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With Return To Russia, Navalny Hedges Jail Threat Against Prospect Of Mobilizing Opposition To Putin

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (left) at a 2019 court hearing in Moscow in August 2019.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (left) at a 2019 court hearing in Moscow in August 2019.

When Vladimir Lenin stepped off a train at St. Petersburg's Finland Station in April 1917, he set in motion events that would transform Russia and ultimately divide the world into opposing camps. Winston Churchill would later compare the first Soviet leader to a "plague bacillus" -- a parasite that enters an organism at the very moment it can do most harm.

On January 17, another potential revolutionary figure will come back to Russia. Five months after a poisoning he blames directly on President Vladimir Putin, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny is expected to land in Moscow to a throng of supporters who have awaited his promised return since he was transferred, comatose, for treatment in Germany last August.

It's unlikely that the Kremlin will look to 1917 for cues. But with Putin's popularity close to all-time lows, and economic pain rife, it may quickly move to contain a charismatic politician who in a decade of activism has proved able to tap public disillusionment and help direct it against the state with slickly produced video investigations seen by millions on YouTube.

"The signs in Russia are there. The discontent is there, the deprivation is there, and the sense that this government has nothing to offer is very much there," Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, told RFE/RL. "But the problem with revolutions is we never know they're about to happen till they actually do."

Navalny has long insisted that the Kremlin is desperate to keep him out. On January 14, the prison service said it plans to arrest him as it moves to replace an earlier suspended sentence he received with a real prison term that risks making him a political martyr after multiple short jail stints in the past.

Navalny and other members of his Anti-Corruption Foundation face separate criminal charges of embezzling donors' funds, an accusation they vehemently deny.

"The situation with Navalny is very similar to two trains rushing toward each other and inevitably doomed to collide," political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote in a post on Telegram.

The prospect of swift arrest upon arrival in Moscow may hinge on turnout. Within 24 hours of Navalny announcing his return, almost 6,000 people had signed up to a Facebook page launched to coordinate a welcome crowd at the airport.

'Tough Cookies'

Navalny's acolytes throughout Russia, who have been subject to a relentless campaign of fines, harassment, and police raids, plan to travel from as far as Siberia to greet him, and hope strength in numbers will keep him safe – if, that is, law enforcement don't keep his supporters at bay.

"We're tough cookies," Yelena Lekiashvili, a Navalny employee in Yaroslavl who will drive with a group of supporters to Moscow, said in a phone interview. "But we're happy that our leader, like a fairy tale hero, is finally returning to a forbidden land after coming back from the dead."

From the outset, Navalny has pledged that he would return, dismissing suggestions that he would choose exile in the West over prison time or further attacks in Russia. Among the first to commend Navalny's decision was former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 and spent a decade behind bars on what he called politically motivated fraud charges, before being pardoned, released, and whisked out of the country. "Good man," he wrote on Twitter. "But he's taking a risk."

Some have speculated that Navalny's earlier-than-expected return is aimed at pre-empting further efforts to keep him out, including the cancellation of his Russian passport. Others argue that by returning now, he may miss an opportunity to capitalize on public discontent in the run-up to September elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, when the opposition will seek to break the political stranglehold of the ruling United Russia party.

'Timing Is Crucial'

By coming back eight months before that vote, Navalny could mobilize his supporters at a time when that mobilization has little chance of effecting political change. And by May, when the Duma campaign is under way and Navalny supporters will be vying to upset the established order, the surplus of good-will for the poisoned Putin critic may fade, some observers say.

"Navalny's return is a potential bomb, but he's in too much of a hurry," said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speech writer and political analyst. "The timing is crucial here -- an opportunity as valuable as this shouldn't be wasted."

In the months since Navalny's poisoning, government-friendly media outlets have spun various narratives in an effort to muddy the waters and cast doubt on Kremlin complicity. The Kremlin has baselessly claimed that Navalny collaborated with the CIA, and Putin has reportedly said Navalny poisoned himself to attract publicity. At a press conference in December, he said if Russian agents had planned to kill him, "they would probably have finished the job."

With authorities balking from launching a criminal probe, the task of piecing together what happened on August 20 was left largely to Navalny's aides. Upon news of his emergency hospitalization in Siberia that day, employees of his Anti-Corruption Foundation entered the hotel room he had vacated that morning to scoop up items that could be studied for evidence of poisoning, including a bottle of water later found to carry traces of the deadly nerve agent Novichok.

In December, Navalny collaborated with open-source investigative group Bellingcat on an investigation that implicated eight officers tied to Russia's security service in carrying out the attack.

'I Know Who Wanted To Kill Me': Millions Watch Navalny Video Naming Alleged Hit Squad
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As the Kremlin sought to distance itself from the bombshell report, Navalny released audio of a 45-minute conversation he said he had conducted with one of his would-be assassins, in which the man seems to confirm his participation and reveal key details of the apparently bungled operation.

'Pre-Revolutionary Situation'

In an Instagram post announcing his decision on January 13, Navalny told supporters that staying in Germany was not an option.

"I never questioned whether I should come back, simply because I never left," he wrote. "I ended up in Germany after landing in an intensive-care box, for one reason: they tried to kill me."

Infographic: All The Times Aleksei Navalny Has Been In Jail

When he returns on January 17, if his plan is not thwarted, it will be to a country where the devastating pandemic, falling real wages, and miserly government support are fueling anger among large swaths of the population.

A widely cited survey by a group of Russian sociologists in June found that many Russians who used to staunchly support Putin are turning against him -- and that appetites for protest are rising.

"We have a pre-revolutionary situation," said Gallyamov. "But even professional revolutionaries never know for sure when the revolution will happen."

"Lenin in April 1917 didn't know it either," he added. "But he came and caused it."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.