Alexei Navalny's 'far-right racist' past back in spotlight after Putin-critic's death

As world leaders pay tribute to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, some have drawn attention to some inconvenient aspects of his past.

FILE PHOTO: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks with journalists after he was released from a detention centre in Moscow, Russia August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo
Alexei Navalny is widely regarded among Western leaders to have been murdered by the Russian state. (Reuters)

Tributes have been paid across Europe and the US to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the latest critic of Vladimir Putin to die under mysterious circumstances.

Navalny, who died on Friday after falling unconscious in an Arctic penal colony, was hailed as one of the Russian president’s most formidable foes – a thorn in Putin's side who refused to cower to him. However, as Western politicians pay their respects, some more uncomfortable aspects of Navalny's career have been brought back to the surface.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was criticised for praising the 'courage' of Navalny by Mish Rahman, who sits on the party's NEC ruling body, referring to the opposition leader's "far-right" past.

"Navalny took part in the Russian March, an annual demonstration that draws ultranationalists, including some who adopt swastika-like symbols," Rahman tweeted. "He has never apologised for his earliest xenophobic videos or his decision to attend the Russian March.

"Putin is an evil tyrant and nobody should be imprisoned for political opposition, let alone die this way. But that doesn’t mean that the leader of the Labour Party should be lauding a man with links to the far-right who refers to Muslims as 'cockroaches'."

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Rahman appeared to be referring to a notorious video from 2007 in which Navalny appears to compare Muslim immigrants in Russia to "cockroaches" as he advocated for gun ownership.

In another video, he is dressed as a dentist and appears to compare migrants in Moscow to tooth cavities, Radio Free Europe reports. He says: "I recommend full sanitisation. Everything in our way should be carefully but decisively be removed through deportation."

Shortly before releasing both clips, which are still on his YouTube channel, Navalny was expelled by the liberal Yabloko party over his "nationalist activities", having participated in the Russian March, an annual rally associated with ultra-nationalist far-right groups chanting slogans such as "Russia for ethnic Russians".

"Anybody who expects Navalny to be an ideal Western liberal Democrat has been mistaken," Jade McGlynn, a researcher on Russian politics, told Euronews.

After leaving Yabloko, Navalny went on to co-found the National Russian Liberation Movement ( NAROD, which vowed to "fight against the ruling regime and kleptocracy" but was also viewed as far-right and anti-immigration.

In August 2008 Navalny referred to Georgians as "rodents" during Russia's attack on the country, in comments for which he later apologised.

Did Navalny's views change over time?

Navalny never apologised for the controversial videos from 2007.

Leonid Volkov, who served as the head of Navalny's network of regional political offices in Russia, told the New Yorker in 2021 that he regrets the videos but decided not to delete them "because it's a historical fact".

He told the magazine that Navalny always saw the Russian March as a legitimate form of political expression among Russians who want a free and democratic society. He added: “He believes that if you don’t talk to the kind of people who attend these marches, they will all become skinheads. But, if you talk to them, you may be able to convince them that their real enemy is Putin.”

Since the mid-2000s, Navalny appeared to have softened his stance on immigration, advocating for a visa scheme for Central Asian migrants and to protect their rights as labourers. He has also adopted more left-leaning economic positions and came out in support of gay marriage.

In interviews Navalny has said his ability to engage with both nationalists and liberals was a strength of his as a politician, according to Radio Free Europe. However, some remained sceptical that he had truly left his far-right populist life behind him, particularly due to his refusal to apologise for many of his older statements.

Flowers, candles and photos of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are placed at the fence of the meanwhile closed Russian consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, Feb.17, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia's prison agency said. He was 47. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
While Navalny clearly leaves behind a complex legacy, many people still valued him for being such a strong voice against Vladimir Putin. (AP)

A row at Amnesty International

In 2021, Amnesty International apologised to Navalny for stripping him of his status as a "prisoner of conscience”.

The human rights group said in February of that year that it would stop using the term, after deciding his remarks in the 2000s amounted to "hate speech".

At the time, Julie Verhaar, Amnesty International’s acting secretary general, said speculation over the use of the term "prisoner of conscience" was "detracting attention from our core demand that Aleksei Navalny be freed immediately".

"This distraction only serves the Russian authorities, who have jailed Navalny on politically motivated charges, simply because he dared to criticise them," she added. “The term ‘prisoner of conscience’ is a specific description based on a range of internal criteria established by Amnesty. There should be no confusion: nothing Navalny has said in the past justifies his current detention, which is purely politically motivated."

Then, in May 2021, Amnesty International said “following careful evaluation", it had decided to restore Navalny's status, arguing that the Russian government had used its earlier decision to further violate Navalny's rights.

It said it apologised for the "negative impacts this has had on Alexei Navalny personally, and the activists in Russia and around the world who tirelessly campaign for his freedom."

However, the saga didn't end there, with a Muslim former Amnesty employee, who claims she was sacked for challenging the U-turn, going on to sue the organisation. In July 2023, Aisha Jung said she was lodging an appeal after all of her claims were dismissed by the Central London Employment Tribunal.