Navalny and Putin, the double challenge

By Nina Bachkatov

The latest episode concerning Alexei Navalny’s return to Moscow came on 18 January, when his lawyer tweeted that the City Court of Khimki decided to detain him for a month. He is accused of “systematic failure” to respect a 2014 tribunal decision giving him a suspended sentence under the condition that he would report twice a month to the police.

In theory, he might be sent to prison to serve his 3,5 years suspended sentence. But the unexpected decision to keep him for a month in Khimki opens the doors for mutual judicial and political intrigues. If only because, the decision cannot be taken in police premises and that nobody believes official explanations that this exception it due to the Covid compulsory quarantine.

In the meantime, both the Kremlin and the star opponent have been thrown into a contest between egos in which the Kremlin lost its nerves and Navalny took a gamble without mastering all the elements.


The red flag was raised in Moscow, with successive declarations by the Federal Prison Service and the Prosecutors, backed by the predictable accusations of foreign plots by the Foreign Ministry. In November, the prosecutor had announced the opening of a probe into claims that Navalny embezzled 5 million euros of donations to his anti-corruption group, which could lead to a 10-Year sentence. Then, on 29 December, the Federal Prison Service had declared that the opponent has failed to respect his parole and might have to serve his three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence. They put him on a wanted list.

The “Berlin’s resident” got the message, and concluded that he had the choice between being a free man abroad or being in jail in Russia – and that he wanted none of that. Navalny being Navalny, he took the gamble and decided to return to Moscow, fortified by international support and national attention. He expected troubles, but not being trapped in a police building, 40 km away of Moscow, at the risk of being turned into an emigree inside his own country, at the risk of missing not only September 2021 parliamentary elections, but also March 2024 presidential campaign.

Failed agenda

The problem is that, for all his bravery, Navalny did not master a key element in politics – the agenda. For the moment, the international attention is focused on Washington and the challenges facing president Biden – not on Moscow. Public opinion wants their leaders to focus on anything else than defeating the Covid and rebuilding their countries. So are the Russians who were even not thinking of elections because campaigns usually start a couple of months ahead of the voting day. They are suspicious of people supported from abroad, and further foreign sanctions linked to Navalny’s case designed to further degrade their economic situation would hurt Navalny more than Putin. A small, but growing, majority of Russians became uncomfortable with the poisoning story.

Among other elements that Navalny and his team under-estimated, one can mention the narrative around the return of Navalny that ought to have kept a fuller historical perspective. Most of the Russians do not need a propaganda machine to feel unease with the picture of an opponent, put with German help on a plane, with the intend to change Russia’s regime. It sends back to images of the return of Lenin in 1917 to save German interests at the cost of a bloody revolution.

All that gives new substance to remarks among opposition circles that, perhaps, they need a fresh figure, new approaches and proposals.

Political future

In short, Navalny’s gamble raises questions about his own political future as a leader of an opposition. Despite the limited success of his calls “Meet me (at the airport)”, he reacted to the decision to detain him for a month by calling people to take the streets in support. But many Russians want more than shouting against Putin, even if they dislike him, and are afraid of violence in their cities. Among the opposition, there have been disagreements about his abrasive manners, his tendency to play it too personal, the limits of a campaign based on anti-corruption exposures in a country where the vast majority of people expect their leaders, and the elites around them, to be corrupted in a way or another. If he stops to be a rallying figure, his position can be in jeopardy.

Some Western analysts, inspired by opposition circles, reflect those doubts by toying with the idea that Navalny’s wife, Yulia, might be a Russian version of Belarus’ Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took over the role of a jailed husband. It looks quite extravagant bearing in mind that Tikhonov, contrary to Navalny, was himself an amateur; that he was arrested a few weeks before presidential elections, not nine months before parliamentary ones. And, more importantly, that the Russian opposition has plenty of potential female leaders with more experience than being the wife of a persecuted opponent.

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