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What’s next for Navalny?

The return of Alexei Navalny to Moscow following his poisoning was understood by the Kremlin as a declaration of war.

March 1, 2021 - Maksym Skrypchenko - Articles and Commentary

Novosibirsk, Russia-October 3, 2017. Politician Alexei Navalny speaks at an opposition rally. Photo: Jonas Petrovas / Shutterstock

After the arrest of Alexei Navalny on January 17th, he is no longer an internal problem for the Russian government that rival elites can use against each other, but rather a foreign policy problem.

Now Navalny faces 3.5 years in prison — if the court decides that the oppositionist “violated the conditions of probation.” They mean the “Yves Rocher” case in 2014, when Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg were found guilty of fraud and legalisation of criminal funds (they convinced the Yves Rocher company to sign an unprofitable contract). In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights declared the sentence unfair and obliged the Russian government to pay compensation to Navalny. His sentence, however, was never cancelled.

Navalny was privileged while serving his conditional sentence. None of his many short sentences ended in returning to prison for a long time; he travelled abroad and even took part in the election for mayor of Moscow to purely legitimise the new mayor in a complex and politically conscious region. The Kremlin was happy to use Alexei as a prominent opposition leader to show that it allows free elections with representatives of both the government and opposition.

Now, however, Moscow wants to move Navalny from the rank of enemies, who are fought with rules and respect, to the category of traitors, with whom they must fight without rules. After all, the traitor violates the oath first.

Navalny has been made into an instrument of external aggression and the Russian authorities can more or less openly talk about the threats associated with him. The Kremlin thinks that the worst thing about Navalny is not him himself, but the fact that there is a strong and hostile “external enemy” who wants to overthrow the Russian government behind him.

The arrest of the oppositionist will raise his popularity to unprecedented heights. The Kremlin itself inflates the importance of Navalny and disavows the position of Putin, who has recently sarcastically declared, “Who needs Navalny?”.

Russia received a famous political prisoner, who has not been well-known in Russia for a long time and who, as a symbol for world leaders, is already eating up part of the political space that previously belonged to Putin. There seems to be a perceived need for an acceptable Russian opposition interlocutor, as well as perhaps a naive expectation that he would be more accommodating than Putin if he ever came to power. He also seems to be the type of opposition leader Western journalists can cover and refer to thanks to his focus on corruption. Anyway, he became exactly the opposition leader Moscow feared the most — he is known to around 80 per cent of Russians despite attempts by the federal media to pretend that such a person does not exist. One needs to understand, however, that the “anonymous” Telegram channels associated with the Russian elite constantly mention Navalny and his connections with foreigners, thus forever creating around him the image of a foreign agent.

The physical elimination of Navalny is a secret special operation that the Kremlin can deny as much as it wants. His arrest and imprisonment, however, are open acts of the Russian Federation which cannot be denied. They must be explained and justified. When assassination and arrest follow one another, it looks like two acts of the same drama.

Officially, the Kremlin and its mouthpieces portray Alexei Navalny as an insignificant blogger. But the desperate convulsions of the Russian authorities and special services, which on Sunday evening arrested the oppositionist immediately upon his return to Russia, leave no doubt that the Russian authorities see Navalny as a real political threat.

For the Kremlin, Navalny’s announcement of his return to his homeland actually sounded like a declaration of war, which explains the harsh reaction from the authorities. The scale of the operation that was organised by the Russian authorities in connection with the return of the oppositionist refutes Putin’s insistence that Navalny’s persona is of little importance.

The “special operation” was deployed on the evening of January 17th. It came in the form of the short-term closure of Moscow’s Vnukovo airport and the redirection of the commercial flight which Navalny was flying on from Berlin to Sheremetyevo airport, which indicate that the issue was being controlled at the highest administrative level.

The CEOs of Aeroflot and Pobeda airlines found out about the sudden maneuver to change airports for Navalny’s arrival just a day before. The crew was also warned about this situation in advance, so more fuel was poured into the tanks than was required for a simple flight to Vnukovo.

The trial of Alexei Navalny was arranged right at the police department in Khimki. The Ministry of Internal Affairs explained that the court hearing on Navalny was conducted outside the court building due to his lack of a COVID-19 test. Alexei Navalny was arrested for 30 days.

Russia’s shift in 2020 towards an even more authoritarian political system, including changes to the Russian constitution and the adoption of new repressive laws, are evidence of growing uncertainty among those in power. The Kremlin believes it can maintain the desired status quo only by using even more repressive methods.

The arrest of Navalny may have an even greater effect than the arrest of Furgal (ex-governor of the Khabarovsk region), which was followed by numerous rallies in the Russian Far East. The subsequent protests and reactions may affect the parliamentary elections in Russia, which will take place this autumn. Just after Navalny’s arrival, his team published a deep investigation on Putin’s bankroll, which is held by multiple oligarchs, family members and grey men. This investigation from Navalny included information about Putin’s palace (which is worth around 1,6 billion US dollars). It is the newest public pronouncement of a simple fact — the Russian president is totally corrupt and mad about money.

Unfortunately, Putin is known for assassinating his political opponents and personal rivals who publish private information about his family. This suggests this all may come to a troubling end. Meanwhile, Navalny called on the Russian people to join protest rallies on January 23rd in all major cities. Yet it still didn’t become a turning point in modern Russian history. There was small groups of protesters, no plan and no specific demands from society except to “Free Navalny.” It resulted in sweeping arrests of around 4.000 people who participated in the protests in major cities.

On January 27th, Russian special services and police conducted a full-blown search of dozens of the protest leaders across Russia. They were officially charged with violations of sanitary and epidemiological standards — that is, the call to gather in central squares to protest against the arrest of Navalny bypassed the COVID-19 state-issued restrictions. This news didn’t find enough favor with ordinary citizens who mostly believe Navalny was not poisoned.

On February 2nd, Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 3,5 years in a penal colony. The court also paid attention to the time Navalny had spent under house arrest, meaning that he would spend only two years and eight months under glass. Several Western nations, including Germany, USA, UK and France have already condemned the court ruling. Hundreds of people were arrested on that day trying to protest for the immediate release of Navalny.  

Just a day before the court decision, Russia Today published a video showing a close associate of Alexey Navalny seeking cash and intelligence from an alleged British spy. The video dates back to 2012 and is said to be made and shared with RT by Russia’s FSB. Moscow still tries to prove that Navalny is a foreign power agent who is targeting not specific corrupt politicians but the Russian sovereignty itself. That’s why as condemnation for the court ruling poured in from western leaders, the Kremlin cautioned the concerned countries to mind their own business.

It’s obvious that Navalny has come back to Russia predicting he would be imprisoned. He couldn’t but do it because otherwise he would have been considered to become another emigrated politician who is fighting against Putin online. He decided to clench and become a symbol of the Russian opposition. Nevertheless, the number of his supporters is too low to introduce real changes in the countries. Will Alexei learn from this situation, change his dry strategy and open a new page in Russian history by gaining new supporters? Although he can not communicate himself, his wife Yulia has already received his first letter from the penal colony. So what’s next for Navalny?

Maksym Skrypchenko is a co-founder of Ukrainian Translatlantic Platform and a Deputy Director of Security Initiative Center residing in Kyiv. His main areas of expertise are conflictology, Eastern Europe, Ukraine-EU and Ukraine-NATO relations.

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