Navalny, anticipating arrest, planned protests to force Kremlin to
release him, ally says
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[January 22, 2021]
By Tom Balmforth, Anton Zverev and Polina Nikolskaya
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Before he returned to
Russia, opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his supporters had
anticipated he would be arrested and planned to force the Kremlin to
release him by staging repeated protests, a close ally has said.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, was detained
on Sunday after flying home for the first time since being poisoned with
what the West says was a military-grade nerve agent that Navalny says
was applied to his underpants by state security agents.
The 44-year-old lawyer, now in a notorious Moscow prison pending the
outcome of four legal matters he says are all trumped up, accuses Putin
of ordering his attempted murder. Putin has dismissed that, alleging
Navalny is part of a U.S.-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.
Navalny's allies plan nationwide protests on Saturday to try to force
the Kremlin to order his release, a high-stakes test of his support in
the depths of winter during a pandemic.
Leonid Volkov, a close Navalny ally, told Reuters that the opposition
plan also involves releasing video investigations into Putin and his
allies, such as one on Tuesday about an opulent palace they alleged
belonged to Putin, which the Kremlin denied. It has been watched 53
million times online.
"We know the Kremlin fears mass demonstrations," Volkov said. "We know
the Kremlin has never failed in recent years to bend one way or the
other if the demonstrations were powerful and strong enough."
Two sources close to the Kremlin however believe Navalny is becoming a
threat and that he will probably be kept in jail even if there are
prolonged protests in his support.
The Kremlin did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Volkov and others are banking on outrage over Navalny's treatment and
the palace video. They are also trying to exploit what opinion polls
show is public frustration over falling wages and pandemic-fuelled
But the government has introduced tougher penalties for protests, while
68-year-old Putin looks unassailable with an approval rating of more
Volkov is unfazed.
In 2013, a court jailed Navalny for five years, but then released him on
parole after mass protests near the Kremlin.
"We managed it then, we should be able to manage it now. Most important
is not to be afraid," Volkov told supporters on YouTube on Thursday.
Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada pollster, which is not affiliated with
the authorities, says Navalny has an approval rating of 15-17%, higher
than he is credited with by government-backed pollsters, but is in no
position to overthrow the government.
[to top of second column]
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on board a plane
before the departure for the Russian capital Moscow at an airport in
Berlin, Germany January 17, 2021. REUTERS/Polina Ivanova/File Photo
"But he is in a position to discredit the current authorities," said
Both the sources close to the Kremlin, who spoke anonymously due to
the matter's sensitivity, said authorities were unlikely to cave in
and release Navalny, and one expected him to remain in prison until
after parliamentary elections in September.
"He's already started to be a threat," said the first source. "But
he'll be sitting in jail during the elections to the Duma
"Those kind of things (letting someone go after protests) don't
happen. Do it once and everything will be decided on the street
after that," the second source said.
The Kremlin has laughed off the idea that Navalny poses a threat to
It also denies controlling the judiciary or law enforcement, which
has said Saturday's protest is illegal, detained several of
Navalny's allies and warned social networks to stop helping
circulate posts promoting the event.
The two sources however thought the heavy-handed way the state had
handled Navalny's homecoming was boosting his support and turning
him into a political martyr.
Navalny was right to return despite the risks, the first source
"He's a real man. With balls. There aren't other people like that
around at the moment. He follows his intuition, which has been
Though the danger Navalny posed to the Kremlin was growing, both
sources thought it would be some time before he represented a
serious threat to Putin. A long jail term would be a mistake, said
the first source.
"They (some Kremlin officials and the security services) are such
idiots. I think they'll lock him up and turn him into a hero ... Our
comrades only think in terms of the present and never about
tomorrow," the source said.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn and Giles Elgood)
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