By Nina Bachkatov
The film of Alexei Navalny about Putin’s Palace had an unexpected bonus – the shares of Abrau-Durso jumped 10% on the Moscow Stock exchange after president Putin mentioned his interests for winemaking. They lost 3% the day after. This would be anectodical in another country, including the West where the choice of a coat by the wife of the president can make, or kill, the career of a couturier. But, in Russia, at this particular moment, it shows the extreme personalisation of power – and counterpower.
The country is going through a communication’ s war between charismatic Navalny and unimaginative Kremlin. For the moment, the battle has a clear winner – and it is not president Putin. But he has power, too much according to his critics, and the other does not even have a political basis.
So, one can pause for a look back to recent events.
- On 17 January, Navalny flies back to Moscow from Berlin, defying the regime that announces he will be arrested for failing to respect the conditions of his suspended sentence during his forced stay in Germany. This did not leave him much choice, unless he wants to enter history as one of those Russians who dreamed to change regime from abroad, and were left there a distant spectator. He is detained at the airport but, thanks to his well-mastered campaign, it receives maximum attention in Russia, and international support.
- On 18 January, Navalny is ordered to remain in custody for 30 days at the police station of Khimki.
- On 19 January, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation’s documentary on ‘Putin’s Palace’ goes viral, in Russia and abroad. The film provides details about a kitsch monstrosity, surrounded by 700 ha, with extravagant equipment. It is presented as the definite proof that Putin is really the “richest man in the world’, thanks to shady deals by oligarchs and corruption affecting the top echelon. As usually the production benefits of a formidable technical and analytical team, and of a smart presenter.
- On 23 January, at the call of the Foundation, 30-40.000 people take the streets calling for Navalny’s liberation and denouncing corruption. The movement attracts less people than expected in Moscow, but it takes a nationwide dimension. The following day, the Russian Investigations Committee will announce that 21 criminal cases have been launched over alleged crimes committed at the protests; and “six pre-investigation checks carried out in connection with illegal actions both before and during the unauthorised actions in different regions of the country”.
- On 25 January, Students’ Day in Russia, Putin has his annual meeting with students from different regions. But this year, the ‘palace’ scandal is in every minds. He denies, not without conviction, any personal, familial or close circles’ ownership of the Black Sea property. He launches the expected tirades about the ‘real’ motivations of Navalny’, then, out of the blue, he moved to strange ground.
First, he says that he has not seen the full content of the film, because he is too busy to spent 2 hours to do so. Then he reveals his interest for wineries, the one that reaches the stock exchange, saying the only thing he took interest in all the palace story was “winemaking, not as a business, but as an activity” that he might like “at some point in the future to try his hand at it”. One cannot escape the vision of reporters being invited to take picture of pensioner Vladimir Putin with a straw hat and blue dungarees pruning his vines. This would be a quite different background after previous photo sessions due to project the image of a sportive president in very Russian wild landscapes. Politically, it is puzzling because it is Putin’s second indirect mention of a post-presidential life. The first came at the time of the constitutional referendum, when he talks of his dream to travel the world as a private person.
- On 28 January, the Anti-Corruption Foundation reacts to a decision by the court to reject Navalny’s appeal by calling another nationwide demonstration on the 31st. They propose new slogans, less personalised, presenting the freedom of Navalny as a symbol of the freedom of all Russians. Moscow police warns Navalny’s supporters that, by staging protests this weekend, they could face criminal responsibility. This is followed by searches at the flats of top members of the team, arrests for interrogation, including at local and regional levels. In Moscow, the rally will take place symbolically outside the headquarters of the FSB, the infamous Lubyanka.
All Western leaders, and some international organisations, have intensified their calls for the liberation of Navalny.
- On 25 January, the EU foreign ministers discuss the jailing of Navalny, but a majority resists calls for more sanctions. They agree that the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, will not cancel his 6 February visit to Russia. Accepting this ‘long lasting’ invitation to Moscow” will also help, he says, to prepare for a March meeting of EU heads of state and government, at which Russian relations will be on the agenda.
- On 26 January, Presidents Putin and Bidden discuss the general situation, albeit Moscow and Washington published contradictory versions on who initiated the phone call. The main issues are the 5 years extension of the New Start Treaty and international cooperation. But president Biden reaffirms his strong support for Ukraine sovereignty, full investigation of different Russian interference in American political and economic life, and democracy in Russia. Moscow reacted to Biden’s ulterior communique with the expected denials from Moscow, whose immediate interest was the New Start Treaty, now adopted by Russian parliament.
Much will depend from the follow-ups of the 31st demonstrations, notably the number and location of demonstrators, and the capacity of both sides to control their ‘troops’ and prevent physical violence. Whatever happens, it is difficult to imagine a quick solution because Putin and Navalny are now personal enemies more than political rivals. Contrary to Navalny, Putin has the power and can play on time, while Navalny is living on borrowed time.