Alexei Navalny's return to Russia solidifies opposition leader's role as 'anti-Putin'

Alexei Navalny, Russia's main opposition figure, is in a Moscow jail, with his supporters confronting the existential question of how his political movement will survive with him sidelined, in all likelihood for a very long time.

First test of Navalny appeal comes this weekend with call for national protests

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks as he waits for a court hearing in a police station in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Monday in this still image from video obtained from social media. (@navalny/Instagram/Reuters)

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned home from Germany to challenge President Vladimir Putin and now faces the possibility of years of hard labour because of it.

His supporters are also confronting the existential question of how his political movement will survive with him sidelined, in all likelihood for a very long time after he was detained in Moscow on Sunday.

"Russia will continue with our struggle for freedom, becoming the Russia we are all dreaming of," said a 33-year-old woman who called herself by the nickname Hotaru.   

She went to meet Navalny at the airport where he was originally scheduled to land dressed in a traditional red and blue Russian folk dress. 

She said using her last name would make her a target as Russian police are using any excuse to arrest Navalny's supporters and smother his political influence. Indeed, at the airport that day, more than 70 people were taken into custody.

In St. Petersburg on Tuesday, one supporter claimed he was arrested for the simple act of clapping his hands in support of Navalny.

WATCH | Navalny is arrested after he returns to Moscow:

Putin critic Navalny arrested on return to Moscow

2 years ago
Duration 1:58
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from an apparent assassination attempt. Navalny maintains he did nothing wrong and several countries are demanding he be released.

Russian media reports also say flight attendants who posed for selfies with Navalny on his flight back to Moscow are being investigated by police.

The young woman in the colourful dress also shared a basket filled with Russian blini, or pancakes.

"Pancakes for our president," she said, insisting that the vision of a "new life for Russia" with Navalny in charge will continue to energize his supporters whether he's in jail or not. 

Navalny, 44, is a lawyer who has built up a countrywide political organization fighting corruption in Russia's government. 

Banned from running for office

His videos focusing on the extravagant spending and lifestyles of Russia's most prominent figures, including former president Dmitry Medvedev, have been viewed by tens of millions of people.   

Even today, with Navlany behind bars, his anti-corruption foundation released a nearly two-hour video billed as an investigation into Putin, which focused on what it claims is the president's $1.35-billion US mansion on the Black Sea.

The Kremlin has repeatedly banned Navalny and his candidates from running for elected office. 

Still, opinion polls suggest he has only single-digit support and the notion of Navalny replacing Putin has rarely seemed more fanciful than it does now, with the Kremlin pulling out vast resources to try to mute his influence.

A still image taken from video footage shows law enforcement officers speaking with Russian opposition leader Navalny before leading him away at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on Sunday. (Reuters)

Navalny had been recuperating in Germany after an assassination attempt while he was campaigning in Siberia last August.

He accuses Putin of ordering the hit using the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent and having it carried out by members of Russia's secret police. 

An extensive investigation by journalists with the collective Bellingcat uncovered flight manifests, addresses and phone logs that all pointed to the existence of a secret nerve agent program run by the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) designed to eliminate the Kremlin's enemies.

People, including supporters of Navalny, gather outside a police station where the Russian opposition leader is being held following his detention in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Monday. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Russian authorities have repeatedly denied any such program exists and warned Navalny that he could be arrested for treason just for accusing Putin of the crime.

Navalny chose to board the plane Sunday in Berlin and return to Moscow anyway.

A few moments after stepping off the plane, he stopped and explained to the media that he never considered living the life of a political exile outside Russia.

"It was never a question, not for a single second. It shows that we need to fight here because, my God ... some ugly thieves are in power."

No intention of giving up his fight

In an earlier Instagram post, he said he only ended up in Germany because he arrived there in intensive care after "they tried to kill me." He said he never had any intention of giving up his fight against Putin.

Russia's prison service, however, clearly indicated that if he returned, Navalny should not expect to be a free man for long. 

