What future does the Russian opposition have now after Navalny's death? 2:55

(CNN) --

In a 2022 CNN Films documentary, Alexey Navalny sent a message to the Russian people. If you are killed, he said, "surrender is not allowed." The task that Navalny set for himself, of opposing and exposing the evils of Putin's regime, is now left in the hands of the disparate, disunited and partially dismantled Russian opposition, with a new leader: Yulia, Navalny's widow.


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 have no right to give up," she said in an eight-minute video posted to her late husband's social media. "I ask you to share the anger with me."

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This is a first for Navalnaya. She has always stood by her husband, through campaigns, protests and imprisonments, but until now she had never attempted to claim the spotlight on her, a point she emphasized at the beginning of her recording. "I shouldn't have been in this place, I shouldn't have recorded this video."

And yet, behind the scenes, she proved to be an effective operator. Following the poisoning of her husband in 2020, it was Navalnaya who took the first available flight to the Siberian city of Tomsk, where her plane had landed, and wrote a direct appeal to President Putin to allow her evacuation. To Germany. Even after that, her determination to stay by his side remained unwavering. 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 leaving it halfway is not right."

Yulia Navalnaya, pictured above, is the widow of the late Kremlin dissident Alexey Navalny. After his death on February 16, she told his supporters: "I have no right to surrender." Credit: Yulia Navalnaya/X

Some argue that if Navalnaya wants to ensure her husband's movement doesn't fade, now is her time. According to Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who resigned in 2022 in protest of the invasion of Ukraine, the weight of public emotion over the death of her husband and international attention are significant tailwinds.

Her decision to address world leaders at the Munich Security Conference just hours after the Russian prison service first reported her husband's death, and to later meet European foreign ministers in Brussels, puts him in a "powerful position," Bondarev told CNN.

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However, if Navalnaya wants to do more than continue the work of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, if it is to create a functioning opposition in Russia, she may need a different approach than her husband. The big test will be whether she can become a unifying force for those who oppose Putin.

"If you offer broad participation of all opposition forces on an equal footing, the situation will change," Bondarev says. If he doesn't, he believes that eventually "people will wake up and see that nothing changes."

Navalny, despite being the most popular opposition figure in Russia and the best known outside the country, never managed to unite the disparate anti-Putin forces. He was a long-time member of the liberal opposition Yaboko party in the early 2000s, before being expelled in 2007 for "nationalist activities". "Our views diverged a long time ago," party founder Grigory Yavlinsky said in a statement released after Navalny's death. "We argued and criticized each other." These disagreements occurred again in 2021, before the parliamentary elections, after Yavlinsky harshly criticized Navalny's campaign to get votes.

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

However, for those who remain, Navalny's death has provided an impetus to keep trying. The man who proposed Nadezhdin, the leader of the Civic Initiative party, Andrey Nechaev, a former economy minister in the 1990s, denies that there is no functional opposition left. "I consider myself a constructive opposition figure," Nechaev said in an interview with CNN from Moscow. He is working on multiple avenues to keep the movement alive.

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There are several legal proceedings underway to appeal the decision to exclude Nadezhdin from the presidential elections, Nechaev plans to present candidates in the municipal elections, and has just sent a request to the Moscow authorities to hold a rally to mark the ninth anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, in his memory and in that of Navalny. "Of course, it is very likely that the mayor's office will deny it," he says, but "drop by drop we are sharpening the stone."

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny (left) and his wife Yulia Navalnaya (right) photographed in Kirov, Russia, on July 19, 2013. Navalny represented the greatest threat to Putin's autocracy during his lifetime. Credit: Evgeny Feldman/AP

Traces of unity are also detected. "Our reaction to his assassination must be to join forces, continue his work together and ensure that the hope of a democratic Russia does not die with him," Khodorkovsky posted on X. On Saturday, Gabrielus Landsbergis, Lithuania's foreign minister, posted a photo of him with Khodorkovsky, Kasparov and another exiled former Russian opposition politician, Dmitri Gudkov. "We share the deep concern that Putin is now being allowed to act with complete impunity," he wrote. And there is evidence, from the queues of Russians that formed outside Nadezhdin's campaign headquarters, to the steady stream of mourners leaving individual flowers in Navalny's memory, that some Russians yearn for an alternative.

However, in a country where the media is almost completely controlled by the state and dissent is systematically repressed, others warn that this is not a critical mass. "We should not overestimate the spread of opposition ideas and sentiments in Russian society," says Bondarev. "Many people... who don't like the situation, who see it deteriorating, still don't make a logical connection between the situation, the worsening situation and President Putin's policies. Because for them Putin has always been there".

Yulia Navalnaya