Latika Bourke, “Alexei Navalny versus the ‘underpants poisoner'” (Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2021)
As examples of crude mainstream media propaganda bashing Russia and in particular the Russian President Vladimir Putin go, few breathlessly pack in as many lies and falsehoods as this article for the Sydney Morning Herald by British-based Australian journalist Latika Bourke. The online article reads like a story written for primary school-age children but the print article in the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald is hardly much better when it comes to patronising its readers.
Firstly Navalny is claimed to be a thorn in Putin’s side, though the evidence Bourke puts up to justify this is assumed when it is really non-existent. The incident in which Navalny was supposedly poisoned with Novichok while on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow in August 2020 has yet to be investigated by police and examined in a court of law because Russian authorities are still waiting for German authorities to pass on their evidence that Navalny was indeed poisoned with the nerve agent. The film that Navalny recently made purporting to show that a palace in Gelendzhik on the Black Sea coast in southern Russia is owned by Putin has been debunked by Russian journalists who visited the palace and discovered that it is actually a luxury five-star hotel still under construction and owned by Russian billionaire businessman Arkady Rotenberg. (A video of the building can be viewed here.)
Bourke then goes on to give a potted history of Navalny starting with his blogging activities in which he presents as an anti-corruption campaigner targeting corruption in government-owned companies. He did this by buying shares in various enterprises so he could get access to company financial reports and attend shareholder meetings, and also by establishing his Anti-Corruption Foundation (its Russian acronym is FBK) to compile reports from ordinary citizens of everyday government corruption. Along the way Navalny collected over six million YouTube subscribers and over two million Twitter followers, not all of whom necessarily live in Russia. One notes that Navalny limits his investigation of corruption activities to those where the people involved in corruption may be linked to senior figures in the Russian government; to take one example, he does not appear ever to have investigated the corruption of former Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov who was fired by Putin in 2012.
What Bourke fails to mention though – and this is critical to understanding why Navalny was arrested, charged and convicted in court, and subsequently jailed as soon as he arrived in Moscow in January 2021 – is that Navalny was embroiled in at least two cases of embezzlement and fraud. In 2008, Navalny and his brother Oleg formed a transportation company (Glavpodpista) to deliver goods on behalf of the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher: the transportation company turned out to be a shell company that paid another delivery company to transport the goods for less than what Glavpodpista was paid by Yves Rocher Vostok to do. Both Alexei and Oleg Navalny were found guilty of embezzlement on 30 December 2014 and Alexei was sentenced to 3½ years of house arrest while Oleg Navalny went to jail for the same period of time. In the second case, Alexei Navalny was hired as a business consultant to advise a publicly owned timber company, Kirovles, in Kirov region; instead Navalny formed a company to buy timber products from Kirovles at reduced prices and resell the timber to Kirovles’ customers at prices they would normally pay Kirovles if buying direct from that company. As a result, Kirovles went bankrupt and its employees lost their jobs. For this, Navalny was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on 18 July 2013. The reason that Navalny is in jail at this time of writing is that he violated the conditions of his house arrest (from the Yves Rocher case) throughout the first several months of 2020 before he made his trip to Tomsk in August by not reporting regularly to the police authorities as he should have done.
Putin’s supposed targeting of Navalny, which Bourke devotes much space to, revolves around that August 2020 incident in which Navalny fell sick on the plane flight from Tomsk to Moscow and the plane had to divert to Omsk so Navalny could be taken to hospital there. Not long after he fell sick, the German government sent a plane to collect Navalny from Omsk hospital, even though hospital doctors declared he was too ill to travel, and took him to the Charité Hospital in Berlin, where the doctors apparently found he had been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor. In early September 2020, the German government announced that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok. There then followed weeks of farcical news as, first, the tea which Navalny drank just before boarding the plane in Tomsk was said to have been poisoned; then the water bottle that Navalny drank from at his Tomsk hotel was supposed to have been poisoned (and which was later revealed to have been bought at an airport vending machine by FBK member Maria Pevchikh while travelling with Navalny back to Moscow; Pevchikh then flew back to the UK where she lives and works, avoiding questioning by Russian authorities over Navalny’s supposed poisoning); and finally and currently, Navalny’s underwear was revealed by so-called “citizen journalism” outfit Bellingcat to have been smeared with Novichok. How FSB agents tailing Navalny managed to contaminate his underpants while he and his FBK and other associates were not looking seems never to have been broached.
