The Russian opponent has gone from being a simple nuisance to the Kremlin to the most recognizable face of his opposition
The simple question is enough to offend the Russian Government. “Someone is afraid of someone else are absolute rubbish,” a Kremlin spokesman declared this week.
However, President Vladimir Putin, always ready to show his macho appearance, be it riding bare chest, examining polar bears or, as he did two days ago, plunging into icy water, has not dared to say in public the name of Alexei Navalny.
The unnameable activist, on the other hand, does not stop pointing out both the president and his close circle, revealing case after case of corruption. Neither the repeated incarcerations nor his political disqualification nor the poisoning attempts appear to be effective in silencing this 44-year-old lawyer.
Since the question will never be answered by the Kremlin, we ask it here: Does Putin have reason to fear Navalny?
In a short time
After having had to be transferred to Berlin in a coma for his poisoning with a nerve agent from the Novichok group – confirmed by the German army and two independent European laboratories – Navalny returned to Russia last Sunday and was arrested by the police as soon as he landed. The alleged reason for his arrest was that he did not appear before the prison authorities when he was due (that is, while he was recovering in Germany). The United States, the European Union and human rights organizations immediately demanded the release of the Russian activist who has become, since the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the main face of the opposition against Putin in the country.
The activist’s imprisonment, however, does not result in the silence of his movement. Quite the contrary: Two days after the arrest, his team released an investigation into Putin’s wealth, including a more than 1 billion euro palace on the Black Sea allegedly built for the Russian president that was described by Navalny as “the biggest bribery in history.” A video posted on YouTube in which the lawyer explains the results of the investigation has reached in two days about 47 million visits, 70% of which are Russian.
This is far from being the activist’s first confinement, who had already been imprisoned more than a dozen times. However, the latter has unleashed an unprecedented international backlash of condemnation, largely as it followed a poisoning attempt in which most fingers point to the Russian Federal Security Service. The domestic impact remains unknown. Although Navalny has been a nuisance to the Putin government for more than a decade, he has failed to transform his popularity into real political power. The authorities blocked the registration of his three political parties and his candidacy for the Russian presidency in 2018.
But Navalny, who refers to United Russia as the “scammers and thieves” party, has found ways to indirectly confront Putin at the polls. For years, it has promoted a ‘smart vote’ strategy that encourages the electorate to cast tactical votes in favor of the opposition candidate who has the possibility of overthrowing a ruling party, regardless of which formation he belongs to. An authentic strategy of harassment and demolition that achieved good results in the local elections in Moscow in 2019 and in which he planned to deploy in the legislative elections to the State Duma held on September 19. “This is the main political event of the year and the main reason [for the Kremlin] to ensure its absence [from Navalny]”, Ekaterina Schulmannof Chatham House told CNN.
Vladimir Putin does not seem to have any intention of leaving power. Last year, a constitutional amendment was approved that allows it, potentially, to continue leading Russia until 2036. Its popularity, despite having suffered a slight decline at the beginning of 2020, has recovered to levels above 65%. At first glance, nothing seems to indicate that his mandate is in any danger. What, then, is the reason for the attempted murder of Navalny and his immediate imprisonment after his return? There is no clear consensus among analysts, but many attribute it to a very simple reason: control.
“The Kremlin fights against any force or opinion that it cannot control. This is its main strategy,” Dmitri Belousov, a former Russian state television worker told the ‘New York Times.
Alexei Navalny is currently at the height of his popularity, which is why he could not afford to stay outside the country. He knows that the Kremlin is in a delicate situation: every step the Putin government takes against him has the potential to make him a more well-known face in Russia, something he wants to avoid at all costs (not for nothing, his plane was diverted in the last minute from Vnukovo airport, where journalists and hundreds of supporters had gathered, to another Moscow airport). His swift arrest has had the effect he expected internationally, but it is the Russian reaction that he will be closely monitoring behind bars. A demonstration called for this Saturday against his arrest will be the first thermometer.
And now, what?
Briefly answering the question posed at the beginning: no, at least in the near future, Navalny does not appear to have the ability to significantly threaten Putin’s control. The opposition’s greatest force is, and will continue to be, its broad ‘online’ support and its potential to call for mass protests. It is therefore doubtful whether he or his movement could play a significant role in the elections to the State Duma this year. His party is not registered, his ‘smart vote’ tactic has been interrupted by the dramatic poisoning – and his subsequent arrest – and calls to demonstrate will face harsh covid-19 restrictions imposed in Russia. On the other hand, although the approval of Navalny in the country recently reached its all-time high, 20%, so did its rejection: 50% of the Russian population has a negative image of the activist.
In the long term, however, his political role is likely to increase due to generational changes and the increasing use of the internet over television as a medium. A clear example of the advantage Navalny has is that the protest planned for this Saturday against his arrest has been organized mainly through TikTok, a social network used mainly by young people. By the way, there are analysts who consider that the fate of the activist depends on the success or failure of this demonstration, judge for yourself.
Russia is already cracking down on Navalny’s supporters – and drawing clear parallels with Belarus – for the crime of planning to protest against his arrest. https://t.co/1h8bepsJdy— max seddon (@maxseddon) January 21, 2021
The reaction to Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent arrest, however, has been especially virulent in the European Union, including an initiative by the European Parliament to halt construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a vital project for Germany that would supply Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea. This is yet another stain on the Brussels-Moscow relationship, the deterioration of which since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 seems bottomless.
The last hug (at least for a while). The images of Navalny saying goodbye to his wife seconds before being arrested upon arrival in Russia have had, for many, a special impact. What a bulletproof couple (almost literally).
To follow the thread …
In relation to the generational clash in Russia and the use of the internet, here you can see a compilation of young Russian women on TikTok planning the demonstration against Navalny’s arrest. One of the tricks: impersonating foreign tourists to deceive the authorities.
I think I am going to download TikTok and dive down a Russian rabbit hole. These kids are incredible: both smart and fearless. And they have known nothing else than Putin’s Russia.— Tanja Maier (@tanjamaier17) January 21, 2021