Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has stunned the Russian government, forcing President Vladimir Putin to confront significant protest. Navalny was nearly killed in August by the Novichok nerve agent but he survived after being airlifted from Russia to Germany, where he spent five months recovering.

The Kremlin discouraged Navalny from returning to Russia by issuing an arrest warrant but he flew back on January 17 and was immediately detained.

His call for protests against his detention brought Russians to the streets in late January, in the largest opposition events in a decade and the most geographically widespread actions since the late Soviet period.

On February 2, the court sentenced Navalny to spend two years and eight months in prison.


Alexei Anatolievich Navalny is a Russian opposition leader, politician, lawyer, and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for office to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia. Navalny has been described as "the man Vladimir Putin fears most”.

Navalny has more than six million You Tube subscribers and more than two million Twitter followers: through these channels, he publishes materials about corruption in Russia, organizes political demonstrations and promotes his campaigns. He has also published investigations detailing alleged corruption by high-ranking Russian officials.

He ran for mayor in the 2013 Moscow election and came in second, with 27% of the vote, losing to incumbent mayor Sergey Sobyanin, a Putin appointee.

Navalny is a smart anti-corruption campaigner who produces slick videos compiling evidence about the illicit wealth of well-known businessmen and politicians. Reportedly, this was precisely what he was doing in Siberia where he was also trying to pioneer tactical - or “smart” - voting in regional elections, encouraging voters to cast ballots for any party that had a chance of beating the ruling United Russia party. He was in fact in Siberia backing independent politicians in municipal elections just before he was poisoned.

In August 2020, Navalny was hospitalized in Germany in serious condition after he was poisoned and was discharged a month later. Navalny accused Putin of being responsible for his poisoning.

Current situation

On 17 January 2021, he returned to Russia, where he was immediately detained on accusations of violating parole conditions. On 2 February, his suspended sentence was replaced with a prison sentence, meaning he would spend two years and eight months in prison.

The politician was laughing in his glass box as the verdict was being read out, gesturing toward his supporters and wife, Yulia, in the courtroom. He had earlier denounced court proceedings as politically motivated and demanded that he be freed.

Following the court ruling, people started gathering in central Moscow despite heavy police presence after Navalny's team called on his supporters to come out in protest of the decision.

Illustrating the international interest in the case, foreign diplomats from at least 12 countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union, were in court to observe the hearing.

Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years with his anti-corruption investigations into the Kremlin elite. His latest investigation into a luxurious palace allegedly belonging to Putin has been viewed by more than 100 million times on YouTube. The Russian president has denied he owns the palace.

Western powers have meanwhile called on Russia to free Navalny, with some threatening fresh sanctions. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Navalny’s jailing as a violation of his rights and demanded his release.

Navalny's likely way ahead

Navalny probably wanted to end his stay abroad in order to avoid the risk of becoming irrelevant or being seen as a foreign-backed agent. Russian authorities wanted Navalny in prison, fearing that he could run an efficient campaign against the main Kremlin party, United Russia, in September’s parliamentary election. Putin was in fact left with two choices: allow the high-profile activist to continue to be a thorn in his side or lock him up in the hopes that he fades into obscurity. He chose the second option.

Putin might have wanted to sideline Navalny at a time when President Biden is distracted by crises like Covid-19, domestic violence and foreign policy fires like Taiwan and Myanmar.

The question now is whether Navalny's movement can survive with its telegenic and social media savvy leader isolated from the frontlines, especially with factors like pandemic restrictions limiting public gathering.

In 2013, Navalny was quickly released from prison following a five-year sentence from embezzlement conviction after a large crowd gathered near the Kremlin. But Putin’s government has since become much tougher on dissent, so it is unlikely that mass protests will prompt Navalny’s immediate release.

Anyway, the Kremlin still fears that a harsh move may destabilise the situation, and the scale of the rallies could indicate how the public would react to Navalny being imprisoned for a long time.

Is Alexei Navalny a real threat to Vladimir Putin?

Russia had weathered the international condemnation and economic sanctions imposed after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. But through his bravery, determination and investigative flair, Navalny has galvanised the Russian opposition. He has returned to Russia to face arrest and imprisonment thus inspiring mass protests across the country . Whether Navalny succeeds or fails, he now represents the most dangerous challenge Putin has faced in the two decades since he took power.

When the trial arrived, the protests that Navalny and his team had called for broke out at in at least 100 cities and towns all through the length and breadth of the Russian Federation. Navalny has demonstrated to the authorities, the Russian population, and the world that Russian citizens are ready to march and protest for him and to be detained by riot police if need be. This was a victory for the opposition, if not a decisive one, not least because it showed the uneasiness of the regime’s response.

