Novaya Gazeta

Navalny v. Putin: A Point Of No Return For Russia?

The attempted assassination and subsequent arrest of Alexei Navalny, and accusations of state corruption, have sparked a new protest movement in Russia that may force Vladimir Putin to consider the 'Belarus option.'

During last weekend's protests in Moscow
During last weekend's protests in Moscow
Alastair Gill


After a week of high drama, the political situation in Russia is moving into a new, more radical phase. The Jan. 17 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had just landed in Moscow after recovering in Germany from a poisoning attack, came as Navalny released a viral YouTube video that exposed a vast palace President Vladimir Putin allegedly built for himself on $1.35 billion of kickbacks. The protests that followed were Russia's most widespread since the 1990s.

While Moscow was the focus, the demonstrations were notable for being national in scale, with people openly defying government warnings and taking to the streets by the thousands in 110 cities. From Vladivostok in the far east to Kaliningrad in the west, crowds chanted, "We are the power here," "Freedom to Navalny" and "Down with the tsar!" In the Siberian city of Yakutsk, protesters braved temperatures of -50 C.

Writing in Russia's leading liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the publication's political editor Kirill Martynov lauded what he sees as a movement in which Muscovites and those from regional cities finally have a common interest.

"When Moscow stirs, the regions usually remain indifferent, and vice versa — but not now," he wrote, arguing that people had made their voice heard not only for Navalny's freedom, but "because they see no other way of achieving justice in a country in which there are no courts and no elections."

The Kremlin insists that Washington was behind the demonstrations, and that most of the protesters were minors manipulated into participating by organizers via social media. State media echoed the government's claims and reported the behavior of police as "polite," despite widespread video footage of officers beating protesters with batons and violently detaining them, and in one case in St. Petersburg even kicking a middle-aged passer-by in the stomach as she asked why a protester was being arrested.

Navalny had called on Russians to go out onto the streets after being sentenced to 30 days of pre-trial custody on Jan. 18 in a court hearing held at a police station that the anti-corruption crusader declared illegal. In the wake of Navalny's recovery from a poisoning which investigative journalists say was carried out by the Russian secret services using a nerve agent, the authorities have changed tack by reopening a previous fraud case against him, alleging that he violated the terms of his parole. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that the case was arbitrary and unlawful.

Lawyer and activist Lyubov Sobol, one of Navalny's key allies, announced on Tuesday that more protests were being planned for this weekend, despite the arrest of almost 4,000 participants in Saturday's protests. The authorities are hitting back: On Wednesday, police raided Sobol's apartment, detaining her for 48 hours after carrying out a search. Raids were also conducted in Navalny's apartment and the studios of his anti-corruption foundation.

Novaya Gazeta"s Martynov warned that the standoff may be reaching a point of no return. "Society no longer has anywhere to retreat since the poisoning of Navalny. The siloviki security structures also have nowhere to retreat, having already convinced themselves of the effectiveness of their ‘tough scenario." Beyond lies only The Hague."

If Navalny really was a nobody, why detain supporters who had gathered to welcome him home?

For years, Putin has sought to portray Navalny as a non-entity, refusing to use his name and describing his rival as an "unknown blogger." The Kremlin's clumsy response to the opposition leader's return from abroad publicly demonstrated the exact opposite: If Navalny really was a nobody, then why detain supporters who had gathered at Vnukovo airport to welcome him home? Why divert his plane to another airport and then arrest him at passport control, live in front of TV cameras?

His poisoning and subsequent return to Russia in defiance of threats to jail him have not only confirmed Navalny as Putin's most vocal critic, but also as a political figure of notable courage and global standing. He has seized the initiative, forcing the Kremlin into a series of strategic blunders that have only heightened a growing sense of public outrage among many Russians over widespread government corruption, lawlessness, declining living standards and a flatlining economy hit hard by Covid-19.

Putin's official popularity rating, 60%, while still relatively high compared to other world leaders, is at its lowest since 2012. The Kremlin has attempted to dismiss the video investigation into the opulent Black Sea palace, but it has racked up well over 90 million views, inflicting serious damage on the public's perception of him.

Over the last 20 years, Putin has built his reputation on a strongman approach that sees any sign of weakness as unforgivable. Navalny's direct challenge therefore puts the Russian leader in a difficult position. If the Kremlin wants to avoid appearing weak, it has little option but to double down, which is likely only to deepen social and economic instability and radicalize the opposition, further ratcheting up tension.

Analysts agree that another tightening of the screws is the likeliest response, though Russian media have cautioned against excessively harsh measures against protesters. Even the staunchly pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, while dismissive of Navalny, concluded that an overly heavy-handed response would be "a dead-end path."

He has become a powerful totem for the protest movement.

Indeed, faced with what is an existential challenge, the Kremlin may finally opt to abandon all pretense of democracy in order to keep hold of power, regardless of the costs in the global arena – Russia has shown time and again that it cares little about international censure. Commentators have been speculating for months that the authorities will stake their survival on a "Belarusian scenario" if things get too far out of hand.

Putin will have been keenly observing events across the border in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has managed to cling to power despite months of protests after rigging presidential elections in his favor last August. Lukashenko has responded to discontent by closing borders, arresting his political rivals or forcing them into exile, launching an extensive campaign of repression and torture, and cutting dissenters off from state support.

With parliamentary elections due in September, some analysts have questioned Navalny's decision to return now, arguing that he was too hasty: He should have waited until the summer, the logic goes, in order to ensure a febrile political climate ahead of the elections. By returning now to certain imprisonment, the opposition leader risks losing touch with events that he now has limited power to influence.

Yet, in some sense it makes little difference whether Navalny is in a cell or at large – he has already achieved his aim: publicly humiliating Putin, undermining his legitimacy, and sparking a new wave of protests. And by voluntarily taking on the role of a prisoner of conscience, he has become a powerful totem for the protest movement.

Some liberals may be tempted to view Navalny as some kind of latter-day Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel. Still, the real significance of the new movement is that it has stirred millions of more conservative Russians: They might not be especially keen on Navalny himself, but they will never see Putin the same way again.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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