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Alexei Navalny suspected poisoning: why opposition figure stands out in Russian politics – The Conversation UK

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Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition politician and activist, has been hospitalised after a suspected poisoning.

Navalny’s spokeswoman suggested he was poisoned by something in tea he drank on the morning of August 20 before boarding a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. While on the flight, Navalny became ill, and the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk (another city in Siberia) so that he could receive medical treatment.

Navalny was in Siberia supporting candidates running in local elections on September 13. United Russia, the Kremlin-backed party of power, is expecting more difficulty than usual in securing victories in this upcoming set of electoral races.

High-profile critic

A lawyer by training, 44-year-old Navalny is a high-profile critic of President Vladimir Putin and the ruling political elite in Russia.

Charismatic and anti-Kremlin, Navalny stands out in Russian politics. His profile is a sharp contrast to the politicians that lead supposed “opposition” political parties with seats in the national legislature. These parties, led by the likes of 67-year-old Sergei Mironov, 76-year-old Gennady Zyuganov and 74-year-old Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are seen as largely co-opted by the Kremlin. They might make critical comments occasionally, but can be relied upon to support the Kremlin’s line when needed.

Navalny has attempted to achieve elected office. He ran in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, securing 27% of the vote according to the official figures. He claimed, however, that this figure did not reflect his true level of support in the capital, including due to falsification.

He was formally barred from running in the 2018 presidential election following criminal convictions, which some regard as being politically motivated.

Navalny has had more success away from electoral politics. In 2011, he established the Anti-Corruption Foundation to investigate and publicise alleged corruption by senior politicians and state officials. He branded United Russia the “party of crooks and thieves” – a phrase that has stuck.

A 2017 YouTube video by the foundation laying out details of a corruption investigation into the-then prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has had nearly 36 million views.

In July 2020, Navalny announced that he was closing the Anti-Corruption Foundation, following a lawsuit linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin’s.

Not the ‘leader’ of the opposition

Although a prominent opposition figure, it would be wrong to call Navalny the singular opposition leader in Russia. For one thing, this might give a false impression of Navalny’s popularity and name recognition in Russia as a whole.

In an October 2019 survey conducted by the Levada Centre, 9% of respondents said that they related to Navalny’s activities “rather positively”, with 25% relating “rather negatively”. A further 31% said they knew nothing of his activities and the same percentage reacted to Navalny neutrally.

Quite how these figures, as well as election results, would change if Russia had a freer media and electoral landscape is not clear. But, as things stand, Navalny is the most high-profile Kremlin critic operating within Russia.

Another reason why labelling Navalny as an opposition leader is inappropriate relates to the fact that political opposition forces in Russia are fragmented. They often find it hard to coordinate their activities in a way that could mount an effective challenge to the authorities. And this certainly suits the Kremlin.

Navalny has, however, spearheaded an effort to help overcome the coordination problems facing the political opposition. Called “smart voting”, the aim is to coordinate tactical votes for candidates who are not members of, or affiliated with, United Russia. The initiative appears to have had some success, including in the 2019 elections for the Moscow City Council.

‘Navalny let’s live’: a supporter of Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg.
Anatoly Maltsev/EPA

Past attacks

It’s too early to say with certainty why Navalny has fallen ill.

However, he has been attacked before, including in a 2017 incident when he was covered in an antiseptic green dye that left him with partial blindness in one eye. Navalny was then hospitalised in 2019 following what could have been a poisoning during his detention for violating protest laws.

If Navalny has been poisoned, then the specifics of this incident share distinct similarities with past cases. In 2004, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and vocal critic of the Kremlin’s actions in the second Chechen war, was poisoned by drinking tea on a flight. Two years later, she was assassinated. And, in 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer, was poisoned with polonium-210 added to tea he drank at a London hotel.

Yet, even if Navalny has been poisoned, it’s far from certain – and unlikely, even – that this was directly ordered by the Kremlin. What is certain is that the Kremlin has not taken steps to ensure the safety of opposition figures in modern-day Russia. This was made clear in February 2015 when former Russian deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, was shot to death on a bridge next to the Kremlin in Moscow.

By many accounts, the assassination of Nemtsov shocked the Kremlin. But, insofar as this attack and others increase the perceived costs of political opposition to Putin’s rule, the Kremlin benefits from the chilling effect on critical voices in the country.

The Kremlin will want to distance itself from any suggestion that it was responsible for Navalny’s current illness. With protests in neighbouring Belarus after a disputed election and in the Russian city of Khabarovsk following the arrest of the sitting governor, the prospect of another reason for Russians to protest on the streets will be deeply troubling for Putin.

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Politics Chat: President Trump Nominates Amy Coney Barrett For Supreme Court – NPR

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We look at the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and how the Democrats can respond. We’ll also look at how President Trump is gaming out not being a clear winner on election night.

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The realities of politics and the judiciary – Financial Times

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The writer is an FT contributing editor

The unattractive politics of Donald Trump quickly nominating Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacant seat on the US Supreme Court has prompted some self-congratulation in the UK. Things are done differently here, is the comforting thought, for the appointment of judges is not politicised.

The truth is, however, that in England and Wales at least (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems) there has always been a substantial overlap of law and politics: it is just that the British are rather good at pretending otherwise.

Take the historical appointment of judges. Until the previous century, it was practice that the senior office of the lord chief justice, who presided over the most serious criminal trials, followed political service. Similarly, attorneys-general retiring from parliament were often made High Court judges. There was much fluidity between the political and judicial establishments. 

