The return from Germany on Sunday last week by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was marked by chaos and popular outrage, and it ended, almost predictably, with his arrest.
The flight from Berlin, where Navalny spent nearly five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning, carried him and his wife, along with a group of journalists documenting the journey. However, the plane was diverted from its intended airport in Moscow to another one in the capital in what was seen as an apparent attempt to foil a welcome from crowds awaiting him.
The Russian authorities also took him into custody immediately, sparking outrage at home and abroad. Some Western countries threatened sanctions, and his team yesterday called for nationwide demonstrations.
Illustration: June Hsu
Navalny had prepared his own surprise for his return: A video expose alleging that a lavish “palace” was built for Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Black Sea through an elaborate corruption scheme. His team posted it on YouTube on Tuesday, and within 48 hours, it had gotten more than 42 million views.
Navalny faces years in prison from a previous conviction he claims was politically motivated, while political commentators say that there are no good options for the Kremlin.
The Associated Press looks at his long standoff with authorities:
WHO IS NAVALNY?
Navalny, 44, is an anti-corruption campaigner and the Kremlin’s fiercest critic. He has outlasted many opposition figures and is undeterred by incessant attempts to stop his work.
He has released scores of damning reports exposing corruption in Putin’s Russia. He has been a galvanizing figure in mass protests, including unprecedented demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 sparked by reports of widespread rigging of a parliamentary election.
Navalny was convicted twice on criminal charges: embezzlement and later fraud. He received suspended sentences of five years and three-and-a-half years respectively. He denounced the convictions as politically motivated, and the European Court of Human Rights disputed them.
Navalny sought to challenge Putin in the 2018 Russian presidential election, but was barred from running by one of his convictions. Nevertheless, he drew crowds of supporters almost everywhere he went in the country.
Frequently arrested, he has served multiple stints in jail for charges relating to leading protests. In 2017, an attacker threw a green antiseptic liquid in his face, damaging his sight. He was also hospitalized in 2019 after a suspected poisoning while in jail.
None of that has stopped him. In August last year, he fell ill while on a domestic flight in Siberia, and the pilot landed quickly in Omsk, where he was hospitalized.
His supporters managed to have him flown to Berlin, where he lay in a coma for more than two weeks and was diagnosed as having been poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent — an allegation the Kremlin denied.
After he recovered, Navalny released a recording of a telephone call he said he made to a man he said was a member of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), who purportedly poisoned him. The FSB dismissed the recording as a fabricated, but it still shocked many at home and abroad.
Navalny vowed to return to Russia and continue his work, while authorities threatened him with arrest.
WHY DID NAVALNY RETURN AT ALL?
Navalny said he did not leave Russia by choice, but rather “ended up in Germany in an intensive care box.”
He said he never considered the possibility of staying abroad.
“It doesn’t seem right to me that Alexei Navalny calls for a revolution from Berlin,” he said in an interview in October last year, referring to himself in the third person. “If I’m doing something, I want to share the risks with people who work in my office.”
Analysts say it would have been impossible for Navalny to remain relevant as an opposition leader outside Russia.
“Remaining abroad, becoming a political emigre, would mean death to a public politician,” said Masha Lipman, an independent political analyst.
Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, echoed her sentiment.
“Active, bright people who could initiate some real actions and take part in elections ... while in the country, once abroad, end up cut off from the real connection to the people,” Petrov said.
WHY IS NAVALNY NOW FACING PRISON?
His suspended sentence from the 2014 conviction carried a probation period that expired last month. The authorities said that Navalny was subject to regular in-person check-ins with law enforcement officers.
During the final days of Navalny’s probation, Russia’s prison service put him on a wanted list, accusing him of not appearing for these checks, including when he was convalescing in Germany. Officials have petitioned the court to have him serve the full three-and-a-half-year sentence.
After his return, Navalny was placed in custody for 30 days, with a hearing to review his sentence scheduled for Feb. 2.
Earlier this month, the Russian Investigative Committee opened another criminal probe against him on fraud charges, accusing him that he had embezzled donations to his Foundation for Fighting Corruption. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.
DOES NAVALNY THREATEN THE KREMLIN?
Putin never calls Navalny by name, and state media depict him as an unimportant blogger.
However, he has managed to spread his reach far outside Moscow through his widely popular YouTube channels, including the one that featured the allegations about Putin’s massive Black Sea estate.
His infrastructure of regional offices set up nationwide in 2017 has helped him challenge the Russian government by mobilizing voters. In 2018, Navalny launched the Smart Voting project that is designed to promote candidates who are most likely to defeat those from the Kremlin’s dominant United Russia party.
In 2019, the project helped opposition candidates win 20 of the 45 seats on the Moscow city council, and regional elections last year saw United Russia lose its majority in legislatures in three cities.
Navalny has promised to use the strategy during this year’s parliamentary election, which will determine who controls the Russian State Duma in 2024 — when Putin’s term ends and he is expected to seek re-election, thanks to constitutional reforms last year.
Analysts believe that Navalny is capable of influencing this key vote, reason enough for the Kremlin to want him out of the picture.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Analysts say that Navalny’s return was a significant blow to Putin’s image and left the Kremlin with a dilemma.
Putin has mostly worked from his residence during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the widespread perception that he has stayed away from the public does not compare well with Navalny’s bold comeback to the country where he was poisoned and faced arrest, Petrov said.
“It doesn’t matter whether people support Navalny or not. They see these two images, and Putin loses,” he said.
Commentators say that there is no good choice for the Kremlin: Imprisoning Navalny for a long time would make him a martyr and could lead to mass protests, while letting him go threatens the parliamentary election.
So far, the crackdown has only helped Navalny, “and now, even thinking loyalists are, if not on his side, certainly not on the side of poisoners and persecutors,” Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an article this month.
All eyes are on what happens at yesterday’s planned protests, Petrov said.
In 2013, Navalny was quickly released from prison following the sentence from embezzlement conviction after a large crowd gathered near the Kremlin.
The Kremlin has since become much tougher on dissent, so it is unlikely that mass protests would prompt Navalny’s immediate release, Petrov said.
However, the Kremlin still fears that a harsh move might destabilize the situation, and the scale of the rallies could indicate how the public would react to Navalny being imprisoned for a long time, he added.
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