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Yulia Navalnaya is raising hopes for a renewed Russian opposition. She will face huge challenges

Analysis by Clare Sebastian, CNN

(CNN) — In a 2022 CNN Films documentary, Alexey Navalny delivered a message to the Russian people. If he was killed, he said, “You’re not allowed to give up.” The task that Navalny set himself, of opposing and exposing the ills of Putin’s regime is now left to Russia’s disparate, disunited, and partially dismantled opposition, with a new figurehead: Navalny’s widow Yulia.

On Monday, just three days after her husband’s death, Yulia Navalnaya rebranded herself as a political force, vowing to pick up where her husband left off.  “I don’t have the right to surrender,” she said in an eight-minute video posted to her dead husband’s social media channels.  “I ask you to share with me in rage.”

This is a first for Navalnaya. She has always been by her husband’s side, through campaigns, protests, and incarcerations, but until now she has never tried to claim the spotlight, a point she emphasized at the start of her recording. “I should not have been in this place, I should not have recorded this video.”

And yet, behind the scenes, she proved herself an effective operator. After her husband’s poisoning in 2020, it was Navalnaya that took the first flight available to the Siberian city of Tomsk where his plane had landed, and wrote a direct appeal to President Putin to allow his evacuation to Germany. Even after that, her resolve to stand by him was unshaken. Less than two months later she told Russian journalist and Youtube star Yuri Dud, “I absolutely support what Alexey does. I’m being completely sincere. And quitting halfway is not great.”

Some argue if Navalnaya is to ensure her husband’s movement doesn’t fizzle, now is her moment. The weight of public emotion over her husband’s death and the international spotlight are both significant tailwinds, argues Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who resigned in 2022 in protest over the invasion of Ukraine.

Her decision to address world leaders at the Munich Security Conference within hours of the Russian prison service first reporting her husband’s death, and then to meet with European foreign ministers in Brussels, casts her in a “powerful position,” Bondarev told CNN.

And yet, if Navalnaya wants to do more than just continue the work of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, if this is about creating a functioning opposition within Russia, she may need a different approach to her husband. The big test will be whether she can become a unifying force for those who oppose Putin.

“If she offers wide participation of all opposition forces on an equal basis, then the situation will change,” says Bondarev. If she doesn’t, he believes eventually “people will wake up and they will see that nothing changes.”

Navalny, despite being Russia’s most popular opposition figure, and the best known outside the country, never managed to unite the disparate anti-Putin forces. He was a longtime member of liberal opposition party Yaboko in the early 2000s before being expelled in 2007 for “nationalist activities.” “Our viewpoints diverged a long time ago,” noted the party’s founder, Grigory Yavlinsky, in a statement posted after Navalny’s death. “We argued and criticized each other.” That rift spilled over again in 2021 ahead of parliamentary elections after Yavlinsky sharply criticized Navalny’s campaign to engineer votes.

The other challenge is that even if Navalnaya can prove a unifying figure, there are now fewer opposition forces to unify. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, both Ilya Yashin, a close ally of Navalny and once rising star in opposition circles and Vladimir Kara-Murza, a dual Russian-British citizen and opposition politician have been given long prison terms. Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and chess champion Garry Kasparov are long exiled. Russia’s central election commission just barred the only remaining anti-war candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, from running in upcoming presidential elections in March.

And yet for those left, Navalny’s death has created some momentum to keep trying. The man who put Nadezhdin forward, Civic Initiative party leader Andrey Nechaev, a former economy minister in the 1990s, denies there’s no functioning opposition left. “I consider myself a constructive opposition figure, says Nechaev in an interview with CNN from Moscow. He is working multiple avenues to keep the movement alive.

Several court cases are underway to appeal the decision to bar Nadezhdin from the presidential ballot, Nechaev plans to put forward candidates in municipal elections, and he has just sent an application to Moscow authorities to hold a rally to mark the 9th anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s killing, to commemorate him and Navalny. “Of course there is a high likelihood the mayor’s office will deny,” he says, but “drop by drop we sharpen the stone.”

Traces of unity are also detectable. “Our reaction to his murder must be to join forces, carry on his work together and ensure that hope for a democratic Russia does not die with him,” Khodorkovsky posted on X. On Saturday, the Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis posted a photo of himself with Khodorkovsky, Kasparov, and another exiled former Russian opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov. “We share deep concerns that Putin is now being allowed to act with total impunity,” he wrote. And there is evidence, from the lines of Russians that formed outside Nadezhdin’s campaign headquarters, to the steady stream of mourners leaving individual flowers in memory of Navalny, that some Russians crave an alternative.

And yet, in a country where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and dissent routinely stifled, others caution this is nowhere close to a critical mass. “We shouldn’t overestimate the spread of opposition ideas, opposition moods in Russian society,” says Bondarev. “Many people…who don’t like the situation, who see that it deteriorates, they do not yet establish a logical connection between the situation, the worsening situation and President Putin’s policies. Because for them Putin has always been there.”

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