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The Week In Russia: Was Navalny's Return A Masterstroke Or A Mistake?

Aleksei Navalny on board a plane in Berlin before his departure for Moscow on January 17
Aleksei Navalny on board a plane in Berlin before his departure for Moscow on January 17

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Since he touched down in Moscow a month ago, Kremlin foe and poison survivor Aleksei Navalny has been jailed and handed a prison term of two years and eight months -- and he faces possible further prosecution that could result in many more years behind bars.

The big street protests prompted by his arrest were abruptly halted amid a harsh state crackdown, his allies and associates are being harried persistently by the state, and his wife has left the country, at least for now.

Was Navalny’s return a wise move or a miscalculation?

It’s too early to tell -- months too early, almost certainly, and maybe years too early. But here are some key questions to ask and clues to some possible answers.

Why Return?

Not long after he came out of a coma and hit the road to recovery from the August 20 nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB), Navalny made clear he planned to return to his country.

By the time he abruptly announced that he had a plane ticket for Moscow on January 17, it had become increasingly clear that he would be arrested soon after arrival and was likely to be sentenced to up to 3 1/2 years in prison on a parole violation charge he dismisses as absurd.

Plus, he faced the potential threat of physical danger -- a fact that was obvious after the poisoning, which Germany and other governments said was done with a weapons-grade nerve agent from the Novichok group, and attacks he had suffered previously as a result of his political activity.

So why risk it? Could he have remained abroad and pursued his aims -- including undermining Putin by weakening the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party in elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, this September?

He could have tried, but absence might have been a substantial hurdle. And the impact of his return on the way he was perceived, both by the Kremlin and by many Russian citizens, was immediate and undeniable.

Navalny’s return was more of a “moral event” than a political development, Moscow-based analyst Aleksandr Morozov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service earlier this week.

Because of the risk, even supporters, critics, and the more-or-less indifferent described his return as a courageous move -- if potentially foolhardy. Combined with the state’s highly visible response -- from rerouting his flight from one Moscow airport to another, to his almost immediate detention, to the violent police clampdown on protests that ensued -- it vaulted him to the position of indisputable opposition leader.

"Good man -- but he’s taking a risk," tweeted Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose own ability to affect politics in Russia has been limited by his absence from the country. He was flown out upon release after a decade in prison following a pardon from Putin, in 2013, and has not been back.

The risk was highlighted by Navalny shortly after he was jailed at Matrosskaya Tishina -- the Moscow detention facility where whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 after treatment rights activists said amounted to torture -- when he said that he would be careful on the stairs "just in case" and would not slit his own throat “with a sharpened spoon” or hang himself on a window bar, suggesting that if he dies it should be seen as foul play.

If Navalny had decided not to return “it would have been a victory for Putin,” Bloomberg quoted Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a political consultant who is close to Navalny, as saying shortly after his return.

What's The Rush?

Whether the timing was right is a trickier question.

Many Kremlin opponents wonder why he chose to return when he did: a full eight months before the expected dates of the Duma elections, and in the middle of winter, when the weather can put a chill on plans for protests.

The second concern ended up seeming overblown: On January 23 and 31, tens of thousands of Russians came out to protests in cities and towns nationwide, many braving frigid temperatures -- as low as minus 43 degrees Celsius in Yakutsk.

The broader question still stands, though. And it came to the fore on February 5, when Navalny’s right-hand man announced that no major street protests were planned for that weekend -- and that the next one might not be held until spring.

Five days later, Navalny and his allies called for a Valentine’s Day protest whose participants shone mobile-phone flashlights from their courtyards and other locations near their homes -- a modest and diffuse demonstration that averted a fresh crackdown by police, who had used truncheons and electric-shock batons while detaining thousands of people at the previous protests in a major show of force, but which some Kremlin opponents said lacked the impact of those rallies.

The halt to big protests means that Putin’s opponents do not need to prove every weekend that the momentum is not lost by bringing big crowds into the streets, a particular challenge following the police violence and continuing campaign of home searches, prosecution, and other legal action against Navalny’s allies.

But it also raises questions about whether they can recharge the movement and mount major rallies in the spring and summer, as the elections approach.

Aleksandr Kynev, a Moscow-based political analyst and Kremlin critic, said he believes the timing of Navalny’s return represented “a very strong strategic miscalculation.”

