By Michael Willard
When Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was arrested this time, he came up with a mysterious allergy in prison which one doctor suggested was poison. This led folks like me to wonder about his future as a breathing, upright citizen.
It is a fear I have had since huddling with Navalny in a Moscow hotel in 2013 to help prepare him in his very long-shot bid to upset President Putin’s favored candidate for mayor of that city. No one gave him a prayer of a chance.
It was an interesting, surreal, 24-hours. Were the shadowy fellows who seemed not to have much purpose at the hotel other than killing time SBU (formerly KGB) agents or was it my run-away imagination?
I had first visited Moscow in Soviet times as an advisor to a US Senate leader holding high-level discussions on nuclear disarmament. In the mid-90s, I returned, leading a company and making my home there for two years.
My apartment was a half mile or so from the Kremlin walls.
Often, in the sun-bathed early dusk, I walked down Tverskaya Street to Red Square. On weekends, I roamed the city and its neighborhoods, piecing together places once visited by Peter the Great.
As an artist, I painted various Moscow scenes. The city gave me inspiration. I visited the Pushkin Museum so often I could give tours. Boris Yeltsin, the impetus to the USSR over-throwing its communist yoke, was the president.
Yeltsin was clownish, and tippled more than one should for a fellow with a heart condition, but it seemed to go with the times.
My guess today, however, is I couldn’t pass face control for a Russian visa. Moscow is raucous, gaudy, boorish, exciting and still beautiful. But I hate what it has become.
You see, I came to Moscow from Kyiv in the 90s to a city reborn, shucking off its Soviet past. There was an openness, There was a belief in the future of Russia, but without the phony swagger you see today.
When Navalny came into the hotel conference room that day six years ago to begin our training, he was dressed in a white tee-shirt and jeans. He didn’t look like a mayoral candidate as we set about the task of developing his messages.
I found Navalny personable, ready to take direction. To some, he was a super hero, having led effective protests against Putin in 2011 when thousands took to the streets. To others, he simply threatened the current order.
My team’s job — which included my wife, Olga, Willard CEO — was to make him realize that his potential constituents cared more about jobs, roads and snow removal than issues outside the city limits.
That’s what we do. We work with political candidates, CEOs and other to develop messages that resonate with the media and the public. Often, in a session, we come up with that silver-bullet point that defines a campaign.
We have held sessions in Romania, Bosnia and Ukraine for two prime ministers and two other politicians who were later elevated to prime minister. We have plied our trade in some 500 trainings on three continents.
Even though the Kremlin kept Navalny off the airwaves and he was relegated to campaigning at metro station gatherings, he surprised everyone and garnered an astonishing 27.2 per cent of the vote in a multi-person field.
It was enough to scare the bejesus out of Putin’s acolytes. The eventual winner, incumbent Sergey Sobyanin, was the person who declared the city hall protest unauthorized, citing security concerns. This led to Navalny’s arrest.
There are things we know, and things we think we know.
The fact is murder is not an aberration in the echelons of Kremlin officialdom. It has become — as it was in Medici’s Florence in the 13th Century — an instrument of politics and power.
We know that the litany of slain journalists and politicians in Russia reads like a rap sheet for Murder, Inc., not withstanding the fact President Trump wants to treat Vladimir as his best bestie.
When the political outlier Navalny walked out his front door for a morning jog, he was quickly arrested. In his absence, several thousand heeded his call and rallied. Many were beaten my militia. More than a 1,000 were jailed.
In Kremlin-esque protocol, Navalny’s arrest — which seems a sun coming up occurrence — was just same old, same old for Putin’s most persistent and persuasive critic — in jail, out of jail, in jail again.
Navalny has given Putin his most throbbing headaches since emerging on the social media scene a decade ago calling out the Kremlin’s corruption. He’s been locked up about as many times as Trump has lied about Russian interference in US elections.
It goes without saying Putin wishes Navalny stone-cold dead. This was the fate of opposition politician and former Nizhny Novgorod governor Boris Nemtsov in 2015. He was gunned down 100 yards from Red Square.
It happens in Moscow.
This time, Navalny was returned to his prison cell, apparently with no long-term impact of his suspected poisoning. This time.
Moscow these days is like the dark version of Gotham City in the Batman movies. The joker is Vladimir Putin.