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Middle-aged man and woman posing in COVID masks for a photograph at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.
Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia before passing the border control at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, where he was subsequently arrested. EPA-EFE/Kira Yarmysch

Russia: Alexei Navalny’s return adds to an already challenging year for Vladimir Putin

Political commentators both inside Russia and around the world are comparing Alexei Navalny’s return to Moscow with Vladimir Lenin’s “sealed train” journey from Switzerland to St Petersburg in April 1917. It was eight-day journey that, as Winston Churchill wrote, “turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia”.

As we know, the plague bacillus spread and, by the end of the year, Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters were in control. Is this something that Navalny had in mind when making what appears to be a foolhardy return to his home country, bearing in mind that he was poisoned with a nerve agent the last time he was on Russian soil?

There’s no doubt that, at least among some demographics in Russia, support is solidifying behind Navalny as an opposition voice. His approval increased from 9% in 2019 to 20% in 2020, although this was after he was poisoned, so it might reflect a degree of sympathy that might not translate at the ballot box.

There’s little doubt that his “smart voting” programme, which aimed to coordinate support for anti-Putin candidates in regional and mayoral elections last year, proved effective in Moscow where Putin’s United Party lost seats. But there’s little evidence that smart voting had traction in other regions and Putin remains the most popular politician in Russia.

Yet polling suggests that the Russian president’s support is softening among younger voters (18-24 year olds), falling from 36% to 20% over the past year. This potentially indicates that in the long term Putin may struggle to remain relevant to a sizeable segment of the population.

Shifting the goalposts

What of Putin’s long-term plans? There were rumours late last year over the poor state of his health. This has prompted speculation in some quarters that he may harbour plans for an early retirement – maybe even in 2021. The passage of legislation in November 2020 granting life-long immunity to former presidents seemed to add weight to these theories. But such rumours have been doing the rounds in cyberspace since as early as 2012. And constitutional reforms passed in July which would allow him to remain in power until 2036 would seem to suggest the opposite.

Vladimir Putin sits with pen in his hand in front of a Russian Federation flag.
Twenty-one years and counting: how long can Vladimir Putin stay at the helm in Russia? EPA-EFE/Michail Klimenyev/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL

Other electoral amendments passed last year, introducing innovations such as online voting and extending voting over several days, are both thought likely to increase the possibility of electoral manipulation.

The rest of the world will get an indication of how these measures might affect voting in September’s crucial State Duma polls. United Russia is still expected to win an overall majority. But whether Putin’s party will be able to hold on to its constitutional majority – which requires it to win two-thirds of the 450 seats in the Duma – remains to be seen. Nalvalny’s presence in Russia may give opposition voters a figurehead to coalesce around.

How this may play out

Health rumours aside, it is unlikely that Putin is in a hurry to step down before 2024. Putin himself said last year that his presidency “must definitely end one day”. But he followed that remark with a reference to the change to term-limits being about reinforcing the sovereignty of the Russian federation and concluded that “As to what will happen in 2024 or later – we will see when the time comes”. This suggests that he is not only keeping his options open, but is also deliberately obfuscating his plans.

Kremlin watchers also point out that it’s far from clear who might be being groomed to succeed Putin – Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. The list of potential candidates is very limited – and the return of former president Dmitry Medvedev cannot be ruled out. Despite his low approval ratings (38% in December 2019) Medvedev is still seen very much as a Putin loyalist who was happy to occupy the presidency in 2008 for one term to clear the way for Putin to resume power in 2012. Of course, since last year’s referendum, such machinations will not be needed for Putin to remain in power until the ripe old age of 84.

Dmitry Medvedev, a middle-aged Russian politician, poses in front of a Christmas tree.
Waiting in the wings? Dmitry Medvedev. EPA-EFE/Ekaterina Shtukina/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool

Medvedev’s removal as prime minister early in 2020 and his subsequent appointment as deputy chairman of the Security Council has shielded him from criticism over the economic fallout of the pandemic. Some believe this has been engineered to allow him to stand as a more palatable candidate to extend United Russia’s grip on the presidency.

All of which puts Navalny’s return to Russia into context. As Putin’s United Russia develops its long-term plans for control of the Russian Federation, the big question being asked around the world is whether the opposition figurehead, for now in police custody, can – like Lenin in 1917 – galvanise events as a catalyst for change.

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