In some cities, Russians staged their largest protests in at least three years. The show of support and Navalny’s newfound recognition is an important Russia’s political development, and the anger beneath it could bubble and reverberate for months, even years to come, with parliamentary elections and a presidential race looming.

So far the Kremlin's black propaganda against Navalny has been effective in influencing public opinion. Levada Center Polls found that only 9% of respondents in 2019 and 20% in 2020 had a positive opinion of Navalny's activities (although this second poll was after he was poisoned, so it might reflect a degree of sympathy that might not translate at the ballot box) while 25% had a negative opinion and the remainder either did not know or did not care.

It is unlikely that this will dramatically weaken Putin's approval rating in the short term, and it probably will not seriously upset his political plans between now and 2024. But it does raise questions about what Russian politics will look like if he stays in power and pursues two more six-year terms through 2036.

There’s little doubt that his “smart voting” programme, which aimed to coordinate support for anti-Putin candidates in regional and mayoral elections last year, proved effective in Moscow where Putin’s United Party lost seats. But there’s little evidence that smart voting had traction in other regions and Putin remains the most popular politician in Russia.

The rest of the world will get an indication of how these measures might affect voting in September’s crucial State Duma Polls. United Russia is still expected to win an overall majority. But whether Putin’s party will be able to hold on to its constitutional majority - which requires it to win 2/3 of the 450 seats in the Duma - remains to be seen. Nalvalny’s presence in Russia may give opposition voters a figurehead to coalesce around.

Russia’s image in the world

Putin's approval rating in Russia last July was still around 60% when he won a landslide in a referendum proposing constitutional reforms that would allow him to keep power beyond 2024. Despite credible allegations of voting fraud, independent opinion polls suggested that support for Putin's constitutional changes broadly reflected the public mood.

But Russia’s image in the western world is on the decline: a median of 66% of adults express an unfavorable view of Russia, and only a median of 29% hold a positive opinion of Russia.

People in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands hold the most negative views of Russia. At least three-quarters in all those countries hold an unfavorable opinion. Two-thirds or more say the same in Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States. 

Of the countries surveyed, Italy stands out with its relatively sanguine outlook on Russia. Moscow delivered medical aid to Italy at the start of the pandemic, and about half in Italy see Russia favorably.

Outside Italy, no more than a third of the population in each country surveyed expresses confidence in Putin. Trust in the Russian leader is especially low in Spain, the U.S., the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, countries in which a fifth of adults or fewer express this opinion. Only in Australia, Germany and Italy do three-in-ten or more trust Putin on the global stage. Even so, Putin gains more trust than former U.S. President Donald Trump in nearly all countries surveyed.

Economic overview

Russia has undergone significant changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union, moving from a centrally planned economy towards a more market-based system. Both economic growth and reform have stalled in recent years, however, and Russia remains a predominantly statist economy with a high concentration of wealth in officials' hands. 

Economic reforms in the 1990s privatized most industry, with notable exceptions in the energy, transportation, banking, and defense-related sectors. The protection of property rights is still weak, and the state continues to interfere in the free operation of the private sector.

Russia is one of the world's leading producers of oil and natural gas, and is also a top exporter of metals such as steel and primary aluminum. The economy, which had averaged 7% growth during the 1998-2008 period as oil prices rose rapidly, has seen diminishing growth rates since then due to the exhaustion of Russia’s commodity-based growth model. The government has thus increased the effort to diversify the economy away from extractive industries.

Russia and the international community

As already pointed out more than a dozen Western diplomats attended the hearing. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said their presence was part of efforts by the West to contain Russia, adding that it could be an attempt to exert “psychological pressure” on the judge.

Russia has dismissed the international criticism as meddling in its domestic affairs and said Navalny’s current situation is a procedural matter for the court, not an issue for the government. “Navalny is a Russian citizen sentenced by a Russian court in accordance with Russian laws. Who gave US the right to judge if it was wrongful or not? Wouldn’t you mind your own business, gentlemen? Recent events show that there are a lot of things for you to mend!” Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, said on Twitter.

Navalny is now a well-known figure in the West, and some form of sanctions seems likely if deliberate poisoning is confirmed. These would probably target individuals who can be tied to the attack or a subsequent cover-up. The United States and the European Union could freeze foreign assets, deny visas, and threaten additional sanctions against anyone who does business with the culprits. Broader sanctions against Russia are less likely, as Western governments will want to reserve the more hard-hitting measures for actions with major international consequences.

