World leaders blame Vladimir Putin for death of critic Alexei Navalny

World leaders and Russian opposition activists wasted no time on Friday in blaming the reported death of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny on President Vladimir Putin and his government.

“It is obvious that he was killed by Putin,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who was visiting Berlin as he sought aid for his country as it fights off an invasion by Russia.

“Putin doesn’t care who dies – only for him to hold his position. This is why he must hold onto nothing. Putin must lose everything and be held responsible for his deeds,” Mr Zelensky said.

US President Joe Biden said Washington does not know exactly what happened, “but there is no doubt that the death of Navalny was a consequence of something Putin and his thugs did”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose country temporarily took in Navalny in 2020 after he was poisoned with a nerve agent, said the Kremlin critic’s death makes clear “what kind of regime this is”.

The German leader said he met Mr Navalny in Berlin during his convalescence.

Mr Navalny, 47, was serving a 19-year prison sentence on extremism charges in a remote penal colony above the Arctic Circle at the time of his death.

He has been behind bars since he returned from Germany in January 2021, serving time on various charges that he rejected as a politically motivated effort to keep him imprisoned for life.

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A man holds a poster with the portrait of Alexei Navalny in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, after hearing news of his death (Paul Zinken/dpa via AP)

Mr Navalny’s associates stressed they did not have independent confirmation of his death in the reports that came from Russia’s penitentiary officials.

His close ally, Ivan Zhdanov, said authorities “must notify the relatives” within 24 hours “if true”.

“There hasn’t been any notifications,” he said on X, formerly Twitter. “We have no other comments beyond that.”

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Alexei Navalny, right, poses for press as he sits handcuffed in court in Moscow in 2017 (AP Photo, File)

“But if this is true, I want Putin and everyone around Putin, Putin’s friends, his government, to know that they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family and to my husband. And this day will come very soon,” she said.

Mr Navalny’s death also led to an outpouring of grief among Russians living abroad.

In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, hundreds of Russians and others lit candles and laid flowers outside the Russian embassy.

Tens of thousands of Russians have moved to Serbia, a fellow Slavic country, since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago.

Hundreds also gathered in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which has also seen a huge influx of Russians since the invasion of Ukraine.

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A photo of Alexei Navalny and flowers are placed on a fence guarding the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina (AP Photo/Victor R Caivano)

Up to 300 people attended a similar rally in Georgia’s third-largest city, Batumi.

Protesters also assembled in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, another country that attracted a lot of Russians after the start of the war in Ukraine.

In Israel, home to a large number of people who came from Russia, hundreds rallied outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Russia will be free!”.

Protesters also rallied outside Russian embassies in Berlin and the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

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A woman places flowers during protest in front of Russian embassy in Belgrade, Serbia (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

“If this is true, then no matter the formal cause, the responsibility for the premature death is Vladimir Putin personally, who first gave the green light to the poisoning of Alexei and then put him in prison,” said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russia tycoon turned opposition figure in exile, speaking in an online statement.

Other Russian opposition activists echoed him.

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Protesters stage a demonstration opposite the Russian Embassy in London (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

“Even if Alexei died of natural causes, those were triggered by his poisoning and further torture in prison.”

Former world chess champion-turned-opposition activist Garry Kasparov said “Putin tried and failed to murder Navalny quickly and secretly with poison, and now he has murdered him slowly and publicly in prison.”

“He was killed for exposing Putin and his mafia as the crooks and thieves they are,” Kasparov, who lives abroad, wrote on X.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Russia has questions to answer if the reports are true.

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People hold up their mobile phones with lights paying their last respect to Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NPR that if Navalny’s death is confirmed, “it’s a terrible tragedy and, given the Russian government’s long and sordid history of doing harm to its opponents, it raises real and obvious questions about what happened here”.

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