In Depth

Alexei Navalny: inside the plan to free Vladimir Putin’s ‘greatest enemy’

Anti-Kremlin activists promise mass protest ahead of national election

Allies of Alexei Navalny have promised to stage the largest anti-Kremlin protest in modern Russian history in an escalation of their efforts to free the jailed opposition leader ahead of national elections in September.

A campaign linked to the website “Free Navalny” was launched this week, alongside a pledge to “announce a date for a new nationwide street protest once 500,000 people had registered to attend”, Reuters reports.

The Kremlin has been hit with three large protests since Navalny was jailed last month, all of which were declared illegal and the authorities “broke them up with force”, the news agency adds.

Rock the Kremlin

With their “leader in prison, his deputies under house arrest and their offices being attacked with smoke grenades”, some expected Navalny’s allies “to retreat” ahead of elections to the Duma, Russia’s elected lower house, later this year, The Telegraph reports.

But instead, the dissident’s aides have vowed to “bring half a million people on to the streets” in an effort to free Navalny and “test the resilience of the small but effective political machine that he has built over the past decade”, the paper adds.

In an interview with the independent Dozhd TV, Maria Pevchikh, the head of investigations at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s political chief of staff, and Ivan Zhdanov, his lawyer, said that “Navalny is the biggest problem of Putin’s regime”.

“Anyone who is opposed to the regime should be making the same demand: freedom for Alexei Navalny”, they added.

The team are yet to set a date for the massive protest, but have set up a registration drive to “simultaneously overcome public inaction and crackdowns by the authorities on sparsely attended demonstrations”, The Moscow Times reports. The trio said that the data of anyone registering to attend the event would be protected.

Volkov said that “we must all work together to raise awareness and prepare, then set the date when the number of participants reaches at least half a million people”. Pevchikh added: “If 1,000 people come out, they all get arrested; 10,000 are dispersed. With 100,000, anti-riot police behave themselves.” 

Election meddling

After the protests against Navalny’s arrest in January and February triggered the arrests of around 10,000 demonstrators and a violent crackdown on dissent, “allies of the jailed opposition leader announced a strategic shift”, The Moscow Times reports.

Rather than focusing on large gatherings of the kind they are now threatening, pro-Navalny activists said that they would divert their energies into a “Smart Voting scheme” after support for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party fell to a historic low of 27%, according to the independent Levada Center pollster.

“Explicitly pro-Navalny candidates” are barred from competing in national elections, while many of his closest aides are under house arrest, The Moscow Times says, meaning the voting campaign will instead endorse “the candidate they judge best placed to defeat United Russia in each individual race”.

The strategy is pinned on the hope that “anti-government voters rally round contenders from the so-called ‘systemic opposition’”, namely the “patchwork of largely tame and often co-opted opposition parties” that are permitted to field candidates within “Russia’s uneven electoral playing field”, the paper adds. 

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has repeatedly made headlines through its anti-corruption reporting, including an investigation into a palace built for Putin at a reported cost of over 100 billion rubles (£984.7bn), published the day before his return to Russia. A documentary released alongside the investigation has since been viewed over 115 million times on YouTube.

However, those closest to the opposition leader feel “the current crackdown is more about electoral politics as much as irritation about allegations of corruption”, The Telegraph says.

“We are getting prepared for the Duma elections which will take place in half a year. Frankly, that is the reason why Alexei is in prison,” Volkov told the paper. “And we have one more task, which is to get Alexei released. The only thing that can help is political pressure from the inside.”

Writing in the Financial Times, Europe editor Ben Hall says that Navalny’s arrest “has only elevated his status as a symbol of repression”, adding that “today’s Kremlin regards him as its greatest domestic enemy”.

And it is this image that his allies are hoping to funnel into support for anti-Kremlin candidates in the Duma election. 

After scrapping term limits in a 2020 referendum, Putin is considering whether to run again when his term ends. But to do so he will “need a loyal parliament”, The Telegraph adds, something Navalny’s allies believe they can take away from him come September.

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