Amy Knight is the author of six books on Russian history and politics, including, most recently, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words are to be taken at face value, Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny is politically insignificant.
In August, Mr. Navalny was poisoned with a lethal nerve agent on apparent orders from the Kremlin; he barely survived after receiving treatment in Germany. In response, Mr. Putin has claimed that the “Berlin patient” – he refuses to call Mr. Navalny by his name – has so little political weight that no one would bother to kill him.
But the reaction of Russian authorities to Mr. Navalny’s homecoming last Sunday night has given away what Mr. Putin really thinks.
Determined not to let the Kremlin off the hook by remaining abroad, and not wanting to risk diminishing his political influence among his countrymen as the Russian government spreads allegations that he was sponsored by western intelligence services, Mr. Navalny decided it was time to fly home. “There was never any question of ‘returning or not’ for me. Simply because I didn’t leave,” he said when announcing his return on Instagram. “I wound up in Germany, having arrived in a resuscitation box, for one reason: they tried to kill me. I survived.” Several hundred supporters had gathered peacefully at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport to greet his flight.
But OMON riot police with helmets and batons were deployed, and metal barriers erected, inside the terminal. Numerous activists, including Mr. Navalny’s brother, Oleg, were arrested. Then, shortly before Mr. Navalny was expected to land, the airport was shut down “for technical reasons,” and some flights, including Mr. Navalny’s, were diverted to Sheremetyevo Airport. According to a pilot who was forced to delay his landing, this caused “a dangerous and reckless situation in the Moscow airspace … We were burning petrol without clear instructions. We were slowly running out, it wasn’t a very pleasant situation.”
By returning to confront Russian authorities head-on, Mr. Navalny has become an international hero and, as some Russian commentators have said, a real political alternative to Vladimir Putin. Mr. Navalny even recorded a video message after being sentenced to 30 days in prison, urging Russians to “take to the streets” in protest against his unlawful detention. As Russian journalist Aleksandr Shmelev writes: “The regime itself turned Navalny into the unequivocal leader of the opposition and the main opponent of the Putin regime … If Navalny had calmly flown to Moscow, left the airport, greeted supporters and gone home, Putin could continue to giggle awkwardly at press conferences, saying, ‘who needs him.’ But the hysteria of the authorities … shows how much Putin himself worries about Navalny, how afraid he is of him.”
Mr. Navalny’s accusations that the thin-skinned Mr. Putin is an outright thief – and the person who ordered his poisoning – have doubtlessly contributed to the Kremlin’s over-reactive vengeance. An explosive video posted Tuesday by Mr. Navalny’s staff with the title “A Palace for Putin: A History of the Greatest Bribe,” is sure to especially enrage the Russian president. In the video, Mr. Navalny tells his audience that Mr. Putin is “mentally ill” and “obsessed with wealth and luxury.” As one example, the film provides extensive photo footage of the Russian President’s sprawling secret palace on the Black Sea, estimated to be “39 times the size of Monaco” and funded by wealthy members of Mr. Putin’s inner-circle in exchange for political favours. As of Tuesday, the video had more than 20 million views on YouTube, and Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation had received more than 5 million rubles ($85,000) in new donations.
Analysts have predicted that Mr. Navalny, who is now being held in Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison (where Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009), will be sentenced to three and a half years in prison when he appears at a court hearing scheduled for Feb. 2. The charges relate to a 2014 conviction on bogus charges of embezzlement, for which Mr. Navalny received a suspended sentence. Now, with the appearance of Mr. Navalny’s video, Mr. Putin will make sure that he is convicted in other cases that have recently been opened against him, putting the possibility of many more years in prison on the table. As Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert wrote Wednesday: “Aleksei will not accept any mercy from the Kremlin, so the path that he and his followers have chosen will be very difficult. To be in the hands of today’s political regime is an unenviable fate. Just ask the family of Sergei Magnitsky about this.”
It is possible that Mr. Navalny’s status as a heroic, world-renowned politician might save him from this fate. As the Kremlin knows, further persecution of Mr. Navalny would prompt an international outcry and stiff economic sanctions. During his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Antony Blinken – President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state – condemned Mr. Navalny’s arrest, saying that he speaks for “millions and millions of Russians” and that “their voice needs to be heard.”
But will these millions of Russians respond to Mr. Navalny’s message? Russian political commentator Anton Orekh observed this week that the overwhelming majority of Russians have a low level of civic consciousness: “The vast majority just don’t care. They are not for or against, but indifferent.” But Mr. Navalny’s incredible display of courage may rouse Russians from their torpor. Also, there is a huge audience for the videos produced by Mr. Navalny and his staff, which meticulously document the ways members of Russia’s elite have enriched themselves at great cost to ordinary people. With the Russian economy in decline, there has been a record plunge in the country’s average income. As ordinary Russians increasingly feel the crunch, Mr. Navalny’s message is sure to resonate widely.
Konstantin Remchukov, chief editor of the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, noted on Monday that Mr. Navalny had now made it clear to his countrymen that he is willing to put it all on the line for Russia’s future: “It seems to me that Navalny has transformed himself into a different type of politician and maybe at this moment he has emerged as a real political force opposing the regime of today’s Russia. He is no longer just a blogger, but takes personal risk, which in our country is traditionally valued above all else.”
Sub-zero temperatures and the coronavirus pandemic may deter Russians from protesting in large numbers on Saturday, as may the fact that the police have been cracking down on peaceful demonstrations. But Mr. Navalny and his supporters are gearing up for a longer struggle. Even though he’s behind bars, his followers will wage a vigorous campaign to oust candidates from the Kremlin-sponsored United Russia Party in the crucial September elections to the State Duma.
As Mr. Remchukov observed: “At the beginning of the twentieth century [on the eve of the Russian revolution], Russian poet Alexander Blok wrote: ‘There is a time bomb ticking in Russia’s heart.’ Now, it seems to me, such a bomb is again ticking.”
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