At the apex of the constitution, the ancient office of lord chancellor entitled its holder to sit both in the cabinet and as a judge in the most senior court of the land. Remarkably, this carried on until Tony Blair’s first Labour government of 1997 to 2001. The notion that there has always been some total structural divide between politicians and judges in England betrays a lack of knowledge of the country’s legal history.

Even now, barristers (the lawyers who tend to present cases in court) are encouraged to provide regular legal services to ministers and officials at a substantial discount so as to obtain promotion to the judiciary by joining a prestigious panel. The best of them are given income streams as “Treasury counsel”, charged with helping the government out of awkward or sensitive political-legal situations; in return they are often appointed as a High Court judge. In this way judicial preferment is formally based in part on assisting ministers and officials.

And when appointed, judges are often in effect lawmakers and policymakers, though they cloak it as “developing” existing law. Over the past 20 years, they have introduced an entirely new privacy law, with no explicit statutory basis. The most senior UK Supreme Court judges now also frequently make and publish extrajudicial speeches on general public policy issues, which are often a better guide for understanding the direction of the law than anything said in parliament.

Once retired, English judges use their status freely to contribute to public debate, as with the notable examples of Jonathan Sumption, a former Supreme Court justice, and Brenda Hale, former president of the Supreme Court. Indeed, the wisest current writer on the relationships between law and policy in the UK is the former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Sedley.

Even in their judgments, rather than their statements outside court, one can see the policies and politics of the judiciary. In the 1970s, the legal academic JAG Griffiths provided a detailed compendium of political judgments; 50 years later one can look online at the reasoning in “public law” cases where the practical boundaries of the state are determined, when of course these boundaries are the most political issues of all.

None of the above is necessarily wrong; much of it is a normal fact of political and legal life. Judges with political worldliness are not a bad thing. And it is good that ministers and officials have ready access to high quality legal advice. The most important question is how to manage the overlap, not to contend that it should not exist.

The problem is with the simplistic and misleading notion that law and politics are completely separate public realms. There is and always will be substantial common ground. The same set of facts can easily be both a matter of political controversy and a question for a court. What needs to be struck is the right balance.

An extreme example of imbalance, of course, is when the executive seeks to extinguish the independence of the judiciary — as in Poland. Since coming to power in 2015, the deliberate policy of the Law and Justice party has been to limit or remove the structural separation of powers, including to change how the Supreme Court head is appointed.

But it is equally an error to insist naively on politics and the judiciary as being absolutely distinct. There may be obvious faults with the US system of appointing Supreme Court judges and federal judges generally, but the main difference between that and the English approach to the politics of the judiciary is that the Americans are open about the relationship, and the English are not.

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Fortnight: The must-read political magazine making a comeback – BBC News

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Fortnight magazine was once such a must-read for Northern Ireland’s political classes that Gerry Adams apparently said “a month without Fortnight would be twice as long”.

In that case the past nine years must have seemed like an eternity for the former Sinn Féin president.

That’s how long its been since the monthly cultural and political magazine was on sale.

But now it’s back to mark what would have been its 50th anniversary and there are plans for more editions in both printed and digital format.

It’s just like old times – though it’s different world since that first edition in September 1970.

The Troubles were in their infancy – there were articles on direct rule, the then Ulster Unionist Stormont minister John Taylor (now Lord Kilclooney) and a new party called the SDLP.

But the big issue of the constitutional question still remains, hence the front page headline: “What Future for Northern Ireland?”

Even the editor is the same: Lawyer Tom Hadden retains his passion for Northern Ireland, even thought he lives in England.

“John Hume, Gerry Adams, the leading unionist David Trimble, everybody in those days wrote for Fortnight when asked,” he told BBC News NI’s The View programme.

“The main articles in this issue are about how to retain the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, in the event of possible unification or possible joint authority, or just getting things as they are.

“We think it’s important for people to think about these things in advance, rather than rush into a yes-no referendum.”

‘Too slow to go digital’

The relaunched magazine’s literary editor is the daughter of the well-known civil rights activist and politician Paddy Devlin.

Anne Devlin lived most of her earlier life outside Northern Ireland and Fortnight provided a link with home.

“It kept a diary of the events of the past month,” she said.

“So every single detail of the past month, every day, every significant political thing that happened, violent and nonviolent was logged.”

She has recruited several younger writers for the new Fortnight, including sociologist Claire Mitchell.

“The piece for the magazine takes our decision to send our kids to Catholic school as a jumping off point,” said Ms Mitchell.

“That felt culturally adventurous to us because we’re from a Protestant background. We’ve made loads of great friends and have had new experiences but what it really underlined for me is how mixed most people’s everyday lives are.

“People are organising their lives around their kids activities, going into Slimming World, online dating. It’s a world really far removed from big ‘P’ politics and the rot of green and orange.

“I do think there’s a disconnect between the binary structure of our party system in the assembly and how most people are just getting on with their everyday lives.”

Mr Hadden said one of the reasons Fortnight folded was because it was too slow to go digital.

So can it nose its way back into a crowded market place filled with the likes of the political website Slugger O’Toole?

“I don’t think it can necessarily do what it did back in its heyday,” said Slugger’s deputy editor David McCann.

“It’s going to need something a bit more than that because, for one, people’s views and attention span for longer analysis pieces have shortened since then.

“The other key factor is that I think people, with the advent of social media – and we’ve had to change this on Slugger – want their news, they want immediacy and they want to be able to interact with the news content that’s in front of them.”

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