Opinion: In Russia, cornered Alexei Navalny fights back | Opinion | DW | 18.01.2021

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Opinion: In Russia, cornered Alexei Navalny fights back

Alexei Navalny likely expected to be arrested upon his return to Russia, making his decision to fly back home an extremely courageous move. But his return isn't likely to advance Russia's opposition, says Juri Rescheto.

Alexei Navalny, centre, and his wife Yulia travel an airport bus as they arrived to airport Sheremetyevo

Alexei Navalny (center) and his wife, Yulia, arrived back in Moscow on Sunday

First the good news — good for opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, at least: Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin's loudest critic, is back in Russia, fit as a fiddle and ready for action.

True, Navalny was arrested immediately after his arrival at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on Sunday. But, for the moment, he is "only" being held in pre-trial detention — and he has supporters who are willing to keep fighting for his cause, even if he ends up staying in prison for longer.

Juri Rescheto

Juri Rescheto is a DW correspondent in Moscow

One way they intend to keep up the fight is in the upcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for September. Using Navalny's so-called "smart voting" system, they intend to pull as many voters as possible away from the ruling United Russia, eroding support for Putin's allied party as much as possible.

The strategy might even work, as it did in some regional elections last year. But it won't really end up changing Russia's political system or strengthen the opposition. After all, Russia has no real opposition, just a toothless pseudo-opposition that waves through all the Kremlin's decisions unchallenged.

Navalny's return won't change that. And that's the bad news — and not only for Putin's opponents.

Putin's most dangerous adversary

Alexei Navalny is a brand — charismatic, fearless, determined and well-known far beyond the borders of his homeland. More than that: Navalny has become Russia's most important opposition politician, one whom the Kremlin apparently truly fears. That was made quite clear by the government's completely exaggerated reaction to his return.

With dozens of police vehicles, hundreds of security guards and press barred from the area, the arrivals area of Vnukovo airport, where Navalny was originally supposed to land, resembled a fortress on Sunday. The government response was clearly a demonstration of power by the state against its most unbending citizen.

This may sound dramatic, but it only serves to bolster Navalny's image of a fighter. It's clear the authorities no longer see him as an "insignificant blogger" or a "patient in Berlin" — terms often used by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. His boss, Putin, doesn't even deign to mention Navalny by name.

Russia's judiciary has already had several chances to put Navalny behind bars for a long time. But it decided against it — apparently, by order of the Kremlin. To do so would have represented too much of an "honor" for an "insignificant blogger"; it would have given him too much attention. All that has apparently now changed. Navalny has become too well-known, and, ultimately, too dangerous for Putin.

Courageous lone fighter

But Navalny is still courageously fighting alone. There is no party behind him, no crowds of people rallying to his cause.

His videos about corrupt officials have been viewed millions of times. And a few years ago, many — mostly young —supporters heeded his call to take to the streets against the state. But the government response to their protests was violent — thousands were arrested, and some were imprisoned. They've been systematically intimidated ever since.

A few days before Navalny's arrival, a group of activists posted an online appeal for supporters to greet the Kremlin critic at the airport. Soon after, Navalny's people received a visit from the police in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Other opposition activists were also threatened with a prison sentence, should they dare show their faces at the airport. And shortly before Navalny's arrival, police carried out dozens of arrests at the airport. All of this is proof that the Kremlin remains an overpowering opponent.

This article has been adapted from German by Martin Kuebler

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