Alexey Navalny: The Kremlin crackdown risks turning the opposition leader into a martyr

If imprisoning a person for something they failed to do while lying in a coma and recovering after a brush with death wasn’t harsh enough, Moscow riot police outside swung truncheons and used electric stun batons on protesters calling for Navalny’s release, even detaining many before the hearing had begun.

By the night’s end, they had detained more than 1,400 people. That’s on top of more than 9,000 other detentions at protests over the past two weekends.

The farce of Navalny’s court case and the police’s heavy handedness in suppressing outrage over it could cost the Kremlin dearly, and even risk turning its biggest critic into a martyr.

Navalny, Russian most prominent opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, has been arrested and jailed many times in cases he says were politically motivated — though the Kremlin claims it has no influence over the police and courts — but until now faced only light sentences. Navalny had previously received a suspended sentence for embezzlement — verdict that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled was politically motivated — but Tuesday’s prison sentence shows something has shifted

President Vladimir Putin, it appears, is finally feeling threatened. At least that’s how Navalny sees it.

And perhaps Putin should be worried. Tens of thousands of protesters heeded calls by Navalny and his team to demonstrate in recent weeks. Significantly, not all were the usual Navalny supporters. What they had in common, however, was a desire for political change.

Riot police detain a protester after a court decision to imprison Alexey Navalny, in downtown Moscow in the early hours of Wednesday.

Maria, a 22-year-old at an anti-government street protest in Moscow on Sunday, told CNN she wanted free and fair elections in Russia, a country where media manipulation, arbitrary detention, intense pressure campaigns and sometime ballot stuffing to favor the Kremlin’s preferred outcome have defined past elections.

“Navalny just influenced people to come out on the streets today, but people have the same opinion as I do about our government and free elections, and they are here today because they want these changes, the same as I do,” said Maria, who gave only her first name.

Navalny’s extraordinary reach

Navalny started blogging about corruption in 2008 and has since exposed the financial links between high-profile Russian politicians and oligarchs within Putin’s inner circle.

Even while he was in jail awaiting his hearing, his Anti-Corruption Foundation published a two-hour video investigation into Putin’s purported wealth, making allegations of vast corruption schemes related to what they called “Putin’s Palace,” a colossal Black Sea property estimated to be worth around $1.4 billion.

Navalny releases investigation into decadent billion-dollar 'Putin palace'

CNN is not independently able to verify the foundation’s claims and Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied the President was linked to the estate. The video has been viewed on YouTube more than 108 million times.

It’s an example of how Navalny and his team has been able to reach Russians, particularly young ones, in a country where the media is so tightly controlled. While Navalny enjoys a high profile in Western media as something of an anti-Putin, many people in Russia don’t read independent news outlets and don’t necessarily know much about him — particularly older Russians who rely on state TV for news.

To keep it that way, Russian leaders have been careful to never actually name him, referring to him only as an “unknown blogger” or “the Berlin patient” when asked about his poisoning and treatment in Germany. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in his poisoning.

And on Tuesday, Peskov even tried to claim that Putin was uninterested in Navalny’s hearing, saying the President would instead attend a virtual meeting with “teachers who are teaching the future generation of Russia.”

But by allowing prison officials to pursue a jail term for Navalny in court, the Kremlin only raised his profile. Navalny used his hearing as a platform to launch a 16-minute attack on Putin and his government, speaking in a series of soundbites that were impossible for journalists and social media users to resist reporting.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny talks to one of his lawyers, left, while standing in a glass box during his hearing on Tuesday.

He mocked Putin as a “little thieving man” and “Putin the Poisoner of Underpants” in reference to his own investigation into the poisoning, which involved duping an FSB security agent into admitting someone from an elite toxins unit had laced his underwear with the military grade Novichock nerve agent.

The Kremlin’s decision to jail Navalny and back a violent police response to protests are signs that Navalny hit a nerve, said Ben Noble, who lectures in Russian politics at the University College London. But it may still have been a calculated decision.

Europe talks the talk in criticizing Putin. Russia's opposition is waiting for it to walk the walk

“The Kremlin knows that it runs the risk of increasing support for Navalny, or at least increasing sympathy, for him, by acting this way. But given the scenes that we saw on Tuesday, the awesome, overwhelming force of riot police on the ground, it seems the Kremlin has made a decision that they are going to just try and crush Navalny publicly with a view to dissuading other people from either protesting in the street or carrying on his activities,” he said.

“We’ve seen the way in which law enforcement has gone after members of his team, as well as his family, so it seems as though the Kremlin is just saying, ‘We realize there’s a risk, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take because we think that Navalny, if he were free, would pose an even larger systemic risk to the current political system.”

Fears of a Belarus scenario

Police detentions of Navalny’s family and allies, and the violence with which police have responded to protests have fed fears of potentially more brutal crackdowns to come.

After witnessing mass protests against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko last year, Russian authorities have tightened the screws locally by passing dozens of restrictive laws, increasing punishments for holding unsanctioned demonstrations, expanding “foreign agent” laws that crack down on organizations pushing liberal democratic values, and raising fines for social media platforms that post information deemed “illegal.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarus' leader Alexander Lukashenko at a ceremony unveiling the Soviet Soldier Memorial near Rzhev, in Russia on June 30, 2020.
But Navalny’s team has vowed that supporters will take to the streets again, and his regional headquarters now has 37 offices sprawling across the vast nation and a growing support base.

“We are now in a moment of tremendous moral superiority. The whole country saw how afraid Putin was. The whole country saw how pitiful and weak he was; what he is willing to do with courts, justice and common sense in order to protect his pot of stolen gold,” head of regional headquarters Leonid Volkov said in a statement on Facebook after Navalny’s hearing.

“New investigations will come out. New peaceful rallies and processions will be held. New electoral victories will be achieved,” Volkov said.

Police officers detain a Navalny supporter during a protest in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Tuesday.

Putin has ruled Russia now for more than 20 years, even successfully changing the constitution to prolong his grip on the country. Unseating him will be no easy task.

And who would replace him? Navalny sought to challenge him in 2018, but was barred from running because of his previous conviction. He too has had his own a checkered past, once affiliated with far-right anti-migrant groups, also controversially supporting Russia’s annexation on Crimea, saying Ukraine needed to accept the peninsula would not be returned anytime in the foreseeable future.

Some of those views may not necessarily work against him in an election, but not all Russians who want change agree with his views.

Polling shows that he may not be a natural second choice for many Russians anyway. “The thinking in ​certain Western media is if Putin weren’t there, then Navalny would be president. But we know that’s highly unlikely, including on the basis of polling data from September 2020 showing that only 20% of Russians approve of his activities,” Noble said.

What Navalny has done, however, is galvanize a powerful anti-government force not seen in Russia for decades. Even with Navalny behind bars, the Kremlin will struggle to take the wind out of his movement’s sails.

CNN’s Zahra Ullah contributed to this report.

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