Navalny’s arrest and mass protests in Russia: what next? By Saulet Tanirbergen
“The question ‘to return or not’ never stood before me,” Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader, said to his Instagram followers shortly before his return to his homeland. This summer, Navalny was transferred to a Berlin hospital from Russia after accounts came out of him being poisoned by the notorious Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok. But, just minutes after landing in Moscow from Germany, Navalny was arrested by the police at passport control for breaching the terms of his probation for a 2014 embezzlement case. Completely disregarding the fact that the terms of his probation couldn’t be fulfilled while Navalny was recovering from a poisoning — in a coma. Despite appeals to overturn his detention, the opposition leader is still behind bars, waiting for his fate to be decided in a court hearing on February 2nd. But, his call for justice didn’t remain unheard. This last weekend, protesters took to the streets in some of the largest demonstrations Russia has recently seen.
The protests that shook the country on January 23rd involved Russia’s opposition movement's different factions coming together. Old, young, on the left, on the right, they made one thing clear: they may not all agree with Navalny, but they disagree with the injustice he faced. “The vast majority of people who come out are not partisans of any ideology or have specific views — they just won't change in the country,” Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister and current adviser to Navalny, told the New York Times. The scale of the protests definitely reflected the growing frustrations among Russians. Tens of thousands people participated in the demonstration across the country, even in temperatures as low as -45°C, and about 4000 of them were arrested. This included Yuliya Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny’s wife, who was released shortly after.
But, this is not the first time Navalny attempted to rally the Russian people against Putin. The 44-year old has a decade-long history of political activism. He ran for both mayor of Moscow (a very politically prestigious position in Russia) and President in 2013 and 2018. In 2011, he founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation to investigate and uncover corruption charges against high-ranking officials. However, Navalny got the most international coverage when he was poisoned by the highly lethal nerve agent, Novichok, while on a flight to Tomsk. The plane had to take an emergency stop at Omsk, where Navalny was first taken. At the time, Navalny’s wife alleged that the Omsk doctors were controlled by the Kremlin and attempted to cover up their patient's poisoning. An emergency transfer of Navalny to Germany was arranged shortly after.
Vladimir Putin, Russian President, of course, denied the claims of poisoning. He stated that the opposition leader was probably getting help from US intelligence and that if the government really wanted him dead, that would have already been done.
Now that Navalny is back and under detention, resentment towards Putin, both domestically and internationally is growing. Especially in light of the fact that Navalny’s team released a two-hour documentary titled “Putin’s Palace” shortly after being detained on January 17th. The documentary, investigating Putin’s alleged property in the resort town of Gelendzhik, just by the Black Sea, claims that the extraordinarily luxurious property cost £1bn ($1.37bn) — paid in bribes. According to the documentary, the property is about 39 times bigger than the principality of Monaco. However, Putin countered this documentary by saying the following to a group of students in a video conference: “Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to my close relatives or me, and never did.” This Saturday, Arkady Rotenberg, a Russian billionaire with ties to the Russian President, claimed that the estate belonged to him.
So far, the international response has been full of condemnations, yet no sanctions. The European foreign ministers meeting on Monday decided to hold on sanctions for now. Josep Borell, EU foreign policy chief, has condemned the arrest of Navalny and mass arrests, as have a range of other political leaders, but expressed his wish to further discuss this in his meeting with the Russian government early next month. The newly-elected Joe Biden made his concern clear in a recent phone call with Vladimir Putin. In response, the Anti-Corruption Foundation addressed a letter to Biden to sanction the 35 figures closest to the Russian President. They also announced their plans to send a similar letter to the British government and the EU. Whether Putin and the Russian government will suffer any significant consequences from the protests happening in their country or from the condemnation across the international community is still uncertain.