Vladimir Putin is not scared of Alexei Navalny, says Kremlin

By Andrew Roth

Vladimir Putin is not scared of Alexei Navalny, a Kremlin spokesman has said, but Moscow authorities still appear likely to block Saturday’s planned protests in support of the jailed opposition leader.

Navalny “has no relation to the Russian president and can in no way be associated with the president”, said Dmitri Peskov, when asked whether Putin viewed Navalny as a rival.

“Various suggestions that someone is scared of someone else are absolute rubbish.”

Navalny was detained on Sunday at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on his return from treatment abroad after a suspected poisoning attempt on his life by Russia’s FSB spy agency.

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Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation investigates the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. 

He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia's democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. 

Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months. 

He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny's rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote 'not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me; against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me'. 

There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning. In 2020, he was again hospitalised after a suspected poisoning, and taken to Germany for treatment. The German government later said toxicology results showed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

A judge ordered him kept in custody for 30 days until a parole review that could imprison him for years, prompting the Kremlin critic to call for a mass protest this Saturday.

“There’s nothing these thieves in their bunkers fear more than people on the streets,” Navalny said. He could be sent to a penal colony by the end of the month if a parole board revokes his probation.

The Russian president has still not publicly commented on Navalny’s arrest. Putin appeared in state news footage on Tuesday taking a dip in an icy pool at his suburban residence for the Orthodox holiday of Epiphany. Following the tradition, he submerged himself three times, crossing himself after each plunge, before quickly climbing out of the frigid waters.

Peskov said Russia would under no circumstances bow to international pressure to release Navalny, which has included condemnation of the arrest from Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“This is about the violation of Russian law by a Russian citizen, this is a completely internal affair, and we will not allow anyone to interfere,” Peskov said. “We have no intention to listen to such statements.”

Moscow authorities have indicated they plan to outlaw the Saturday protest, setting up a showdown between police and demonstrators. Analysts believe that the number of protesters on the street could influence whether Navalny is given a stiff prison sentence or set free.

Citing a source, the Russian newswire Interfax reported the protest could be declared illegal on the grounds of the ban on public events until the end of the coronavirus epidemic. Peskov said Navalny’s call for demonstrations were “disturbing”.

Navalny’s lawyers said he had been summoned to a court on Wednesday in connection with a separate case for defaming a second world war veteran who had been featured in videos supporting constitutional amendments that would allow Putin to run for office until 2036. Navalny called participants in the videos “traitors”. Libel charges can carry a prison sentence of up to five years.

A police officer who leaked data used by Bellingcat investigators to track down an FSB hit squad accused of poisoning Navalny is facing 10 years in prison, the RBC business newspaper reported on Tuesday. Russia has refused to open a criminal case into Navalny’s poisoning but has cracked down on those who exposed the attempt on his life using a novichok poison similar to that used in the 2018 Salisbury attacks.

Vladimir Ashurkov, a Navalny supporter based in London, released a list of wealthy Russians whom he said the opposition leader believed should be sanctioned in connection with his poisoning and arrest. They include several Russian oligarchs, government officials, and the children of the heads of Russia’s FSB and security council director.

“The west must sanction the decision-makers and the people who hold their money,” Ashurkov said. “Nothing less will make an impact on the behaviour of the Russian authorities.”