Alexej Navalny is back in the penal colony after prolonged treatment. But the Russian regime is no longer just targeting him. The next target is his supporters.
He still doesn’t look healthy. The latest pictures show Alexej Navalny on Monday with a shaved head in a cage, his hands leaning against bars. “What an opposition leader looks like in Putin’s Russia,” commented Ilya Yashin, opposition regional politician, on Twitter. Navalny is involved in a court hearing because he had complained about the conditions of his detention: Articles that he wanted to read had apparently been cut out beforehand and he was not allowed to use a Koran he had brought with him.
But the Kremlin critic withdrew the complaint: he can now read the Koran as well as a Bible, and there is no censorship. “We have achieved everything,” Navalny commented sarcastically, as reported by the Internet broadcaster Doschd. At the same time it became known that he had to return to the penal colony in Pokrov. About a month and a half after he was transferred to hospital and treated there for his hunger strike.
Birthday greetings from the prison camp
“Navalny uses his fame to gain some freedom,” explains Fabian Burkhardt from the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg t-online. Unlike conventional prisoners, he can draw attention to grievances. Burkhardt still believes that the Kremlin critic is not in good shape: “Navalny has probably not yet endured the long-term effects of his poisoning.” The prison conditions in the penal colony are harsh, there is a risk of escape near Navalny, which is why he is woken up regularly at night and finds it difficult to recover.
However, Russia’s best-known critic of the regime did not want to show the great burden in the end. On his 45th birthday, he summed up the events of the last year with combative words on Instagram: A “bonus life” is what he has been leading since August 20 of last year.
On a flight from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow, Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novitschok and later treated at the Berlin Charité. He had to learn to speak and walk anew. According to research by several media outlets, the Russian domestic secret service FSB was held responsible for the attack in December. A short time later, Navalny phoned one of the alleged agents who confessed to the crime.
After returning home, he was arrested immediately. He calls the penal colony a “comic-like concentration camp resembling Big Brother”. Nevertheless, he tries not to let feelings such as anger or revenge arise in him. He always tries to understand everyone first, even those whom he would like to strangle at first. Instead, he is about “with the second thought to understand this person with all your might, to forgive him and even (please do not call me a pervert), even to love a little”, said Navalny.
Controversial law comes into force
It was probably no coincidence that the person who found this love hardest for him had signed a new law on his birthday. Vladimir Putin approved a new rule that would exclude candidates from elections who collaborate with “extremist or terrorist” organizations. At the same time, bailiffs had searched Nawalny’s homes for money and valuables. According to a court order, he would have to pay the equivalent of almost 330,000 euros in damages.
The new law could have far-reaching consequences for all supporters of the opposition: It is considered likely that the court will classify its anti-corruption organization as “extremist”, such as the terrorist groups Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. This could mean that all Navalny supporters who run for the second Russian parliamentary chamber (State Duma) in September will be excluded from the election.
Putin changes strategy
However, the consequences could be much more far-reaching. “The law is deliberately formulated vaguely,” says Fabian Burkhardt. It is conceivable that significantly more people will be excluded from voting. Because the regulation also applies retrospectively, probably not without reason: The Navalny team had developed an app for the regional elections last year that recommends opposing candidates to members of Putin’s “United Russia” party in each constituency. Candidates who do not belong to the Navalny group were also listed here. Burkhardt fears that they too could be affected by the regulations.
With this law, the Putin regime is reacting on the one hand to the poor support in its own country. Fabian Burkhardt puts the current approval rating at around 30 percent: “That is very little for those in power in an authoritarian regime.” At the same time, the last Duma election at the latest showed that a change in strategy is necessary. In the past, more independent candidates were admitted and then some of the results were adjusted. However, the last parliamentary election had already led to such tight results in many places that they now want to allow as few opposing candidates as possible.
Release not in sight
An investigation by the Russian investigative medium “istories” shows, however, that the path for independent candidates was already very difficult before the new law. In the past 14 years, Russian authorities are said to have kept a total of 120,000 candidates away from elections. At the same time, it was found that the hurdles for independent candidates have become higher and higher over time: while 60 percent of them were allowed to vote in 2003, the figure was only 8 percent in 2016.
From the outside, however, Alexei Navalny does not give the impression that the measures taken against him and his organization impress him. Rather, he continues his power play with the Kremlin, according to Fabian Burkhardt, even in custody. Germany and Europe currently have little leverage to change the situation. “In the short term there is no means of getting Navalny free,” believes Burkhardt.
The most conceivable is that Putin will release him in return for favors from other states. “It is clear that the Kremlin sees Navalny as a hostage.” But Navalny is not ready to make deals, nor does he want to leave the country after his release: “His goal remains to one day become Russian President.” In any case, his messages continue to reach the public: on Tuesday, his daughter Daria also made a public speech during an award ceremony on behalf of her father for the first time.