Even from Germany, where he is recovering from an assassination attempt using the nerve agent novichok, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has remained a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
Now, the Russian government appears to want him to stay there. As Mr Navalny’s suspended sentence for a 2014 fraud conviction was set to expire this week, Russia’s penitentiary service abruptly demanded he return to the country or receive a jail sentence in absentia. A day later, Russia announced new fraud charges against him that could see Mr Navalny jailed for up to 10 years for allegedly misappropriating Rbs356m ($4.8m) from his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Though the Kremlin has said he is free to come back at any time, Mr Navalny — whose two previous fraud convictions were ruled politically motivated by the European Court of Human Rights — says the new charges are an attempt to stop him returning to Russia, where he believes his activism has become too great a threat to President Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia party.
“It wasn’t hard to predict,” Mr Navalny wrote on messaging app Telegram. “They’d try to jail me for not dying on the plane [when he fell ill from the novichok], and then found my killers. For proving that Putin was personally behind all of it.”
This month, Mr Navalny used black market data to build a case that he was poisoned by the FSB, Russia’s top security service. He then tricked one of the alleged hitmen into apparently confessing on tape that the men had applied novichok to his underpants.
Mr Navalny has vowed to return to Russia once he recovers, mindful of the limited impact other exiled Kremlin critics have had from abroad. In his annual press conference last month, Mr Putin justified the surveillance of Mr Navalny by claiming that he was working for American intelligence and accused the US of supplying him with the data on the FSB agents.
“Staying abroad would be a big blow to Navalny and his supporters,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “A leader abroad isn’t the same thing as a leader inside the country. [Former Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir] Lenin was abroad, but he made it back to Russia — and via Germany.”
The Kremlin denies poisonous substances were found in Mr Navalny’s system before he flew to Germany and has variously suggested that Mr Navalny was poisoned by the CIA, fell into a diabetic coma or dosed himself with novichok.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday that the president “is not throwing a hysterical fit”. adding: “Vladimir Putin has no feelings whatsoever about this situation”.
The new charges against Mr Navalny are part of a flurry of repressive activity ahead of parliamentary elections next year that may indicate Mr Putin’s concerns that there could be protests against his rule.
His approval rating and that of his party sank to record lows this year amid growing discontent about stagnant real incomes and Russia’s patchy handling of the pandemic.
“The idea is there will be protests during the elections to the Duma [Russia’s rubber stamp legislative body] or after them,” political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann said in an interview on liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station, saying the Kremlin was likely to blame US interference for any unrest.
“So they have to stop this gloomy possibility from turning into a Belarusian scenario” — the former Soviet republic where mass protests against a flawed poll have continued for months.
Mr Putin this week signed a spate of new laws that all but end the little space available for political protest.
Several of the laws appear to target Mr Navalny directly. One criminalises the data black market that he and investigative site Bellingcat used to track the opposition leader’s FSB tail. Others allow the Kremlin to brand opposition candidates as “foreign agents”, outlaw spontaneous protest and potentially ban YouTube, a video-sharing platform where Mr Navalny has evaded censorship to build a nationwide audience.
With the pandemic in mind, Mr Navalny has so far refrained from calling for protests over his poisoning, and declined to organise against constitutional changes earlier this year that allowed Mr Putin to potentially stay in power until 2036.
But the unprecedented use of a nerve agent against a political opponent has yet to sway Russian popular opinion, in a society where most people get their news from Kremlin-controlled television.
In an opinion poll published by the independent Levada Center last week, only 22 per cent of Russians said they believed Mr Navalny had been poisoned, while 49 per cent thought the incident was either “a provocation by western secret services” or had been fabricated.
“If the [Kremlin] used to try to deal with the opposition more subtly, that’s all gone. The authorities are in defensive mode preparing for protests,” Mr Kolesnikov said.
“Playtime is over. This is the serious stuff. It’s a civil war between the government and civil society.”