It published an order for his detention, claiming he violated parole terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 embezzlement conviction — a case that the European Court of Human Rights said was politically motivated. 

Riot police try to keep supporters of Navalny away from Vnukovo airport in Moscow on Sunday. (Chris Brown/CBC)

In anticipation of his arrival, police told his supporters not to come out to greet him and if they did, there would be mass arrests. 

Throngs of riot squad police were deployed at Vnukovo airport, where he was supposed to land, to drive home the point.

Nonetheless, hundreds if not thousands of people braved the –20 C temperatures and transportation officials finally diverted his aircraft north to Moscow's main airport, Sheremetyevo.

As Navalny waited at passport control, police made their move, putting him under arrest. 

He kissed his wife, Yulia, goodbye, and was taken into custody, becoming what human rights group Amnesty International called a "prisoner of conscience." 

Makeshift court

Less than 18 hours later, as he waited in a cell, Navalny was told he was going to meet with his lawyer, but instead was taken into a room in the police station that had been turned into a makeshift court.

With only invited Kremlin-friendly media present, he was ordered held for 30 days in jail for violating the terms of the probation, even as he reprimanded the judge for taking part in a sham proceeding.   

He will appear in court again Jan. 29 to deal with the alleged parole violation but his legal team has said they expect more charges will follow. Last month, Russian investigators opened a "fraud" investigation, claiming he misused money from his foundation.

'No immediate threat of a mass revolt'

Political observers say there's nothing to prevent Putin from treating his nemesis as harshly as he wants.

"There is no immediate threat of a mass revolt," said Moscow-based political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, noting that aside from Navalny's followers, Russians en masse are unlikely to take to the streets in his cause. 

She said most people are indifferent or do not want to get involved.

"At the moment, Putin can get away with almost anything."

Navalny and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, are seen on board a plane during a flight from Berlin to Moscow on Sunday. (Maria Vasilyeva/Reuters)

Putin and senior Russian officials contort their language to avoid uttering Navalny's name, using terms such as "the Berlin patient" instead. State TV rarely makes mention of him.   

As Navany's plane was landing, more than five million people were watching Russian-language live feeds of the event on the internet, whereas Kremlin-controlled television news ignored his arrival completely.

Nonetheless, Schulmann said the Kremlin has been only partially successful at marginalizing Navalny and his decision to return to Russia has cemented his status as the second-most important political figure in the country.

"There is Putin, and there is the anti-Putin, which is him," said Schulmann. 

"He has voluntarily returned to the country that will imprison him.

"This is a very brave action. He is acquiring a certain type of moral authority as a person who has demonstrated that he is a person who is ready to suffer for his convictions." 

Law enforcement officers detain a participant of a rally Monday in St. Petersburg to protest Navalny's detention. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)

Navalny's fate has been compared to that of former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Once one of Russia's richest men, Khodorkovsky oversaw a vast oil empire but ran afoul of Putin in the early 2000s, lost his businesses and was sentenced to a hard labour camp before being pardoned.

Unlike Khodorkovsky, however, who now lives in the United Kingdom and wages his ongoing fight against Putin from London, Navalny left a safe life in the West to return to Moscow.

Moscow-based lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant was the lead counsel for Khodorkovsky during his trial almost two decades ago.

"It's absolutely unfair," he told CBC News of Navalny's treatment by Russia's judicial system, noting that his first "court" appearance at the converted police station broke every rule of jurisprudence.

"There is no rule of law — it's just repression to delete the main opposition guy from public life."

Klyuvgant said Navalny's legal situation is worse than what he faced, but he said the only option for his lawyers is to build a case for his release that is grounded in law, even if the scales of justice are tilted against him.

"Don't expect innocence — maybe parole or a pardon or a decrease in prison terms," he said.

Even though he's behind bars, Navalny has so far managed to stay connected with his supporters by recording short video blogs during breaks in the court proceedings.

He has called for mass protests in cities across the country on Saturday.

"There's nothing these thieves in their bunkers fear more than people on the streets," Navalny said in a video posted by his press secretary.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

With files from Reuters