Alexei Navalny: Why arrest of Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic has left Russia engulfed by protests

Tens of thousands nationwide answered Navalny's call to rally, issued after he was detained at a Moscow airport on arrival from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent

FP Staff January 25, 2021 20:23:57 IST
Alexei Navalny: Why arrest of Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic has left Russia engulfed by protests

File Image of Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny. AP

On 23 January, Russian police arrested more than 3,000 people across the country demanding the release of Opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The protests in scores of cities in temperatures as low as minus-50 C (minus-58 F) highlight how Navalny, the Kremlin's most prominent foe, has built influence far beyond the political and cultural centres of Moscow and St Petersburg.

On Monday, President Vladimir Putin called the protests "illegal and dangerous".

Tens of thousands nationwide answered Navalny's call after he was detained at a Moscow airport on arrival from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent.

In Moscow, an estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered in and around Pushkin Square in the city center, where clashes with police broke out and demonstrators were roughly dragged off by helmeted riot officers to police buses and detention trucks. Some were beaten with batons. Navalny’s wife Yulia was among those arrested.

Who is Alexei Navalny?

Navalny is a lawyer-turned-activist and a strong critic of President Putin. The 44-year-old blogger has millions of Russian followers on social media.

Navalny has been the symbol of Russia's protest movement for a decade after rising to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger and leading anti-government street rallies.

He publishes YouTube investigations into the wealth of Russia's political elites. Some of the videos garner millions of views, making the activist's team a target of lawsuits, police raids and jail stints.

The Kremlin opponent has never held elected office.

He came second in a 2013 vote for mayor of Moscow but was barred from standing against Putin in the 2018 presidential elections.

His allies are also frequently prevented from running for election.

His team has been gearing up to challenge the ruling United Russia party in elections to the lower house State Duma due in September.

He has been jailed repeatedly in connection with protests and twice was convicted of financial misdeeds in cases that he said were politically motivated. He suffered significant eye damage when an assailant threw disinfectant into his face. He was taken from jail to a hospital in 2019 with an illness that authorities said was an allergic reaction but which many suspected was a poisoning.

Arrest that triggered the protests

Earlier this month, the police detained the top Kremlin critic when he flew back to Russia.

Navalny was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport less than an hour after he flew in from Germany, where he had been recovering from the poisoning with a nerve agent he claims was ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

His plane landed at Sheremetyevo after a dramatic last-minute diversion from another Moscow airport, Vnukovo, where several hundred of his supporters and media were waiting.

Several of his associates were taken into custody at the airport while the plane was in the air, including prominent Moscow activist Lyubov Sobol and other top aides.

What do we know of the protests in Russia?

Thousands took to the streets to demand Navalny’s release.

According to reports, demonstrations were held on 23 January in about 100 cities and towns from Russia's the Far East and Siberia to Moscow and St Petersburg.

In Moscow, riot police were seen beating and dragging away demonstrators.

As per BBC, the social media app TikTok has a number of videos posted by Russians supporting the planned protests and urging others to come out. However, mobile and internet services suffered outages in the day as protesters gathered.

Chanting “shame”, protesters in Moscow also threw snowballs at a passing government car, reported The New York Times.

After it came to a stop, people rushed at the car, which belongs to Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, and started kicking it. The driver suffered an eye injury in the attack, the State news media reported later.

In Moscow, an estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered in and around Pushkin Square in the city centre, where clashes with police broke out and demonstrators were roughly dragged off by helmeted riot officers to police buses and detention trucks. Some were beaten with batons.

Police eventually pushed demonstrators out of the square. Thousands then regrouped along a wide boulevard about a kilometre (half-mile) away, many of them throwing snowballs at the police before dispersing.

Some later went to protest near the jail where Navalny is held. Police made an undetermined number of arrests there too.

So what happens next?

According to The Associated Press, analysts say Navalny’s return to Russia was a significant blow to Putin’s image and left the Kremlin with a dilemma.

Putin has mostly worked from his residence during the coronavirus outbreak, and the widespread perception that he has stayed away from the public doesn’t compare well to Navalny’s bold comeback to the country where he was poisoned and faced arrest, Chatham House’s Petrov told AP.

“It doesn’t matter whether people support Navalny or not; they see these two images, and Putin loses,” he said.

Commentators say there is no good choice for the Kremlin: Imprisoning Navalny for a long time will make him a martyr and could lead to mass protests, while letting him go threatens the impending parliamentary elections.

So far, the crackdown has only helped Navalny, “and now, even thinking loyalists are, if not on his side, certainly not on the side of poisoners and persecutors,” Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center wrote in a recent article.

In 2013, Navalny was quickly released from prison following a five-year sentence from embezzlement conviction after a large crowd gathered near the Kremlin.

Putin’s government has since become much tougher on dissent, so it is unlikely that mass protests will prompt Navalny’s immediate release, Petrov said. But the Kremlin still fears that a harsh move may destabilise the situation, and the scale of the rallies could indicate how the public would react to Navalny being imprisoned for a long time.

With inputs from agencies

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