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18 January 2021

What Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia means for Vladimir Putin

The country's beleaguered opposition is braced for more state repression ahead of the legislative election.  

By Felix Light

On Sunday 17 January, Alexei Navalny returned to a very different country to the one from which he was shipped comatose five months before.

Navalny rose to international fame by denouncing the Russian government, but prior to August 29 2020 he was little more than a minor thorn in the administration’s side. Barred from elections by a series of criminal convictions and studiously ignored by most of the media, Russia’s most prominent dissident commanded the support of only a small minority of the population. Aside from legal harassment, which saw him constantly in and out of jail – and, it turns out, being tailed since at least 2017 by a squad of FSB assassins – he was mostly tolerated.

The state’s patience came to a dramatic end last summer, however, when, after campaigning in Siberia ahead of regional elections, Navalny was taken ill on a Moscow-bound flight. Poisoned by the Novichok nerve agent, he was evacuated to Germany for life-saving treatment. An investigation by Bellingcat later revealed the attempted assassination to almost certainly be the work of the Russian security services.

The circumstances of Navalny’s return to Moscow speak to his new status as public enemy number one. His plane was diverted to a new airport, away from his waiting supporters. He was immediately detained at passport control and railroaded through a makeshift court convened at breakneck speed in the police station in which he was held the following day. He has now been remanded for a month awaiting a trial on a longstanding fraud charge, which could send him to prison for years.

Navalny’s treatment is due, in no small part, to how effectively he has humiliated the Russian security services. First, he survived the FSB’s attempt on his life. Then, he extracted a prank-call confession of their complicity. President Putin, who described his collaboration with the investigative website Bellingcat as “information laundering by Western intelligence services”, has all but condemned Navalny as a traitor to his country. The State Duma has passed a tranche of laws on internet libel, public protest and so-called “foreign agents” that will smash the movement Navalny has spent a decade building.

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Even so, Navalny has always insisted that his return to Russia was never in doubt. The Kremlin’s most prominent critic understands that life in exile would have doomed him to the fate of the emigré oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: ever more fêted abroad, ever less relevant at home. For Navalny, who in ten years has risen from obscure YouTube blogger to the dominant personality of the Russian opposition, that was not an option.

And yet it is still unclear why he was poisoned at all. For all his prominence, Navalny remains the niche taste of a small minority of Russians, most of them young and concentrated in a handful of big cities. The crowd that gathered at Vnukovo Airport to greet the returning Navalny was loud and enthusiastic, but it numbered only a few hundred. Though his “Smart Voting” scheme – a system of tactical voting designed to unite voters behind the most viable anti-Kremlin candidates – has reportedly deeply alarmed the authorities, its results are hard to assess and are, at best, mixed.

Navalny’s hugely popular anti-corruption investigations may have tarnished the government, but they have done little to endear him personally to viewers. Even today, according to reputable polling, only 15 per cent of Russians believe he was poisoned by the state. Fully 85 per cent prefer the various conspiratorial versions peddled by loyalist media.

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The answer may lie in a recent essay by the political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, who is said to be well-connected in the Kremlin. In it, she painted a bleak picture of an increasingly paranoid bureaucracy, frantically redefining loyalty and the lack thereof. Those “outside the system” (a euphemism for those associated with Navalny) can expect in future to be treated as common criminals. Meanwhile, the much larger demographic of Russians who advocate for political change from within the country’s existing political institutions will increasingly find themselves expelled from “the system” and will suffer the consequences.

Against this Manichean backdrop, Navalny’s return to Russia resembles “two trains heading towards each other, doomed unavoidably to collide”, wrote Stanovaya on the messaging app Telegram. “There will be many casualties.”

***

One of them is likely to be Russia’s short-term stability.

In spite of everything, 2020 was a pretty good year for the Russian government. The Kremlin is reportedly happy with its handling of the pandemic, having tolerated an above average loss of life in return for a lax lockdown regime and an economic hit smaller than most. Meanwhile, its Sputnik-V vaccine has overcome initial scepticism, and is now increasingly recognised as an impressive pharmaceutical achievement.

More importantly, the pandemic served as a guarantor of Russia’s political stability. As turmoil swept through the former Soviet Union, from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, the Russian opposition largely retreated from the streets. Apart from in the remote far eastern city of Khabarovsk, it has spent 2020 in what the political commentator Sergei Medvedev has described as a “limbo”, so hidebound by the pandemic that even Putin’s audacious constitutional rewrite to allow him to stay in office until 2036 – and Navalny’s poisoning – were greeted by only muted protest.

[See also: Why the anti-Putin protests in Russia’s eastern city are something new]

It was a sharp contrast from 2019. Two years ago, the anti-Kremlin movement was on a roll. Outcry against new landfill sites in the Arctic, church building projects in the Urals and journalists’ arrests in Moscow all forced humiliating climb-downs for the authorities. In Moscow, the barring of Navalny supporters from that year’s City Duma elections provoked weeks of roiling protests and ended in United Russia’s majority being decimated by a curious coalition of liberals and Stalinists, in part directed by Smart Voting.

Navalny’s return home, alongside the mass roll-out of the Sputnik-V vaccine, coincides with the likely resumption of “normal” politics in Russia as the pandemic begins to fade from view, and issues of corruption and misgovernment that drove earlier protests return to the public eye. Even if Navalny is put away for decades, it will not solve the problems that drive Russians on to the streets.

Moreover, the Kremlin must navigate the post-pandemic turbulence in an election year. In September, United Russia must defend its Duma super-majority amid sinking polling. The ruling party – to which Navalny in 2009 famously applied the cartoonish moniker of “the party of crooks and thieves” – has never enjoyed the same genuinely broad popularity as does President Putin. With its polling presently mired at around 30 per cent – barely half of what it polled in 2016 – United Russia faces a real struggle to maintain the two-thirds Duma majority that the Kremlin reportedly expects of it.

***

One answer might be for Russia to simply stop pretending it is a democracy.

Despite Putin’s iconic authoritarian status in much of the world, under his rule Russia has shunned formal dictatorship for the legitimacy conferred by electoral democracy. The country maintains a reasonably free, though self-censored, press; a set of formally democratic, though in practice neutered, institutions; and an often critical, though ultimately tame, parliamentary opposition. Elections, which are broadly free if largely unfair, do take place, and do, on occasion, deliver defeats for the ruling party.

Today, much of this is up for debate. It is widely believed that the mood in a Kremlin increasingly dominated by veterans of the security services has shifted towards a more thoroughgoing authoritarianism, one that makes fewer concessions to the formalities of democracy. Already, even the loyal, “systemic” opposition has run into previously unseen difficulties, from ever more overtly rigged elections, to seeing its elected officials being prosecuted and jailed. Meanwhile, ever more draconian sentences are being handed out to those with even remotely “non-systemic” affiliations.

It is a mindset that would allow the Kremlin to make vote rigging – traditionally a practice limited to select regions – the national norm and award itself a crushing, Belarus-style victory in the Duma polls, regardless of the electorate’s preferences.

Though the Kremlin is unlikely to abandon the appearances of democracy altogether, there is little doubt of the country’s authoritarian direction of travel. Navalny’s hounding is only a foretaste. With eight months to go before Russia elects a new parliament, the country’s ever-beleaguered opposition is bracing for ever more repression.

[See also: The geopolitics behind the race for a vaccine]