19 January 2021

Putin can suppress dissent, but he can’t force Russians to love him forever

By Sarah Hurst

Alexei Navalny’s daring choice to return to Russia and face an inevitable jail term poses an enormous challenge to Vladimir Putin. Russians may be more ready than ever to come out on the streets this Saturday to demand the opposition leader’s release, having suffered economically in the pandemic and seen more and more people convicted for any expression of discontent with the Kremlin.

Putin is relying on convincing them that Navalny is a CIA agent whose goal is to destabilise the country, but it’s a line which is wearing very thin. That Putin finds Navalny personally aggravating is obvious enough from the Russian president’s refusal to even say his name, while pro-Kremlin media refer to him dismissively as a ‘blogger’. Putin’s animus will only have been heightened by the stunt Navalny pulled recently, posing as a security official to phone one of the FSB operatives involved in his poisoning and getting him to admit that Novichok had been applied to his underwear during a visit to Tomsk.

After five months recuperating from the poisoning in Germany, Navalny and his wife Yulia dramatically flew back from Berlin on Sunday. His Pobeda Airlines plane was crammed with journalists of many nationalities who applauded him when he boarded with a special security escort. Meanwhile riot police violently detained dozens of people waiting to meet Navalny at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. The authorities’ nervousness was made even clearer when the plane was diverted at the last minute to Sheremetyevo, with the preposterous excuse that Vnukovo had to close because of a broken-down snow plough on the runway.

After going through passport control it was little surprise to see Navalny confronted by a delegation of police officers. Before the flight the Federal Prison Service had warned that he would be arrested for violating probation in one of the cases the Kremlin brought against him years ago. The courts apparently deemed that he had recovered from his poisoning and should have reported back to officials in Russia in December.

Navalny kissed Yulia goodbye and went with the police, while she was left to pick up their luggage. The lawyer who had flown with them on the plane was not allowed to go with him, nor were friends and supporters told where he had been taken. Late in the evening it emerged that he was at a police station in the town of Khimki, 11 miles outside Moscow. He was not allowed a phone call and his lawyers were refused entry to the police station on the grounds that it was “late”.

Amnesty International has now declared Navalny a prisoner of conscience, while foreign governments including the UK, the United States, Canada, the EU and Norway demanded his release.  On Monday morning it was suddenly announced that Navalny would go on trial at 12.30 in the police station itself, which was graced with a portrait of Stalin’s NKVD secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda.

Writing to her husband on Instagram, Yulia struck a defiant tone: “Lyosha, when you were poisoned I wrote that we have always coped and we would cope with this. And now I can say the same, and perhaps you’ll be able to read this, unlike the last time: there’s nothing we can’t cope with. Everything will definitely be fine!”

Navalny’s supporters made their way to Khimki as quickly as they could – some after gathering outside a court in Moscow to hear that mathematics student Azot Miftakhov had been sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly damaging a United Russia office. Miftakhov said he was tortured in custody. Local residents in the buildings near the Khimki police station invited Navalny’s supporters in to warm up in the bitter temperatures and offered them tea and snacks.

Amid shouts of “Release him!” and “Putin’s a thief!” outside, the woman judge who had been hastily sent in to decide Navalny’s fate ordered him to be jailed for 30 days. People also came out for solo pickets in different cities around Russia calling for Navalny’s release: solo pickets are the only form of protest that is legal without a permit, although these can also lead to arrests. Navalny managed to make a video in the police station in which he urged people to come out on the streets “not for me, but for your future.”

What impact will this saga have on support for Navalny among ordinary Russians? It is very difficult to estimate how many people sympathise with Navalny because so many are afraid to make their views public in Putin’s Russia.

Putin has plenty more on his plate too. In recent weeks he has come under pressure over rising prices and has issued orders to look into the price of everything from food to construction materials, but whether he can do anything to control this is another matter. The pandemic also means Russians have become closely acquainted with the disastrous state of the country’s healthcare system, with coronavirus patients suffering in crumbling and unsanitary rooms or being dropped off to die at home when hospitals were full. The rollout of the Sputnik V vaccine has not yet produced tangible results. Navalny tells Russians they will only continue to become poorer if they don’t remove Putin, and the “Tsar” in the Kremlin is the only person now left to blame. Putin will suppress dissent ruthlessly, but he can’t force Russians to love him forever.

As for Navalny, he is due to appear in court again on February 2 to hear if the Prison Service will convert his suspended sentence into a real one for his alleged probation violations. Putin would happily keep him in prison forever if people do not stand up to the Kremlin’s tyranny. Navalny’s team have tried to put pressure on the Kremlin by calling for mass protests this Saturday, January 23.

From the outside it may seem strange that Navalny voluntarily returned to Russia to suffer such an ordeal. They suggest he could have been more effective by remaining free in Germany. But Navalny never saw exile as an option, because he believes that his duty is to be with his fellow Russians. The question now is whether they can live up to his hopes.

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Sarah Hurst is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.