Anger and grief as Russians in Armenia and Georgia mourn Navalny’s death

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Armenia and Georgia following the news that Alexey Navalny, 47, well-known Russian opposition figure and Putin's long term critic died in prison under suspicious circumstances on February 16, 2024.

In December 2020, Navalany was poisoned with what was later confirmed by German doctors to be a military-grade nerve agent from the Novichok family of chemical weapons. The opposition politician survived the poisoning and, after receiving treatment in Germany, decided to return to Russia, despite knowing he would be arrested if not on the spot, then at a later time. On January 17, 2021, Navalny was arrested after landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. At the time of his death, he was serving a 19-year prison sentence in a maximum-security prison north of the Arctic Circle, nicknamed the “Polar Wolf” prison and notorious for its ill-reputation over the treatment of prisoners serving time there.

As such, when the Russian Penitentiary Service announced Navalny's death, claiming the opposition politician died of thromboembolism or a dislodged blood cot, questions over the actual cause of death and Kremlin's involvement in it spread quickly.

That his family and team have not been able to retrieve the body of Navalny puts authorities under the spotlight over suspicions that they are trying to cover up the real reason behind his death. According to Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson:

In a separate interview with TV Rain, Yarmush said: “There’s no doubt that this murder was planned. We don’t currently have any information except for the colony’s official confirmation of his death.”

When Navalny's mother showed up at the morgue on February 19, she and the team of lawyers accompanying her were prevented from seeing Navalny's body:

On February 20, Yarmush wrote, “The investigators told the lawyers and Alexey's mother that they would not give them the body. The body will be under some sort of ‘chemical examination’ for another 14 days.”

Meanwhile, scores of Russians continue to express their grief at home, even at the cost of being arrested.

At the time of writing this story, at least 396 people have been detained at events across 39 Russian cities since Navalny's death, according to the Russian human rights group OVD-Info.

For Russians living abroad, including in Armenia and Georgia, it has been easier to demonstrate their anger.

In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as well as in the city of Batumi and in Armenia's capital, Yerevan, Russians chanted Navalny’s name, anti-war and anti-Putin slogans.

“I’m angry; I’m mostly angry, then sad,” one demonstrator named Nikolay told the news outlet OC Media, adding that he was grateful that in Armenia, he was able to express his feelings openly.

“We expected it, but the feelings are still anger, rage, grief,” said another demonstrator, Mikhail Yershov.

In Tbilisi, a demonstration was held outside the Russian Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy. Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia after the 2008 August War. Navalny was among many Russians who supported the invasion at the time, however he publicly apologized for it five years later.

Memorial to Alexei Navalny in Tbilisi near the Russian Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy. People have been coming for the third day to lay flowers in memory of the politician after the news of Navalny’s death in the colony. Activists assembled an installation in the shape of a heart made of flowersç Video: TV Rain

One protester who asked to remain anonymous told OC Media that Navalny’s death came as a shock to her.

“What brought me [here]? It’s shock because everything has its limits […] he was killed, like Boris Nemtsov,” she said, adding she was worried for the fate of other political prisoners in Russia.

Boris Nemtsov was a liberal politician and ardent critic of Vladimir Putin who was gunned down in the street near the Kremlin in Moscow in 2015.

Despite the growing rift between Armenia and Russia, Armenian authorities have so far remained silent, as have those in Azerbaijan.

In Azerbaijan, there was just one memorial reported:

Hüseyn Javid was a renowned Azerbaijani poet and playwright of the early 20th century who was a victim of Stalin's repressions in 1937, and who died in Siberia as a result.

On February 20, ambassadors of the United Kingdom and the United States also paid tribute to Navalny by the same statue:

In Georgia, President Salome Zourabichvili was quick to speak out, calling Navalny’s death a “tragedy for all democracy and human rights defenders.”

Mamuka Mdinaradze, the ruling Georgian Dream party's parliamentary leader, said Navalny was Putin's latest victim when asked a question by a journalist before moving to complain about Georgia's own politics, including the opposition United Nation Movement's time in power before 2012, when prisoner deaths weren't unheard of.

The speaker of parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, preferred not to comment when asked a similar question.

Opposition leaders in Georgia were more outspoken.

The United National Movement, in a statement, praised Navalny for returning back to Russia “to fight against Putin’s dictatorship and murderous regime” despite the danger to his life.

The party’s founder and Georgia's former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is currently serving a prison sentence for abuse of power, wrote, “Navalny is gone. Am I the next one on Putin’s death row?”

The leader of the opposition Droa Party, Elene Khoshtaria, wrote on X that “Navalny’s death was a testament to the true, brutal, callous nature of Russia and Putin.”

Giorgi Gakharia, former Prime Minister and now leader of the For Georgia party, expressed condolences to Navalny’s family and friends on X, adding the opposition politician's death was “a poignant symbol of Russia’s enduring modernized totalitarianism.”

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