Even in Germany, where he is recovering from an assassination attempt using the nerve agent novichok, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has remained a thorny side of the Kremlin.
Now the Russian government seems to want him to stay there. As Mr Navalny’s suspended sentence for a fraud conviction in 2014 was due to expire this week, the Russian prison service has abruptly demanded that he return to the country or be sentenced to prison in absentia. A day later, Russia announced new fraud charges against him which could see Mr. Navalny jailed for up to 10 years for allegedly embezzling Rand 356 million ($ 4.8 million) from his Anti-Corruption Foundation .
Although the Kremlin has said he is free to return at any time, Mr Navalny – whose two previous fraud convictions were found to be politically motivated by the European Court of Human Rights – says the new charges are an attempt to prevent him from 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 difficult to predict,” Mr. Navalny wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “They were trying to imprison me so as not to die on the plane [when he fell ill from the novichok], then found my killers. For proving that Putin was personally behind it all.
This month, Mr Navalny used black market data to build a business he was poisoned by FSB, Russia’s best security service. He then deceived one of the suspected hitmen by apparently confessing on tape that the men had applied novichok to his underwear.
Mr Navalny has vowed to return to Russia once he recovers, aware of the limited impact other critics of the exiled Kremlin have had abroad. At his annual press conference last month, Mr Putin justified Mr Navalny’s surveillance by claiming he worked for US intelligence and accused the US of providing him with the data on FSB agents. .
“Staying abroad would be a big blow to Navalny and his supporters,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “A leader abroad is not the same as a leader inside the country. [Former Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir] Lenin was abroad, but returned to Russia – and via Germany.
The Kremlin denies that toxic substances were found in Mr Navalny’s system before his flight to Germany and has repeatedly suggested that Mr Navalny had been poisoned by the CIA, had fallen into a diabetic coma, or had suffered was administered novichok.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Putin, told reporters on Wednesday that the president “is not launching a crisis of hysteria”. adding: “Vladimir Putin has no feeling about this situation”.
The new charges against Mr Navalny are part of a wave of repressive activity ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, which could indicate Mr Putin’s concerns about the possibility of protests against his regime.
His approval ratings and that of his party have fallen to record levels this year amid growing discontent with stagnating real incomes and Russia’s uneven handling of the pandemic.
“The idea is that there will be demonstrations during the Duma elections [Russia’s rubber stamp legislative body] or after them, ”political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann said in an interview with liberal radio Ekho Moskvy, saying the Kremlin was likely to blame US interference for any agitation.
“They must therefore prevent this grim possibility from turning into a Belarusian scenario” – the former Soviet republic where mass protests against a flawed ballot have been going on for months.
Mr. Putin this week signed a series of new laws this ends the little space available for political protest.
Several laws appear to directly target Mr. Navalny. One criminalizes the black market in data that he and the Bellingcat investigation site have used to track the opposition leader’s FSB tail. Others allow the Kremlin to label opposition candidates “foreign agents,” to ban spontaneous protests and potentially to ban YouTube, a video-sharing platform on which Navalny has escaped. censorship to create a national audience.
With the pandemic in mind, Mr Navalny has so far refrained from calling for protests against his poisoning and has refused to organize against constitutional changes earlier this year that allowed Mr Putin to remain 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 released by the Independent Levada Center last week, only 22% of Russians said they believed Mr. Navalny had been poisoned, while 49% believed the incident was “a provocation by the services. Western secrets ”or had been fabricated.
“If the [Kremlin] used to try to deal with the opposition more subtly, it’s all gone. The authorities are in defensive mode to prepare for the protests, ”Kolesnikov said.
“Recess is over. These are the serious things. It is a civil war between the government and civil society. “