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'Voldemort Of Our Time': At Putin Press Conference, Navalny Seen As 'He Who Must Not Be Named'

Masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin (top) and Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny for sale at a shop in St. Petersburg.
Masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin (top) and Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny for sale at a shop in St. Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual extended press conference on December 14 did little to dispel opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's reputation as the Lord Voldemort of Russian officialdom.

Putin never uttered Navalny's name but alluded to him several times, including as among "those individuals that you mentioned."

The anticorruption crusader has long appeared to be He Who Must Not Be Named in the country's tightly managed political landscape. The reluctance of Russian officials to utter Navalny's name is widely seen as a bid to avoid conferring official legitimacy on the Kremlin's most prominent political foe.

Instead, they have danced around his name with various descriptors, many of which refer to Navalny's financial-crimes convictions that he calls politically motivated and that will likely stymie his bid to challenge Putin in the March 2018 presidential election.

Putin kept this up during his Moscow press conference. Television personality Ksenia Sobchak -- herself a presidential hopeful who said she attended "as a journalist" because she had no hope to debate Putin before the election -- asked Putin in part about Navalny and his inability to get on the ballot.

Putin responded by comparing Russian opposition activists to former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a Putin nemesis who served as a governor in Ukraine and who has spearheaded recent antigovernment protests in Kyiv. But the Saakashvili reference was clearly directed squarely at Navalny.

"Do you really want to have dozens of Saakashvilis running around our squares?" Putin said. "The people you named are Saakashvilis of the Russian edition."

After likening the Kyiv rallies to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, Putin said those protests, which hit U.S. cities in 2011, were "comprised of" -- in another allusion to Navalny -- local "Saakashvilis or those you mentioned."

Navalny, who has published numerous investigations of alleged corruption by Russia's rich and powerful, joked on Twitter following Putin's comments: "I'm adding 'the people you named' to my collection of 'words used to avoid saying Navalny.'"

Other Russian-language Twitter users riffed on the long-standing joke likening Navalny to Voldemort in British author J.K. Rowling's series of Harry Potter novels, whose characters refer to the dreaded villain with monikers like He Who Must Not Be Named and You Know Who.

"Navalny is the Voldemort of our time," one Twitter user wrote.

When previously asked about Navalny, Putin has called the opposition leader "this gentleman" and "the defendant you mentioned."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has referred to Navalny as "the above-mentioned citizen" and the "convicted citizen," while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has referred to him as a "political loser" and someone with "concrete political goals."

Navalny has publicly clashed with Sobchak over her presidential run, which is widely seen as helping the Kremlin by lending a veneer of true competition to the ballot. But he praised her question to Putin, who worked under her father, former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, in the 1990s.

"I have to say, Ksenia did a great gob. She formulated her question clearly," Navalny wrote.

While Putin appears averse to saying Navalny's name publicly, U.S. journalist Alec Luhn -- who covers Russia for the British newspaper The Telegraph -- said on Twitter in 2013 that the Russian leader actually did so when he specifically asked him about the matter.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.