentator Sergei Parkhomenko wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "He is sitting there and thinking about Navalny, whom he hunts with his whole pack."

Navalny is one of three opposition leaders who have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the past year following trials on charges they say have been fabricated as punishment for public criticism of the invasion of Ukraine or other Kremlin actions. Many other Russians who have denounced the invasion have also been prosecuted.

More than a decade ago, Navalny was among the leaders of a wave of peaceful protests fueled by anger over evidence of rampant fraud in a 2011 parliamentary election and dismay over Putin's decision to return to the presidency in 2012 after a stint as prime minister.

Putin's 'Parody'

Navalny tried to challenge Putin in the most recent presidential vote, in 2018, but was barred from the ballot. His nationwide support network and other organizations he led were deemed extremist and outlawed in 2021, and many of his associates have been prosecuted or have fled Russia to avoid that fate.

On December 8 -- the day Putin confirmed widespread assumption that he would seek reelection in a March 17 vote certain to hand him a new six-year term, barring some enormous and unexpected development -- supporters of Navalny said they had not been able to contact him for three days.

A December 7 post on Navalny's blog, meanwhile, dismissed the upcoming vote as a "parody of an electoral process" and urged Russians to explain to their countrymen that "Putin, in power for 24 years, must not remain for another six years. He will bring harm to Russia. He must go."

On the same day, allies of Navalny disguised anti-Putin statements on billboards in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other Russian cities.

The prominent signs bore New Year's greetings along with a QR code that, when scanned with a mobile phone, led to a website titled Russia Without Putin.

When opened, the site includes wording that says: "The results of the voting will be falsified, but our task is to make sure it's clear to everyone…that Russia no longer needs Putin."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site, or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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