Putin talks about his nemesis Navalny’s death for the first time as he basks in Russian election win

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Putin talks about his nemesis Navalny’s death for the first time as he basks in Russian election win

Russian President Vladimir Putin was upbeat after winning a fifth term in power in Russia’s presidential election over the weekend. He chose the moment to make his first public remarks on the death of his political nemesis, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, mentioning his name for the first time in years.

Putin won Russia’s presidential election with a landslide 87% of the votes, exit polls suggested late Sunday, with votes still being declared Monday morning, both in Russia and from polls of Russians abroad. The head of Russia’s electoral authorities stated Monday morning that voter turnout was a “record-breaking, unprecedented” 77%, up from 67.7% in 2018.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2024. 

Natalia Kolesnikova | Afp | Getty Images

In the highly stage-managed election, each of Putin’s three “opponents” on the ballot paper — who belonged to Russia’s “systemic” opposition — garnered around 3-4% of the vote.

Anti-war candidates were barred from the election and most Russian opposition figures are either in self-imposed exile, have been imprisoned, or killed in Russia, such as Navalny, who died in a Russian Arctic penal colony last month.

Navalny’s family and supporters accused Putin of ordering Navalny’s death. The Kremlin denied it had any involvement in the 47-year-old’s death, with Russian authorities saying it was due to “natural causes.”

Putin talks about Navalny

Addressing his supporters and the press at his campaign headquarters last night, Putin was relaxed and upbeat, pledging to defend and strengthen Russia. He also used the moment to make his first public comments on Navalny’s death, and mentioning his most vocal critic’s name for the first time in public in years.

Laudator Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stands in front of a projection of a portrait of Alexei Navalny as she presents him with the Bambi in the Courage category at the 75th Bambi Awards at Bavaria Film Studios. As there has been no sign of life from the imprisoned Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny for days, concerns about the 47-year-old are growing.

Picture Alliance | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

When asked by NBC’s Keir Simmons about the death, Putin responded by calling his death a “sad event” and claiming he had been prepared to involve Navalny in a prisoner swap with the West.

“As for Mr. Navalny. He has perished, this is always a sad event. Well, we have had other instances when people died in prison. Has nothing like that ever happened in the U.S.? It has happened, and not once,” Putin told the assembled press and supporters Sunday night, in comments translated by NBC.

“By the way, this will be unexpected but several days before Mr Navalny perished, I was told by some of my colleagues and the administration employees, some people, that there is an idea to exchange Mr Navalny for some people in prison in Western countries. Believe me or not, the person talking to me hardly finished their sentence when I said: ‘I agree!’ he claimed.

Putin said he had agreed to the proposal on the condition that Navalny should never return to Russia, where he was the figurehead of Russia’s opposition movement.

“But unfortunately, the thing that happened happened,” Putin said, adding, “Such things happen, you can’t do anything about it. This is life” 

Navalny’s supporters said last month that there had been late-stage talks between Russian and Western officials about a possible prisoner exchange involving Navalny before his sudden death, which was announced on Feb. 16.

Last month, Navalny’s allies also said that talks with Russian and Western officials about a prisoner swap involving Navalny were underway. The politician’s longtime associate Maria Pevchikh said the talks were in their final stages just days before the Kremlin critic’s sudden and unexplained death.

‘That character’

Putin was rumored to loathe Navalny, famously refusing to even utter his biggest critic’s name. Putin’s comments on Sunday night are believed to be the first he has mentioned Navalny’s actual name in years.

The Moscow Times noted last month that since as far back as 2017, Putin has not referred directly to the Kremlin’s biggest opponent, instead alluding to Navalny as “that character,” “this gentleman,” “a poor excuse for a politician” and “a certain political force.”

The Russian media had followed Putin’s cue, airbrushing Navalny out of their media coverage. Last night, when reporting Putin’s comments, they described the opposition leader as a “blogger.” The opposition leader’s death was barely mentioned in the Russian press at all.

Predictable win

During Putin’s 24 years in power, opposition figures have been harassed, intimidated and imprisoned, with a number dying in mysterious circumstances.

The erasure of political opponents has made the reelection of Putin a foregone conclusion in recent elections, and in 2024 the Kremlin was seen to be looking for a landslide victory to legitimize Putin’s foreign policies, particularly the war against Ukraine.

“We have many tasks ahead. But when we are consolidated — no matter who wants to intimidate us, suppress us — nobody has ever succeeded in history, they have not succeeded now, and they will not succeed ever in the future,” he said as he addressed supporters and the media late Sunday night, according to comments translated by Reuters.

A general view of the Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) Headquarters in Moscow, Russia on March 17, 2024. Putin won Russian presidential election with 87.97% of the vote, first official results showed

Anadolu | Anadolu | Getty Images

Russian pro-Kremlin media hailed Putin’s record win, with news agency RIA Novosti describing it as “a record in the history of modern Russia.” By the end of Putin’s next term in power, in 2030, Putin will have overtaken Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as the longest-serving leader in Russia’s modern history.

The U.S., U.K. and Ukraine were among the countries decrying the latest Russian ballot as “neither free nor fair.”

Thousands of Russians living abroad queued up at polling stations outside Russian embassies to vote, with many participating in the “noon against Putin” protests following a call from Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya for voters to spoil their votes or to vote for any candidate apart from Putin.

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