MOSCOW – Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marked the anniversary of a poisoning attack against him by urging global leaders Friday to put more attention on combating corruption and to target tycoons close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an article published in three European newspapers, Navalny chided Western leaders for relegating the fight against corruption to a “secondary agenda” item and said that graft plays an essential part in policy failures, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is precisely the fact that the West ‘failed to notice’ the total corruption in Afghanistan – that Western leaders preferred not to talk about a topic they found embarrassing – which was the most crucial factor in the victory of the Taliban,” Navalny wrote.
Western nations, meanwhile, also took note of Friday's anniversary. The United States and Britain announced sanctions against Russian officers and labs accused of involvement in Navalny’s poisoning with a nerve agent on Aug. 20, 2020. And while visiting Moscow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Navalny's release from prison.
Putin strongly rejected Western criticism of the treatment of the Kremlin’s most outspoken foe. Speaking after talks with Merkel, he denied that his critic was punished for defying the Kremlin.
“He was convicted of a criminal offense, not his political activities,” Putin said,
Navalny was arrested in January upon returning to Moscow from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian officials reject the accusation.
The politician and anti-corruption activist, who is Putin’s most determined political foe, received a 2 1/2-year prison sentence in February for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.
On Friday, British newspaper The Guardian, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and France’s Le Monde published Navalny's article, in which he called corruption “the universal, ideology-free basis for the flourishing of a new Authoritarian International, from Russia to Eritrea, Myanmar to Venezuela.”
He challenged international leaders to show a stronger political will to track financial trails from Russia and other countries beset by corruption and to more resolutely target corrupt officials.
“Until personal sanctions are imposed on oligarchs, primarily those in the entourage of Putin – the role model for all the world’s corrupt officials and businessmen – any anti-corruption rhetoric from the West will be perceived as game-playing and hot air,” Navalny said.
In a separate Instagram post Friday, Navalny again thanked Russian pilots and ambulance doctors for saving his life after he fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20, 2020. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later.
Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Reflecting on his poisoning and recovery, Navalny also thanked his supporters with a note of his usual sardonic humor.
“Thanks to you all it all went fine, I survived and landed in prison,” he said on Instagram.
He added sarcastically that he also should thank Russia’s corruption for helping disable Russia’s secret services along with other sectors.
“The level of secret operations is on par with health care, education and municipal services,” Navalny quipped.
Russian authorities have insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. They refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing the lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
In a statement issued earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced Western accusations over Navalny's poisoning as a “planned provocation” aimed at discrediting Russia.
Navalny's arrest and jailing triggered a series of mass protests that challenged authorities, who responded with mass arrests of demonstrators and criminal prosecutions of Navalny’s associates.
In June, a court outlawed Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of his regional offices as extremist organizations, a verdict that barred people associated with the groups from seeking public office and exposed them to lengthy prison terms.
Russian authorities also blocked some 50 websites run by his team or supporters for allegedly disseminating extremist group propaganda, and opened a criminal probe against Navalny’s top allies, Ivan Zhdanov and Leonid Volkov, over a crowdfunding campaign.
Last week, Russian authorities also leveled new criminal charges against Navalny himself, alleging that his anti-corruption foundation infringed on people’s rights, a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
Navalny and his allies have linked the crackdown to Russia’s Sept. 19 parliamentary election, which is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule before the country’s 2024 presidential election.
In statements issued Friday, the United States and Britain reaffirmed their condemnation of last year's attack against Navalny and cited the recent arrests of opposition activists and journalists in Russia.
The two countries also criticized Russia for failing to account for what they described as a breach of its obligations under a global chemical weapons ban by failing "to investigate and credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon against Mr. Navalny on Russia’s territory.”
“Navalny’s poisoning was a shocking violation of international norms against the use of chemical weapons and was part of an ongoing campaign to silence voices of dissent in Russia,” U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control Director Andrea Gacki
Britain announced sanctions against seven operatives of Russian domestic security agency FSB accused of involvement in Navalny's poisoning. The U.S. slapped sanctions on nine FSB officers and two Russian labs.
“We are sending a clear message that any use of chemical weapons by the Russian state violates international law, and a transparent criminal investigation must be held,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.
AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee in Washington and Mike Corder in the Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.