One notes that Bellingcat apparently acquired information about the FSB agents tailing Navalny by buying phone records with cryptocurrency through a black market dealing with phone data obtained from phone databases. One wonders how accurate such information can be when it is gathered from sources and in ways that are not transparent. Might it be that the FSB agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who Bourke says was duped by Navalny into revealing that the latter’s underwear had been smothered in Novichok, actually had never spoken with Navalny, that his identity details had been stolen from a hacked phone database, and that the person who spoke with Navalny was actually an actor pretending to be Kudryavtsev?
On being jailed for violating the conditions of his house arrest, Navalny and his close associates took to social media platforms such as TikTok to implore people (many of them schoolchildren lured by advertisements of parties) to attend illegally organised protest rallies across Russia. Some 40,000 people attended these rallies, which sounds like a lot of people until one remembers that the city of Moscow alone now has 12.8 million (as of late 2020 / early 2021) and so 40,000 represents just over 0.003% of that city’s population – hardly a significant proportion of Moscow’s population, let alone the rest of the country.
The Western MSM spotlight on Navalny’s recent activities from 2020 onwards comes at a time when “Color Revolution” regime-change activities and other means of overthrowing governments that the US and its Western allies happen to dislike have been failing in Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela and other parts of the world. On top of that, the responses by Belarus, China, Russia and Venezuela to the COVID-19 pandemic among their peoples and their healthcare sectors have resulted in relatively low death rates from the disease compared with the catastrophic mortality rates in the US, the UK and across the EU. Western public attention to the differences between the West on the one hand and on the other Russia, Belarus and China in the way they have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic – Russia and China in particular developing their own vaccines like Sputnik V to the disease – and to rising socio-economic inequalities generally in all Western nations must be deflected to issues involving apparent human rights violations: for China, this means focusing on Uyghurs supposedly incarcerated in holding camps where they are beaten, tortured or raped; and for Russia, this means focusing on supposed “opposition political figures” like Navalny, who incidentally has never enjoyed more than 2% support from the Russian electorate and who has never been a politician. An opinion poll conducted by Levada-Center in September 2020 demonstrates the aversion and contempt most Russians have for Navalny.
Why Bourke then repeats the stale lies about Russia annexing Crimea (no, the Crimeans held an independence referendum and voted to leave Ukraine in March 2014); helping to shoot down Malaysia Airlines MH17 (still not proven despite numerous court hearings in The Netherlands); or trying but failing to kill Sergei and Julia Skripal in the UK with Novichok (still not proven either, despite the ever-changing narrative in which among other things the door-handle of the Skripal house was supposedly contaminated with Novichok, necessitating the removal of the house’s roof), in concluding her article, there is certain to be one answer: through banal repetition over and over, Bourke’s article serves to reinforce the Western propaganda narrative that Russia is governed by a devious, untrustworthy and corrupt government that oppresses its people and relies on a faltering economy dominated by fossil fuels to maintain a supposedly failing order. Putin is consistently portrayed as a despotic dictator who steals from his people and relies on an economy dependent on fossil fuel exports, and surrounds himself with excessively kitsch wealth. The Russian business community which has links with the government and Putin – necessary if it needs government approval and funding for major infrastructure projects – is seen to be packed with corrupt Putin cronies. (One can see considerable psychological projection of the desires and beliefs held by Western political elites onto what they imagine passes for backroom politics in the upper levels of the Russian leadership.) The sooner the Russian government and its President are replaced by leaders amenable to the US – so that Russia’s resources can be privatised and plundered by US and other Western corporations – the better: that is the message being hammered into the mass Western consciousness. The objective behind the message however is obscured.