Yulia Navalnaya, widow of Alexei Navalny, steps forward to lead the Russian opposition

Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attends the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 16, 2024, the day it was announced Navalny was dead.
Kai Pfaffenbach/Pool/AFP via Getty Images 

– 3 points to understand

by Farida Jalalzai, Virginia Tech

Alexei Navalny, one of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s biggest critics and the country’s de facto opposition leader, died under suspicious circumstances in an Arctic prison on Feb. 16, 2024.

Hours after his death was announced, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, appeared in a video on social media and said, “I want to live in a free Russia, I want to build a free Russia.”.

Navalnaya, who lives outside of Russia, accused Putin of killing her husband and also promised to “continue the work of Alexei Navalny.”

Since her husband’s death, Navalyana, who was generally not prominently involved in politics before, has shown other signs of stepping into politics. She is lobbying the European Union to enact new sanctions against Putin, for example. Navalnaya and her daughter also met with President Joe Biden, to whom she reiterated her desire to keep up her husband’s fight against Putin.

My research examining female leaders worldwide recognizes family connections as an important pathway to power.

Navalnaya’s story fits squarely within a larger pattern of other female political leaders and activists who become publicly prominent after their husbands die or are imprisoned for their opposition to an authoritarian regime.

Here are three points to understand about Navalnaya’s sudden rise in politics, and the obstacles she faces in accomplishing her goal of bringing democratic change to Russia.

1. There’s a long history of women subbing for men

Widowhood was the main route American women took to becoming a member of Congress for decades, when they assumed their husbands’ seats, from the 1920s through the 1960s.

While men also often benefit from being born into political families, women disproportionately rely on their marital connections and other family linkages – such as being daughters of powerful men – to gain a foothold in politics.

Women also often ascend in the political arena under tragic circumstances.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, for example, was the widow of Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, who was assassinated in 1959. Sirimavo Bandaranaike began to lead her husband’s political party, and following elections in 1960, she became the first female prime minister in the world.

Similarly, in Nicaragua, Violeta de Chamorro, became the widow of the prominent news editor and publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978. Unknown gunmen killed her husband following years of his reporting work that challenged the country’s repressive government.

Violeta de Chamorro then became involved in Nicaragua’s tumultuous politics and was elected Nicaragua’s president in 1990. She served in that role until 1997.

A woman in dark sunglasses and a white head cover leans against the top of a car that she rides on as she speaks into a microphone. Several men stand or sit around her.
Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, campaigns before the Pakistani election in October 1990.
Derek Hudson/Getty Images

Then there is the example of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan who served in the 1980s and ‘90s. Bhutto was the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was deposed in a military coup in 1978 and then executed in 1979.

Today, women still sometimes take this route to power, often in Asia and Latin America.

Far closer to Russia, Belarus offers another recent example of how wives have assumed their husbands’ political posts when they are no longer able to continue their work. When Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko arrested leading critic Sergei Tikhanovsky and barred him from running in the 2020 presidential election, Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, ran in his place.

She lost her bid in 2020, during an election that featured rampant voting irregularities.

It is widely known that Tikhanovskaya, who initially said that she was not interested in politics, was allowed to run because Lukashenko thought she posed no real threat since she was a woman.

2. Women can use feminine stereotypes to their political benefit

Navalnaya, an economist and a former banker, focused on raising children and supporting her husband as he gained a political following within the last decade.

Navalnaya said in 2013, “I imagine myself as his wife, no matter what he is.” When asked about her own political ambition in another interview in 2021, she stated that it was “much more interesting to be a politician’s wife.”

Being a wife and mother are identities that can translate well to being considered a mother of a nation or a movement during inflection points.

Navalnaya and other women in a similar position are considered accidental leaders, only called into action under extreme circumstances. Though Navalnaya went with her husband to protests and rallies, her political activity was very limited until recently.

She was a key player in getting Putin’s permission to take her husband to Germany to receive treatment when he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in 2020. She increased her political role around that time, but to only highlight her husband’s plight and persecution.

A white, blonde haired woman wears a face mask and stands in a crowd of people, who all direct cell phone cameras at her.
Yulia Navalnaya, center, is surrounded by people as she leaves Moscow’s airport in January 2021, shortly after her husband Alexei Navalny’s apprehension by the Russian police for alleged fraud.
Derek Hudson/Getty Images

3. Navalnaya will face limits to real power

While Navalnaya has received much international interest and praise for stepping in to fill her husband’s shoes, she is living in exile.

If she returned to Russia and continued to oppose Putin’s regime, she would likely face imprisonment or even death, the fate of Putin’s other prominent critics.

But Navalnaya might not be able to gain real political headway if she does not return to Russia. Moreover, leading a movement from abroad could be used by her enemies as evidence that she is merely a puppet of foreign governments.

A grieving widow is now arguably Putin’s biggest critic, and her foray into the political limelight is not wholly unexpected. What remains unclear is whether Navalnaya can move beyond being a symbol and proxy of her husband and unite Russia’s opposition movement to face Putin.The Conversation

Farida Jalalzai, Professor of Political Science; Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Virginia Tech

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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