'I'm not afraid': Navalny's widow vows to continue his work as she meets EU foreign ministers

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, reacts as she speaks during the Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.
Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, reacts as she speaks during the Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Copyright Kai Pfaffenbach/AP
Copyright Kai Pfaffenbach/AP
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died in a Russian prison on Friday, delivered a charged political message ahead of a meeting with European Union foreign ministers on Monday.

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"I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny, continue to fight for our country. And I invite you to stand next to me," Navalnaya, an economist known widely as the 'first lady' of Russia's silenced opposition, said in a video message on social media.

"Keep fighting and do not give up. I’m not afraid, and neither should you be," she added.

Her words come three days after her husband Alexei Navalny - seen as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest domestic political opponent and greatest threat to his grip on power - was pronounced dead at the Arctic penal colony where he was held on charges of "extremism."

It marks a sharp turn of rhetoric for Navalny's widow, who kept a low profile while her husband led a tireless campaign against Putin's regime, which saw him tortured, persecuted, imprisoned and narrowly escape an assassination attempt.

EU leaders have said they hold Putin directly responsible for his sudden death, which has come as a blow to Russians whose hopes for a return to democracy rested on the Kremlin's critic.

The EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, said on X that ministers had extended their condolences to Navalnaya, affirming that Putin would be "held accountable" for her husband's death.

"As Yulia said, Putin is not Russia. Russia is not Putin," Borrell said.

"Putin is a murderer," Estonia's foreign minister Margus Tsahkna bluntly said on Monday. He added that the EU must respond by upping its military support to Ukraine, as the war-torn country's forces struggle to withstand Russia's offensive.

Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin said Navalnaya's presence was "significant" because "what has happened reminds us all of the repressive, oppressive nature of the regime in the Russian Federation and of how President Putin has ruthlessly (...) suppressed, any dissent."

Rights groups say some 400 people were detained in 36 cities in Russia over the weekend for paying tribute to Navalny. Many of the flowers and candles laid down in his memory were cleared away in black plastic bags by police officers.

The Kremlin's strict anti-dissident laws have silenced critics in Russia and sown fear amongst the population of the repercussions of actions seen to question Putin's rule.

The protests came as Navalny's family and lawyers struggled to locate his body. Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila Navalnay, travelled with his lawyer to the penal colony where he was held in a bid to find his corpse, but according to an official spokesperson was denied access to the morgue.

Reuters reported Monday that Navalny's mother had been told his cause of death was "sudden death syndrome" and that authorities would hold his body until their investigation was complete.

EU to name sanctions regime after Navalny

Borrell announced earlier on Monday he had proposed renaming the bloc's human rights sanctions regime after Navalny.

"We propose to (...) call it the Navalny human rights sanctions regime, in order for his name to be forever written on the work of the European Union, on defending human rights," Borrell said.

"We have to send a message of support to the Russian opposition," he added.

A letter pitched by Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt to Borrell also proposes naming the Brussels building of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the bloc's diplomatic arm, after Navalny. 

It also calls on Borrell to activate the bloc's human rights sanctions regime to target "all those involved in Alexei's agony."

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A senior EU official also suggested on Friday the bloc could slap sanctions on the individuals deemed to have been involved in Navalny's death and the years of political persecution that led to his demise.

In 2021, a year before the start of the war, the bloc slapped sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on Russian officials responsible for Navalny's detention under the so-called Magnitsky act.

Further sanctions were imposed on individuals involved in Navalny's chemical poisoning in November 2022, eight months following the invasion of Ukraine.

But his eventual death has cast a harsh light on the bloc's inability in the years prior to the war in Ukraine to exert sufficient diplomatic pressure on Russia to comply with its human rights obligations.

EU member states are currently mulling a 13th package of sanctions on Russia, due to be announced in the coming week.

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Speaking at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Navalnaya said: "I want Putin, his friends, and the government to know that they will be held accountable for what they have done to our country, our family, and my husband."

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