MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Russian politics.
Moscow’s international escapades have caused some global heartburn in recent years. In 2014, Russia took over part of eastern Ukraine and illegally annexed its Crimean peninsula. The following year, it deployed troops to Syria to prop up that nation’s corrupt regime.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And in 2016, Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election led to investigations and concerns about more interference in this year’s election. The Kremlin has stirred up trouble around the world, but what is going on inside the country?
WORLD correspondent Jill Nelson reports.
JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Russian political activist Alexei Navalny has been battling his country’s corrupt leadership for nearly a decade. Four years ago, the BBC asked him how much money is being sucked out of the Russian economy each year.
NAVALNY: For corruption, I think it’s at least something about $50 billion a year.
Navalny isn’t afraid to point fingers during interviews and in the videos he posts online. But as many Russians have learned, battling the country’s oligarchs is dangerous business.
On August 20th, Navalny fell ill during a domestic flight on a Russian airline. Two days later, he was flown to Berlin, where doctors put him into a medically-induced coma. They say he was poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. Clinics in Switzerland and France have confirmed that diagnosis.
David Satter is a Russia expert at the Hudson Institute.
SATTER: They may have thought that that Navalny would die on the plane and under those circumstances obviously he would have never left Russia. He would have never been taken to a German Clinic, there would never have been an objective assessment of what happened to him.
Satter says the Russian authorities have a history of bluffing their way through criminal activities. They count on Western powers to eventually forget the crimes.
SATTER: All of our presidents have been very anxious to overlook Russian crimes and President Trump also shows that tendency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Kremlin will look into Navalny’s poisoning, but Satter has little faith in an honest investigation.
SATTER: When one crime is committed, the Russians offer some type of absurd explanation and then we move on.
Russian doctors claimed Nalalny had an upset stomach.
Navalny was Putin’s number one critic and had been arrested 13 times. And he worried about being poisoned. Many government critics have mysteriously disappeared or died.
And the 67-year old Russian president seems determined to stay put. In July, Putin orchestrated a referendum that allows him to stay in power until 2036.
But Satter doubts he’ll last that long.
SATTER: I kind of think it’s unlikely simply because I think the ground will begin to move under his feet. And It’s hard to hold onto power that long. I mean things happen. Look at what’s happening in Belarus.
Millions of Belarusians publicly protested the results of August’s presidential election. Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 26 years and has Putin’s backing.
Similar rallies are taking root in Russia. In the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, protests are in their third month. Federal authorities arrested the region’s popular governor for what many say are trumped up charges of murder. Putin hand-picked his replacement.
This is also a region where Protestant Christians and other religious minorities face persecution. Putin has used his support for the Russian Orthodox Church to boost his popularity. But non-Orthodox groups don’t share that same nationalist identity, and the Kremlin is cracking down on religious groups and individuals it views as a threat to its power base.
Pasha Stolyarov is the director of an apologetics ministry in Saint Petersburg.
He says the country’s 2016 anti-missionary law requires government certification for all public activities, and it isn’t an easy process.
STOLYAROV: So it’s quite tricky how to follow all those rules and that’s why many churches quite downshifted their official activities on the streets.
In the past year and half, 142 people and 17 religious organizations faced charges under the law. Most of the cases ended in a guilty verdict. Russia also deported 10 foreign nationals for violating the broadly defined law.
Stolyarov says the combination of the anti-missionary law and coronavirus restrictions have forced ministries to pursue online opportunities. Russia currently has the fourth highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world.
But there’s some good news: Online ministries are flourishing. Stolyarov says his church has reached a large number of people through virtual services and small group meetings. And an online apologetics course he teaches usually draws about 10 or 15 people. But this year…
STOLYAROV: You know, more than 80 people signed up for this course. And I was like, ‘Woah!’
But online ministries also face challenges.
STOLYAROV: Even there the government is trying to control what people are saying and technically listening very intently to most popular preaching there and controlling what people are saying for example about other religions, especially the Orthodox Church.
Satter says Putin and his corrupt entourage are driven by a desire to hold onto property and power. They use nationalist and religious slogans to rally public support. But he says their methods aren’t timeless.
SATTER: You can’t forever preserve power on the basis of lies, propaganda, corruption, intimidation.
And the effect of that intimidation could already be weakening. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny says once he’s recovered from his assassination attempt, he intends to return to Russia and continue his work.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.