Not only fervent supporters, but three criminal prosecutions will await Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny, the victim of a suspected Novichok nerve-agent poisoning, when he returns home to Moscow on January 17 after a five-month recuperation in Germany. After being implicated in the poisoning, the government, some Russians say, is betting on those prosecutions to try and muffle its now most prominent political foe.
In response, Navalny appears to be betting on publicity. His flight from Berlin to Moscow’s International Vnukovo Airport is on board Aeroflot’s budget airline Pobeda (Victory) – a symbolic name for a campaigner who has tweeted that he never doubted that he would return to Russia.
Close ally Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician, has likened the homecoming to that of the anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela to South Africa in 1962.
But, like Mandela in 1962, a lengthy prison sentence could lie ahead for Navalny, some fear.
Under the terms of his 2014 suspended sentence for failing to honor a contract with French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) has requested that Navalny receive a prison sentence for not checking in with it during his stay in Berlin. It has stated that it will take “all possible measures” to detain Navalny upon arrival in Moscow.
The FSIN does not consider Navalny’s August 22, 2020 evacuation for medical treatment to Berlin adequate justification for his absence. It has stated that it will take “all possible measures” for his detention.
Navalny’s sentence expired on December 30, 2020. But a day before, prosecutors filed another criminal case against the 44-year-old activist.
This case, for alleged large-scale fraud, came eight days after his YouTube channel broadcast a phone call in late December 2020 between Navalny and an apparent Federal Security Service (FSB) employee, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who indicated that the FSB had poisoned Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok.
The fraud charge carries a potential 10-year prison sentence.
Some sympathetic Russian analysts predict that the activist’s safety from arrest or detention upon his January 17 arrival in Moscow could depend upon the size of the crowd that meets him at the Russian capital’s Vnukovo International Airport.
“The sole thing that now can influence the situation is a mass protest,” Moscow-based political expert Dmitry Oreshkin commented on Current Time's Evening newscast. A robust turnout at Vnukovo or a gathering of Navalny’s supporters in front of his Moscow residence or in Russia’s regions, “of course, will influence this,” Oreshkin said.
With this in mind, Navalny’s “focus is always publicity,” he added.
But Russian officials appear aware of Navalny’s potential PR power.
Citing the need for vigilance against spreading COVID-19, Vnukovo has barred journalists from filming his January 17 arrival. Its press service on December 15 told the multimedia outlet SotaVision that, to protect passengers, all media events are “temporarily” not allowed – a statement that touched off a war of words between Navalny supporters and Vnukovo on Twitter.
Current Time TV will cover Navalny’s return to Russia from Germany live on January 17 from 2:30 p.m. Moscow time (12:30 p.m. Berlin, 11:30 a.m. London).
But Navalny’s fame may ultimately not deter officials, one former Kremlin employee believes. Russia faces parliamentary elections in 2021 and Navalny, whose Smart Voting campaign led to losses for the ruling United Russia party in the 2020 local elections, now ranks as Putin’s most vocal opponent.
For the Kremlin, not showing weakness in its contest with Navalny is critical, said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for President Vladimir Putin.
“They’ve brought three criminal cases against him, and if they don’t arrest Navalny now, public opinion will take this, obviously, as a weakness: ‘They were afraid of the people’s anger’ or ‘They’re not as tough as their threats,’” said Gallyamov, who backs Navalny.
“Putin will do everything for there not to be interpretations like that,” he continued. “He’s terrified of being accused of weakness.”
These are the three criminal cases Navalny will face upon his return:
1. Large-Scale Fraud
Filed: December 29, 2020
Based On: Article 159.4 of Russia’s Criminal Code
Allegations: Navalny used 356 million rubles ($4.84 million) out of 588 million rubles ($8 million) in donations to his non-profit organizations, including the Anti-Corruption Foundation, for personal expenses.
The source of information for these figures, the relevant dates, and why the government is prosecuting for the donors remain unclear.
Potential Punishment: Up to 10 years in prison
2. Failure To Comply With Sentencing Terms
Filed: January 11, 2021
Based On: Article 74.2, 3, and 4; Article 397.7 оf Russia’s Criminal Code
Background: Navalny and his brother, Oleg Navalny, were convicted in 2014 for their delivery company allegedly not complying with a contract and causing substantial financial damages to French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher. Oleg Navalny served 3 ½ years in prison and was released in 2018. Aleksei Navalny was given a suspended sentence for 3 ½ years.
The Federal Penitentiary System has stated that, as of September 24, 2020, it was not aware of Navalny’s “actual location.” (At the time, the activist was living in or near Berlin, where he had been evacuated for medical treatment.)
Navalny’s sentence expired on December 30, 2020.
Potential Punishment: The Federal Penitentiary System has demanded that Navalny’s expired sentence be changed from a suspended sentence to imprisonment.
Filed: June 15, 2020
Based On: Article 128.1 of Russia’s Criminal Code
Allegations: Navalny slandered World War II veteran Ignat Artemenko when the activist tweeted on June 2, 2020 that Artemenko and other participants in a video promoting Putin’s 2020 constitutional reforms were “corrupt lackeys” and “traitors.”
Under the reforms, adopted in July 2020, the constitution does not allow the “disparagement” of World War II veterans.
Although the case was halted after Navalny’s August 2020 collapse, the plaintiff’s attorney, Ilya Remeslo, tweeted on January 13, 2021 – the date Navalny made his return to Russia public – that the court had resumed its work.
Punishment: A fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,802) or up to 160 hours of compulsory labor
Navalny, a lawyer by training, denies wrongdoing in any of these cases, which he considers politically motivated.
In the runup to Navalny’s return in Moscow, some of his associates also have been targeted – a move that supporters see as additional pressure tactics.
On January 15, cameraman Pavel Zelensky, who has filmed Navalny’s investigations for his Anti-Corruption Fund, was charged with allegedly calling on the Internet for extremism. Zelensky is under pre-trial detention until February 28, Interfax reported.
In response to the October 2, 2020 self-immolation of independent Nizhny Novgorod journalist Irina Slavina, Zelensky had tweeted an accusation against Putin, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, “and other scum” for Slavina’s death.
The Russian government, which regularly investigated Slavina, has dismissed any responsibility for her suicide.
Citing a lack of evidence, Russian officials also have declined to investigate FSB employees named in an investigation by Navalny and international media partners into his Novichok poisoning. President Putin has stated that if the FSB intended to kill Navalny, it would have succeeded.
Police picked up four other Navalny associates in late December 2020 after they traveled to the residence of FSB officer Kudryavtsev to film his response to the phone call with Navalny about the poisoning.
One of this group, Olga Klyuchnikova, charged on January 14 that a listening device was placed in her smart phone after she was incarcerated briefly for defying law enforcement. Officials do not appear to have responded.
But if these developments make Navalny hesitate about his flight home, little sign exists. Over the past decade, as his anti-corruption campaign became more prominent, he has been imprisonedover 10 times and spent months in detention for various charges.
In Navalny’s place, most Russians probably would have stayed in Germany for safety, commented Oreshkin.
But Navalny “is not made out of the same dough as other people,” he said.
“He’s a leader. He’s a person who goes for extreme methods.”
With additional reporting from Interfax and RBC