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The United States got a new president this week, but it’s hard to escape the impression that Russia’s political world has also seen a big change in less than seven days, a shift that will shape the future in unknown ways.
It’s the result of Kremlin foe, opposition politician, and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny’s return -- and a state response that analysts say has only added to the challenges faced by President Vladimir Putin.
On the surface, it is Navalny’s actions that appear to have caused an abrupt change -- a shift that seems to show the country from a new perspective, like a place you picture in one way after an initial visit and then see from a different angle after you travel there again, with the original impression then fading in your memory.
Defying the threat of almost certain arrest and the prospect of potentially being imprisoned for over a decade, Navalny returned to Russia on January 17 from Germany, where he had been recuperating after a nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia that he blames on the Federal Security Service (FSB) and on Putin himself.
As promised by Russia’s prison service days before his return, he was detained shortly after arrival and is now in a cell at Moscow’s imposing Matrosskaya Tishina jail, awaiting a February 2 hearing on a charge that he violated parole in a previous case -- an allegation he, supporters, and many observers say is patently absurd.
“We are witnessing the official death of the rule of law in Russia,” Sergey Radchenko, a British-based historian of the Cold War and post-Cold War era, wrote on Twitter on January 18, when Navalny was taken to what he said he was told would be a meeting with his lawyers but turned out to be a hastily arranged hearing at a police station at which he was ordered jailed for 30 days pending a court ruling on the parole violation charge.
The result of the hearing could be a 3 1/2 year prison term, which would be a first for Navalny, who has been jailed for periods of days or weeks many times but has never been sent to prison -- a fact that suggests Putin may fear that doing so could make him a martyr.
In late December 2020, at which point he had repeatedly vowed to return to Russia but had not set a date, he was also targeted in a new criminal case on suspicion of fraud -- accused of using donations to his anti-corruption organization for vacations and other personal purposes -- and could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if charged and convicted.
A 'Palace' And A Cell
He denies the allegation and supporters say it is an attempt to tar Navalny -- who has dubbed the Kremlin-controlled United Russia the “party of crooks and thieves” and produced detailed, entertaining videos accusing Putin’s associates of over-the-top profligacy and graft -- with the same brush.
The latest video was released a day after Navalny was sent to Matrosskaya Tishina, the imposing Moscow lockup where whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009, and raised the stakes -- as well as the level of popular interest -- in the 44-year-old Kremlin opponent's long showdown with Putin.
With complex financial records and colorful illustrations -- some of them actual photos, some artist’s renderings -- it alleged that a sprawling and outrageously luxurious estate on the Black Sea coast was built for Putin at a cost of at least 100 billion rubles ($1.35 billion) and ultimately belongs to the president.
The Kremlin’s response was to dismiss the report, without directly denying it, and to assert that it is Navalny and his associates who are “the real crooks.”
From his abrupt, dramatic return to the Palace For Putin report and his call for nationwide protests on January 23, Navalny has seemed determined to set the agenda for the coming days, weeks, months, and probably years -- at least through parliamentary elections due in September and a presidential election in 2024, in which Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, now has the legal right to seek a new six-year Kremlin term.
But analysts say the state’s response, from the growing list of legal claims against Navalny to its efforts to thwart protest plans and more, has provided clarity about the Kremlin’s hopes and fears -- and that it may have already backfired, raising his profile and strengthening his ability to challenge Putin by acquiring broader support from the Russian people and the West.
WATCH: Russians Use TikTok In Social-Media Surge Of Support For Navalny
With Navalny’s poisoning and arrest, “the Kremlin has indisputably propelled him to the leadership of Russia’s beleaguered opposition, and in the process undercut one of its long-running political strategies over the past two decades: strengthening…Putin’s standing by ensuring that the political landscape remains free of any meaningful political challenger,” political analyst Aleksandr Baunov wrote in a January 19 article.
“Unfortunately for the authorities, instead of blackballing Navalny, the Kremlin has turned him into the world’s most famous political prisoner,” Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter. At home in Russia, meanwhile, he said, Navalny “has become the most prominent and dangerous critic of Putin: the anti-Putin, and Russia’s number two politician.”
Strength Or Weakness?
Meanwhile, Navalny may already have fulfilled what Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a political consultant with ties to the Kremlin foe, is his plan “to become Putin’s No. 1 headache and with his courage inspire political activism.”
“If he had decided not to come back, it would have been a victory for Putin,” Bloomberg quoted Krashenninkov as saying in an article under the headline, “Kremlin Misread Navalny’s Resolve To Fight, Even From Prison.”
And it’s not as if Putin doesn’t have other big headaches. The economy is struggling as the coronavirus pandemic persists, and his approval ratings are near historic lows -- above 60 percent but more than 20 percentage points beneath the highs of 2014-15, after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, according to the independent pollster Levada Center.
As Putin thinks about how to ease the headache pain or prevent it from getting worse, numerous observers predict that while in 2013 the Kremlin may have suspended Navalny’s sentence and ordered him released under pressure from street protesters, this time the opposite is more likely: He may be imprisoned for years in a bid to show resolve.
In a response to a tweet by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who asked, “If Putin is so popular, why does he need to arrest Navalny?” historian Radchenko answered: “Credibility of course.”
“If he didn't, he'd come across as 'weak' because the message would be that Navalny is so strong that Putin is afraid to arrest him,” Radchenko, a professor and research director at Cardiff University in Wales, wrote on Twitter.
To some in Russia and abroad, however, keeping Navalny behind bars might signal weakness rather than strength, fear rather than confidence.
In a post on January 19, a Twitter user with the handle Darth Putin illustrated that idea by writing "Kremlin: 'Putin does not fear Navalny,'" followed by the words "Also Kremlin" above four photos of helmeted, truncheon-toting police awaiting his arrival at an airport two days earlier.
The return of Navalny, who was barred from challenging Putin for the presidency in 2018, has injected further uncertainty into Russia’s future -- and his own.
In an Instagram post on January 22, he said that he is in good health and has no plans to hang himself or “slit my…throat with a sharpened spoon” -- a message interpreted as a warning not to believe the authorities if they say something happened to him behind bars.
The state, meanwhile, may at some point want to dispel the “myth” that it has “done everything to create…around Navalny,” analyst Baunov wrote. “But to do that, Navalny would first have to be returned to everyday politics, and the consequences of allowing that are unknown.”