As a matter of fact, the response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khassoggi in 2018 underscores Western governments' reluctance to jeopardize long-term economic ties even when state involvement is proven or strongly suspected.

How about replacing Putin with Navalny?

An important question remains about Navalny’s ability to channel his street popularity, media savvy, and moral authority into a coherent program for government. Nowhere is Navalny more inscrutable than on economic policy. Formerly a classic free-market liberal, in recent years Navalny has begun to lean left by attacking inequality and corporate greed. But he has so far failed to express a coherent vision for an alternative economic settlement. Navalny is a black box when it comes to the economy, so far. Nobody knows much about his position.

As for Putin, removing him without a concrete economic plan would be either impossible or meaningless so long as most natural resources and heavy industries remain controlled by his allies.

Whether Navalny can succeed without addressing the deep failings of the liberal democratic system with which he would presumably like to replace Putinism is to be seen. Russia's problems are, anyway, quite far removed from failings of the liberal democratic system. Russians are concerned with survival, with basic rights, with the absence of legal institutions etc.”

Notwithstanding all the heroism of Navalny’s convictions and the energy on the streets, the movement still has a long way to go before it becomes a government in waiting. That won’t happen until Navalny and his supporters find their economic and ideological bearings and act on them.


The comparatively large size and nationwide scale of the recent protests surprised many observers and appears to have unnerved the Russian authorities. Police detained over three thousand protesters and bystanders on January 23 only, while there has since been a wave of arrests targeting leading opposition figures.

This heavy-handed approach reflects the Kremlin’s deep-seated fears over a popular uprising. Putin and many of his inner circle remain haunted by the memory of pro-democracy protests in the late 1980s that brought down the Soviet Empire in Central Europe and sparked the 1991 Soviet collapse. Since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, they have been obsessed with the threat of a similar uprising inside Russia itself.

Furthermore, Russia has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has imposed pain on an economy already stagnating under the burden of international sanctions. The July 2020 constitutional conjuring trick that extended Putin’s reign until 2036 has also partially fueled the mood of simmering discontent with some Russians looking for change. Meanwhile, ongoing pro-democracy protests in neighboring Belarus have provided the Russian opposition with an unlikely but potent source of inspiration.

Despite this discouraging environment, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Since taking power in 2000, Putin has seen off numerous protest movements. He has amassed vast financial reserves to keep his regime afloat in difficult times, and has built up a formidable security apparatus specifically designed to suppress grassroots protests and popular uprisings.


Political commentators both inside Russia and around the world are comparing Alexei Navalny’s return to Moscow with Vladimir Lenin's “sealed train” journey from Switzerland to St Petersburg in April 1917. It was the eight-day journey that, as Winston Churchill wrote “turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia”. Thus, the last time a major opposition leader was allowed to return home from Germany unimpeded, it did not end well for Russia’s ruling elite and sparked the October Revolution which, by the end of 1917, brought Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters in full control.

The harsh police response suggests Putin is worried that the contagion of color revolutions could spread to Russia, as it did to Belarus, unless the protests are suppressed decisively. At this stage, the protests do not represent a threat to the regime, and it is unclear whether Navalny supporters will succeed in prolonging them, as occurred in Belarus last year. Russian leaders will need to assess whether an intensified crackdown and a long prison sentence for Navalny will give impetus to even larger protests, or whether intimidation will succeed in pacifying the situation.

Putin may attempt to deescalate by giving his opponent a short prison sentence and taking token steps against corruption, while disavowing any connection to “Putin’s Palace. But he is unlikely to allow Navalny to go free and resume his political activities, especially with parliamentary elections on the horizon in September that could be disrupted by Navalny’s “smart voting” tactics.

Kremlin watchers also point out that it’s far from clear who might be being groomed to succeed Putin, Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. The list of potential candidates is very limited and the return of former president Dmitry Medvedev cannot be ruled out. Medvedev’s removal as Prime Minister early in 2020 and his subsequent appointment as Deputy Chairman of the Security Council has shielded him from criticism over the economic fallout of the pandemic. Some believe this has been engineered to allow him to stand as a more palatable candidate to extend United Russia’s grip on the presidency.

All of which puts Navalny’s return to Russia into context. As Putin’s United Russia develops its long-term plans for control of the Russian Federation, the big question being asked around the world is whether the opposition figurehead, for now in prison, can - like Lenin in 1917 - galvanise events as a catalyst for change.

If history is a guide, Putin may prevail. Waves of protests have rocked Russia a handful of times in the last decade before fizzling out. The Russian president still has his supporters, many Russians are indifferent and the opposition doesn’t hold many cards. How both sides now act will determine who will prevail.