If Vladimir Putin thought of locking up Alexei Navalny would silence his most vocal interior critic, the Russian president was quickly proven otherwise.
Less than 24 hours after Mr. Navalny’s conviction to 30 days in prison and threatened with years more, his supporters retaliated by posting a two-hour video investigation that a coterie of oligarchs had funded the construction of a lavish palace for the Russian president on the country’s Black Sea coast, with an indoor ice hockey rink. , theater, casino and secret tunnel to the beach.
The investigation, which has been viewed more than 37 million times since Tuesday afternoon, was a stark reminder of the threat the anti-corruption activist poses to Mr. Putin’s regime. And it also allayed fears that the 44-year-old team of investigators and community organizers might be intimidated or bewildered by the detention of their leader.
Mr Putin’s iron imprint on the levers of Russia’s backbone democracy means Mr Navalny’s operation will struggle to make electoral inroads. But the charismatic activist’s ability to spark popular outrage at instances of alleged government corruption and mobilize tens of thousands of people in street protests has long been a major challenge for the Kremlin.
Attempts to sideline him through pre-trial detention, criminal cases and – according to Mr. Navalny and a number of Western governments – an assassination attempt in Siberia using the nerve agent novichok last August all failed.
However, this week’s arrest, for violating the conditions of a suspended prison sentence, could see him sentenced to a total of three and a half years behind bars, is expected to test how popular Mr. Navalny and his team are among ordinary Russians, and whether his incarceration will stifle his movement or prove a rallying call against Mr. Putin’s 21-year regime.
“Navalny is no longer just a natural person, Navalny is a kind of movement: with its values, its regional infrastructure and its activists,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the Russian political consultancy firm R. Politik. “So if the Kremlin just puts Navalny in jail and does nothing else, he will do the job of [his team] harder but won’t stop it.
In a message to his supporters recorded shortly before he was taken to Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison on Monday, Navalny urged his supporters to demonstrate on Saturday. The Kremlin suggested it would be against Russian law, and the mayor of Moscow rejected a request for a public rally, raising the possibility of clashes between police and protesters.
A brutal attempt to quell the protests, combined with the arrest of Mr Navalny and dozens of his supporters this week, could mark the start of a renewed repression on the voices of the opposition. It comes as the Kremlin prepares for critical parliamentary elections in September, with the ruling United Russia voting at historically low levels, thanks to a moribund economy and declining real incomes.
“The use of chemical weapons against – and the subsequent detention – of the Kremlin’s foremost critic, Alexey Navalny. . . to suggest[s] an increasingly restrictive civic and political environment in Russia ahead of the September State Duma elections, ”said Andrius Tursa de Teneo, a political risk consultancy.
The Kremlin has denied any role in the attacks on Mr Navalny and claimed he could have been poisoned outside of Russia. He also denied that Mr. Putin is the beneficial owner of the Black Sea Palace.
Late last year, Mr. Putin signed new laws that could be used to target political opponents and those who support, or are backed by, Mr. Navalny’s organization, calling them ” foreign agents ”. It is a term loaded with connotations of espionage and with serious bureaucratic and legal ramifications.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian parliament and close ally of Mr. Putin, told the chamber on Tuesday that Navalny “is supported by foreign special services”, while Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, claimed to have been returned to the country. to incite insurrection. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Nationalist Party, called for his banishment to “the northern tundra, where birds freeze and fall to the ground in flight”.
Communists and Liberal Democrats are members of the “systemic opposition,” which formally do not reunite with United Russia but receive support from Mr. Putin’s regime and almost always support Kremlin policies.
“I don’t regret coming back. . . I refuse to support the anarchy perpetrated by the authorities in my country, ”Mr. Navalny wrote in an Instagram post from prison on Tuesday.
“The scoundrels in the Kremlin. . . divide us into three columns: those who are silent; those who understand but are silent; and those who refuse to be silent and to fight, ”he wrote. “The third column scares them. . . I urge everyone to choose the right column. “
Mr. Navalny is boycotted by state-controlled, Kremlin-friendly television stations, and Mr. Putin does not say his name. State propagandists consider him unknown or hated outside liberal Moscow circles.
Yet a September study by the Levada-Center, an independent pollster, found that 20% of Russians Support Mr Navalny’s actions, even though his overall public trust score – at around 4% – was well below Mr Putin’s 33%.
With him in prison, attempts to close that gap will rely mainly on the continued work of his community organizers spread across all regions of Russia and anti-corruption researchers, some of whom are based abroad.
“The Kremlin is showing very strong intentions,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “So the question is whether the Kremlin will opt for steamroller tactics? It seems rather logical to me.
“[They] can really remove regional infrastructure; hamper the work of the Navalny team in Russia, as well as the dissemination of surveys on social networks and the Internet in general, including YouTube, ”she added. “But what they can’t do is hinder the work of investigators who are overseas.”