“It seems to me that if Navalny’s return had taken place not in January but in late spring or summer, when the election campaign was already under way, the political effect would have been completely different,” Kynev said last week.

Another hurdle for Navalny is a major campaign by state officials and media to brand him an enemy of the state bent on fomenting revolution at the behest of Washington and the West -- a claim that political analyst Aleksandr Baunov said “may sound preposterous” but “will resonate with certain segments of the public.”

“Navalny may have overestimated the readiness of ordinary people to support him,” Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a February 17 article headlined Why The Kremlin’s Anti-Navalny Strategy Just Might Work.

“The Kremlin…wants to foster public expectations that any protest movement will exhaust itself, just like the many previous movements, and that the regime will stay standing,” he wrote. “Even people who are unhappy will opt for what looks to them like perfectly rational behavior, and stay out of politics.”

What Do The Polls Say?

So far, there is little strong evidence to the contrary.

A recent opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found that 45 percent of Russians expected to see more political protests -- the largest proportion recorded since before Putin rose to power in 1999-2000 -- but that only 15 percent were prepared to attend, a lower share than over the past few years.

Polls have also suggested that a video investigation from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation providing detail about a sprawling Black Sea mansion it said was built for Putin may have done little to shift opinion in a country whose citizens are inured to reports of corruption among members of the elite.

Pole Dancing And Fancy Toilet Brushes: Millions Watch Navalny Video On Alleged 'Putin Palace'
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But observers say that opinion-poll numbers can be deceptive because respondents are more likely to voice support for a politician who is already in power. According to journalist Leonid Ragozin, “Russia’s ‘aggressively-obedient’ majority can change orientation practically overnight when things go awry.”

Meanwhile, critics and some supporters of the Kremlin say that the heavy-handed response to Navalny’s return helped raise his profile, adding to the challenge he poses to Putin rather than heading it off. Shortly after his return, Baunov wrote that Navalny “has become the most prominent and dangerous critic of Putin: the anti-Putin, and Russia’s number two politician.”

And after rarely mentioning him for years, Kremlin-controlled media outlets have put him in the spotlight with their campaign to paint him as an enemy of the people and a tool of the West: In one case, a prominent state-TV political talk-show host seemed to compare him -- unfavorably -- to Adolf Hitler.

In the month after his return, Navalny was mentioned on leading social networks 10.8 million times, according to the outlet Otkrytiye Media -- more than Putin for the first time ever -- and was a close second to Putin in terms of mentions in the traditional media in Russia.

Those numbers may not translate into a big increase in backing for Navalny in the coming months. But while the rallies across Russia were prompted by his jailing and have often been described as “pro-Navalny protests,” that wording fails to reflect a potentially important fact: Many demonstrators have said they came out not to back him as much as to voice dissatisfaction with Putin’s government and concerns about corruption and the economy.

A flashlight protest in Moscow on February 14
A flashlight protest in Moscow on February 14

And some who do support Navalny say that they back him not because they want him to replace Putin but because they see him as the most viable potential agent of change. The time to choose a new leader, they say, will come when there are fair elections in Russia.

What’s Next?

"Navalny is the only person, in my opinion, who can change something in Russia. He is the closest to being able to do this,” Aleksei Ivanov, an activist in the northern Russian Komi region who was arrested for attending one of the January protests, told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. He said he sees Navalny as "a tool for changing the system in Russia.”

Whether and when such change may occur is unclear. The Duma elections are shaping up as a big test of both Putin and Navalny, but they are not the end of the road -- and at this point, at least, certainly not the endgame in the mind of either of the two rivals.

Based in part on their results, Navalny -- probably from behind bars -- will have to figure out how best to move forward.

Putin, if he has not decided by then, will have to think about the presidential election of March 2024 -- whether to run for another six-year term or to step aside, relinquishing the formal seat of power if not much more, and anoint a favored successor. Barring the unexpected, the figure of Navalny is likely to loom large in his calculations.

Last year, Putin secured himself the right to run for president not only in 2024 but again in 2030, meaning he could be president until 2036. If that happens, he will be 83 when his sixth term in the Kremlin ends, while Navalny -- who is now 44 -- will be 59 at that time.

In different ways, and barring the unexpected, both Putin and Navalny have a substantial amount of time to work with. Another big question: Whose side is it on?

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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