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Yulia Navalnaya once avoided the limelight. Now she鈥檚 Russia鈥檚 newest opposition leader

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LONDON (AP) 鈥 Yulia Navalnaya used to avoid the cameras, staying in the background while her husband rose to become Russia鈥檚 most prominent opposition figure and President Vladimir Putin鈥檚 greatest foe.

But following the death in prison last week of Alexei Navalny, she stepped onto a stage normally reserved for senior politicians in Munich and vowed that Putin and his allies would be brought to justice over the death.

Later she solemnly vowed: 鈥淚 will continue the work of Alexei Navalny.鈥

It was an ambitious statement from a woman who once said in an interview with the Russian edition of Harper鈥檚 Bazaar that her 鈥渒ey task鈥 was caring for the couple鈥檚 children and home.

Navalnaya鈥檚 new job will be leading the Russian opposition through one of the darkest and most turbulent times in its history.

The opposition is fractured, and Navalny鈥檚 death dealt it a serious blow. The question now is whether Navalnaya can rally her husband鈥檚 troops and work with other opposition groups to mount any kind of successful challenge to Putin, who is on a path to serve another six years in the Kremlin after the presidential election in March.

Putin has increasingly cracked down on freedom of speech and smothered dissent within Russia, jailing opponents and critics.

Navalnaya has experience standing up to Putin. She and Navalny were married for more than 20 years, and she was at his side as he helped lead the biggest protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and through subsequent jail sentences.

She has accused Putin of killing her husband 鈥 a suggestion Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed as 鈥渦nfounded鈥 and 鈥渋nsolent.鈥

The risk to Navalny鈥檚 life had been 鈥渄iscussed extensively鈥 with his wife and close team ahead of his 2021 return to Russia from Germany, where he received treatment for poisoning with a nerve agent, said Vladimir Ashurkov, a longtime friend of the couple and a co-founder of Navalny鈥檚 Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Even so, 鈥渋t was a big decision鈥 for Navalnaya to continue her husband鈥檚 work, he said.

In their marriage, she was 鈥渢he rock鈥 Navalny relied upon. They 鈥渉ad an understanding鈥 that Navalnaya would not be politically active and would stay out of the limelight, Ashurkov said.

Navalny returned to Russia from Germany, analysts suggested, because he knew it would be difficult to be perceived as a legitimate opposition leader while abroad.

His widow is unlikely to travel to Russia because of security concerns and now faces a similar conundrum in figuring out how to lead her husband鈥檚 organization from exile.

On Friday, shortly after news of Navalny鈥檚 death broke, she met a woman in a similar situation 鈥 Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Tsikhanouskaya picked up the political baton from her husband, Belarusian opposition leader Siarhei Tsikhanouski, in 2020 after he was jailed in the run-up to Belarus鈥 presidential election.

She ran a successful campaign but fled Belarus after longtime President Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner in an election widely regarded in the West as fraudulent.

鈥淲e understood each other without any words,鈥 Tsikhanouskaya said about Navalnaya. Tsikhanouskaya said she has no idea about her husband鈥檚 condition, or whether he is dead or alive.

鈥淚t鈥檚 so difficult when you feel such huge pain, but you have to ... give interviews to encourage the democratic world to make decisive actions,鈥 Tsikhanouskaya said in an Associated Press interview.

Operating from abroad for almost four years already, Tsikhanouskaya said living in political exile is challenging. It鈥檚 鈥渧ery important not to lose connection with the people inside the country,鈥 she said.

That will be tough, particularly inside Russia, where most Russians still get their news from Kremlin-controlled state media.

Although he was Russia鈥檚 most famous opposition leader 鈥 charismatic and cracking jokes even while serving a 19-year prison sentence 鈥 Navalny almost never appeared on state television, which carried only the briefest mention of his death.

The Kremlin is likely to adopt the same approach to Navalnaya, effectively cutting her off from the Russian people via a state-backed information blockade.

Pundits on Russian state television have already tried to discredit her, suggesting she was wearing too much makeup and that she should have covered her hair to mourn Navalny, in line with Russian Orthodox tradition.

Social media posts disparaging Navalnaya and her relationship with her husband also popped up nearly simultaneously on accounts operated by Russian state media, as well as other accounts with no obvious connection to the Kremlin that have long pushed Russian propaganda, according to , which is a London-based nonprofit that studies online misinformation and propaganda.

Since Putin鈥檚 forces invaded Ukraine, the scope for dissent in Russia has narrowed even further. Russian authorities have tightened speech restrictions and jailed critics, often ordinary people, sometimes for decades. Hundreds of people who laid flowers in Navalny鈥檚 memory were detained, and persuading Russians to take a collective public stand against Putin will be almost impossible.

While Navalnaya has dominated headlines since her husband鈥檚 death, her challenge will be 鈥渢o stay relevant鈥 when interest inevitably fades, said Graeme Robertson, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a book about Putin and contemporary Russian politics.

She could do that, Robertson suggested, by supporting Navalny鈥檚 volunteers and political networks in Russia to keep them 鈥渦nderground but alive,鈥 as well as choosing a goal to focus on in the short term.

Striding Monday into a meeting of the European Union鈥檚 Foreign Affairs Council, Navalnaya wasted no time in demonstrating what that goal 鈥 and her leadership of Navalny鈥檚 organization 鈥 might look like.

Sitting next to the EU鈥檚 foreign policy chief, she called on Western leaders not to recognize the results of March鈥檚 presidential election, to sanction more people in Putin鈥檚 circle and to do more to help Russians who have fled abroad.

Navalny鈥檚 Anti-Corruption Foundation generated headlines in Western and independent Russian media in recent years with a series of slick videos that turned otherwise dull corruption investigations into internet blockbusters.

But the organization failed to attract broader support from the Russian population or to produce political change, nor did it set out a strategy for how it would govern.

Tsikhanouskaya, who is viewed by several states as Belarus鈥 democratic leader, said she made building democratic institutions and representing Belarusians inside Belarus a priority.

That includes a transitional cabinet and platforms where 鈥渁ll the parties, all the forces are represented,鈥 she said, apparently encouraging Navalnaya to do the same.

Navalnaya could be the person to unite the Russian opposition, which is known 鈥渇or its disagreements and squabbles,鈥 Ashurkov suggested.

鈥淪he has a very high reputation,鈥 he said.

The tasks ahead of her are daunting, and she will navigate them while grieving for her husband and fighting for the return of his body.

鈥淏y killing Alexei, Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul,鈥 she said. 鈥淏ut I still have the other half, and it tells me that I have no right to give up.鈥

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Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and David Klepper in Washington contributed to this report.

Burrows is an Associated Press reporter covering Russia, Belarus, Central Asia and the Caucasus. She is based in London.