Like Gaza and Ukraine, the death of Alexei Navalny should shake us from our complacency - The Irish News view

Our freedoms and democracy can be taken for granted far too easily

A protester holds a picture of Alexei Navalny in London
Alexei Navalny, Russian president Vladimir Putin's most persistent opponent, died in a Siberian prison (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Even in a country where he exercises total power, Alexei Navalny’s was the one name that Vladimir Putin could not bring himself to utter. The tyrant would instead refer to his arch-critic by euphemisms such as “that character” or “a poor excuse for a politician”.

Putin may have thought he was dehumanising or delegitimising his most stubborn and courageous opponent by denying his very name. It didn’t work, any more than persecuting and poisoning him, or sending him to prison.

It is a fateful irony that the name Alexei Navalny is now known all over the world.

Like no-one else, Navalny shone a spotlight on the corruption and vanity oozing from the black heart of Putin’s regime. We know about Ukraine, the cyber-attacks, interference in western elections, the poisonings; but Navalny showed how Putin and his cronies – “the party of thieves and crooks” – had also robbed Russia and its people.

His defiance got him killed, in the bleak grip of a Siberian penal colony. He was three years into a 19-year sentence on trumped-up charges. The 47-year-old apparently fell ill after a walk and lost consciousness. His mother, who has faced delays in recovering his body, was told he suffered ‘sudden death syndrome’.

Alexei Navalny is seen behind the bars in a police van (Sergey Ponomarev/AP)
Alexei Navalny spent years behind bars, and also endured poisoning and persecution, for revealing the Putin regime's corruption (Sergey Ponomarev/AP)

That’s one way of putting it; maybe the prison beatings caught up with him, or perhaps Putin decided now was the time to permanently silence his most persistent opponent. We may never know the exact circumstances.

News of Navalny’s death broke as world leaders met at the Munich Security Conference, where Russia’s aggressions were already firmly on the agenda.

One of the speakers was Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia. She called for Putin and his circle to “be held accountable for everything they did to our country, to my family and to my husband”.

We now wait to see how governments around the world respond, if at all. Outrage and fine words are easier than action. President Joe Biden says he is in no doubt that “Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death”; yet only last weekend his rival for the White House, Donald Trump, talked of how he would encourage Russia to attack other Nato countries who “didn’t pay”.

Trump shows what is at risk when we take our freedoms and democracy for granted. The war in Ukraine, the apocalyptic scenes from Gaza and now the death of Alexei Navalny should shake us from our complacency.