Kremlin critics were cheered this week when a Western documentary about jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny won an Oscar, but his political movement is in turmoil and some Ukrainian politicians say the award is undeserved.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most high-profile domestic critic, is serving 11-1/2 years in jail in Russia after being convicted of fraud in two cases he and the West say were trumped up to silence him, and his anti-corruption organisation has been banned as extremist.
His supporters cast him as a Russian version of Nelson Mandela who survived an assassination attempt and will one day be freed from unjust imprisonment to lead Russia. The lawyer-turned-activist remains a fierce Kremlin critic, releasing regular statements via his lawyers from behind bars.
But his Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF), which now operates outside Russia, is reeling after his Chief of Staff Leonid Volkov admitted he had – without his colleagues’ knowledge – lobbied the European Union to lift sanctions on Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s richest men.
Volkov apologised for what he said was “a big political mistake” and said he was taking a break from his role as chairman of the ACF.
Yet some fellow opposition members were furious, saying the ACF should be trying to hasten Putin’s political demise rather than helping wealthy businessmen.
Vladimir Milov, a Navalny ally and a former deputy energy minister, said some in the opposition had shown themselves to be “super-naive” in seeking the lifting of sanctions on Fridman, whom he described as Russia’s “champion corporate raider”.
“It inflicts colossal damage on the image of the Russian opposition,” said Milov. “After this it will be necessary to restore the reputation of the Russian opposition in the West.”
The lobbying effort was made public in apparent revenge by Alexei Venediktov, a prominent journalist who for years gave the opposition a platform on the Moscow radio station he ran while maintaining ties with the authorities.
Navalny’s team had accused Venediktov of taking millions of dollars from the Moscow city budget, which is controlled by a Putin ally, to publish magazines. Venediktov admitted winning a publishing contract, but denied wrongdoing or making a profit. Both he and Volkov were designated “foreign agents” by Moscow in April 2022.
Leonid Nevzlin, a tycoon and prominent Israel-based Kremlin critic, said on Twitter that the opposition needed to unite.
“While Ukraine is fighting for its freedom, the Russian oppositionists have decided to open a second front… Unfortunately, not to fight Putin, but to fight among themselves,” he lamented.
Ksenia Thorstrom, an opposition politician from St Petersburg who has now left Russia, said she too craved unity. “But unfortunately exactly the opposite is happening at the moment,” she said in a phone interview.