The Russian authorities arrested Alexei Navalny on his return – his supporters are waiting in vain for him

The Russian authorities arrested Alexei Navalny on his return - his supporters are waiting in vain for him

The Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny has returned to his homeland after a five-month absence due to his poisoning. The regime did everything to prevent a triumphant reception – and thereby involuntarily showed the importance of the returnee.

Return after five months: the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, here at a rally in Moscow in February 2020. Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

© Provided by Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Return after five months: the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, here at a rally in Moscow in February 2020. Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

Alexei Navalny was arrested on Sunday evening before passport control at the airport. His lawyer, his wife Julia and the employees who had traveled with them had already crossed the border and were not allowed to see him. Previously, the flight DP 936 of the Russian airline Pobeda (“Victory”) had changed direction at the last minute and landed in Sheremetyevo, the airport in the north, rather than at Vnukovo Airport, southwest of central Moscow.

In Vnukowo it was said that the airport was closed. The Russian authorities prevented a triumphant reception of the opposition politician after his five-month stay in Germany due to his poisoning. His supporters and dozens of journalists were waiting in Vnukovo. A huge police presence had tried to wear down supporters who had arrived there all day and arrested two dozen of them. Initially, only those journalists who had taken the same flight experienced the landing in Sheremetyevo. That was at least half the plane.

“The best day in five months”

The arrest was confirmed by the FSIN shortly afterwards. This had announced on Thursday that Navalny had been put out for a search because he had violated the conditions of a suspended sentence on several occasions, especially since last autumn. On this basis, he will be held until a court hearing on January 29th. However, there was initially uncertainty about his whereabouts.

Navalny had made a brief statement before passport control. In it he apologized for the inconvenience in connection with the diversion of the flight. But the whole thing only shows how things are with Russia. That is why he returned to Russia. It was the best day in five months since the poisoning and transfer to Berlin for treatment. He is not afraid because he knows that he is right.

Nawalny’s announcement that he would return to Russia had hit the public like a bomb. Most observers had expected his return, but only in a few months. Commentators described the event as extraordinary, even historical; when decisive moment for Russian politics, she even compared it to Lenin’s return to Petrograd from Zurich in April 1917. Even sober observers spoke of an extremely courageous step. But they also agree that he would have lost the opportunity to influence Russian politics if he were to stay abroad permanently.

Reaction shows weakness

The Russian leadership, however, probably caught Nawalny’s return announcement last week on the wrong foot. Even commentators who were skeptical of Navalny said that the Kremlin could only lose, regardless of how it reacts. In the past few days, various scenarios of the state’s reaction to the return of the politician had been played out. There was much to be said for arresting him on arrival so that the state would not show weakness. But the immediate arrest after their return reveals the weakness and perplexity of the Russian leadership. President Vladimir Putin, his functionaries and propagandists had not grown tired of portraying Navalny as an insignificant person in the past few months.

The “special operation” with the diversion of the flight to another airport and the arrest before crossing the state border, however, showed the opposite: It shows that the Kremlin in Navalny apparently sees exactly the danger that the opposition politician believes himself to be – as Putin’s direct opponent. As a result, the Russian leadership is accepting unrest, at least among its supporters, and a further deterioration in relations with the West. However, the regime has been chasing him for years and even wanted to have him killed. This shows that it does not shy away from an impudent reaction and no longer takes any consideration of the reputation abroad.

Navalny is now threatened with converting a conditional three and a half year prison sentence into an unconditional one at the end of January. This was attached to him in 2014 in a politically motivated fraud case that was later judged to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Russian leadership would get rid of its sharpest and most powerful enemy. Even the Kremlin had long spoken out against imprisonment in order not to grant him martyr status.

Blow to the opposition

That would be a hard blow for Russia’s opposition movement. It would make the transformation of Russia into an increasingly authoritarian regime fully visible. Alexei Navalny has undoubtedly become better known in Russia in recent months, and his potential audience has increased. Suddenly there was extensive talk of him on state television. However, he is always shown there in a negative light. Putin openly spoke of a connection with the American secret service CIA. This undoubtedly influences the opinion of the general public about Navalny.

A new parliament is expected to be elected in Russia in autumn. The popularity of the state party United Russia is low. The population has no hopes for the functionaries. Again and again there are locally based protests. There has also been disillusionment with President Putin. However, this is not necessarily reflected in poor election or voting results. Nevertheless, the Kremlin apparently saw a need for action: Last year, parliament passed numerous legislative tightenings. These further restrict the freedom of the media and freedom of expression, including in social networks, regulate the Internet more closely and make the legal implementation of demonstrations and protests almost impossible.

From the prison, Navalny could hardly influence any strata of the population that had become aware of him. But he could become a hero there and in “liberal” opposition circles in which he is viewed with skepticism.


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