Alexei Navalny seems to undergoing a metamorphosis. Yesterday, we saw him attending another trial by video, looking gaunt after 24 days of hunger strike. But if anything, the more attenuated his frame, the more his moral certainty shone through it.
An appeals hearing for a separate charge of insulting a Second World War veteran gave him a rare opportunity to speak to the outside world. Characteristically, he made a joke of his condition to his wife, Yulia, saying he now looked like ‘a creepy skeleton.’
However, this was a moment’s light-hearted intimacy in a bravura performance primarily directed towards both the Kremlin and the wider Russian population. Just as Vladimir Putin appears unable to refer to Navalny by name – instead using such formulations as ‘the blogger’ or ‘the man in question’ – so, too, the opposition leader chose not to refer to the president directly. Instead, he delivered a blistering critique of ‘the king without clothes,’ whose ‘twenty years of mediocre rule’ has left Russia backward and degraded.
He continued that ‘your thieving, naked king wants to continue to rule, to the very end. He doesn’t give a damn about the country at all. He grabbed her and wants to hold onto this power indefinitely. But if he continues to reign, the lost decade will be replaced by a stolen decade.’
In this, he was speaking to the widespread discontent in the country, after years of stagnant or declining standards of living. The mass protests which greeted Navalny’s arrest on his return to Russia were, after all, less about him and more an expression of a ‘coalition of the fed-up’. This was made up of those with all kinds of different reasons to feel unhappy with the status quo, whom Navalny gave an excuse and an opportunity to make their frustrations known.
The Kremlin had orchestrated this additional trial, accusing him of slandering a 93-year-old war veteran, precisely as a gambit to portray Navalny as an unpatriotic boor.