Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, is back behind bars in the latest chapter of his high-profile confrontation with the Kremlin.
The 44-year-old Yale-educated anti-corruption campaigner, Putin's best-known opponent, was blocked from challenging Russia's longtime leader in the 2018 presidential election, but he has still managed to be a persistent thorn in the authorities' side.
His call for demonstrations in recent weeks was answered by tens of thousands who rallied in cities spanning the country over two consecutive weekends, demanding Navalny's release from prison and denouncing Putin's rule.
Navalny urged his supporters to protest after being detained in a Moscow airport on arrival from Germany where he was treated for a poisoning attack that he insists was carried out by Russia's security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB) on Putin's orders.
He returned home in mid-January even though the prison service announced it would seek his arrest on charges of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement of three-and-a-half years.
A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered that sentence be changed to time in a penal colony, though it said time Navalny previously spent under house arrest in the sentence would count as time served.
His lawyer has said this means he would now serve around two years and eight months in prison, though he also faces additional years of jail time in several other cases.
Young fan base
Navalny has won a young fan base through viral videos exposing corruption among the elites and has 2.5 million followers on Twitter.
He has also grabbed attention with his uncompromising rhetoric and coined phrases such as the "party of crooks and thieves" to slam the ruling United Russia party.
In 2011, Navalny led mass protests in Moscow over vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.
Two years later the father-of-two stood for Moscow mayor, coming second against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.
In 2017, he accused then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of massive corruption in a YouTube documentary, kickstarting a wave of nationwide demonstrations that were met with police violence and large-scale arrests.
The same year he had to travel to Spain for surgery after one of several street attacks left him nearly blind in one eye.
Navalny has faced a series of legal cases which supporters see as punishment for his activism.
In 2014, he was given the suspended sentence for embezzlement, and his brother Oleg, a co-defendant, was jailed for three-and-a-half years in a decision activists likened to a "hostage-taking."
Before he flew back from Germany in January, papers were filed with a Moscow court asking for that suspended sentence to be converted into jail time, a move Navalny's allies said was an attempt to block his return.
With the Kremlin tightly controlling the media, Navalny nonetheless remains a fringe figure for many Russians, who are exposed to the official portrayal of him as a Western stooge and convicted criminal.
Putin has refused to pronounce Navalny's name in public.
While barred from mainstream politics, Navalny has sought to expose the wealth of Russia's elites, broadcasting investigations to millions of Russians on social media and YouTube.
In his latest exposé – released after his most recent arrest – he claimed a lavish Black Sea property worth US$1.35 billion was built for Putin through a massive corruption scheme. The report has been viewed more than 107 million times on YouTube and was seen as a driving force behind the latest demonstrations.
But despite tapping into discontent among a largely young urban middle class he is still far from a unifying opposition figure, and some have criticised his anti-immigrant nationalist stance.
He scored political success in local elections in 2019 and 2020, when pro-Putin parties suffered losses because of a "Smart Voting" plan Navalny put forward after his allies were barred from standing in numerous races.
The tactic calls for voters to support the one candidate most likely to defeat the ruling party and saw Kremlin-linked candidates drop seats in the Moscow assembly in 2019.
Navalny's offices have been raided repeatedly since, while his Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared a "foreign agent" and ordered to pay several large fines.
From poisoning to prison
Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was handed more than two years in prison on Tuesday. The sentence comes more than five months after he was poisoned in a near-fatal attack he has blamed on President Vladimir Putin.
Here is a timeline:
- August 20: Admitted to hospital -
The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner is hospitalised in the Siberian city of Omsk after losing consciousness on a flight. His entourage says he has been poisoned. Russian doctors say they have found "no trace" of poison.
- August 22: Transferred to Berlin -
Put into a medically induced coma, he is transferred to hospital in Berlin at his family's request.
- September 2: Novichok -
Berlin says medical tests carried out by a German army laboratory yielded "unequivocal evidence" that Navalny was poisoned by Novichok, a Soviet-era chemical weapon. The European Union and NATO demand an investigation.
- September 3: Kremlin denial -
The Kremlin rejects claims that Moscow was behind the poisoning.
- September 7: Out of coma -
Navalny emerges from the coma and is responsive.
- September 14: Labs confirm poisoning -
Laboratories in France and Sweden confirm Germany's findings that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok. Putin condemns "unsubstantiated" accusations.
- September 22: Out of hospital -
Navalny is discharged and the Berlin hospital says a "complete recovery is possible." The Kremlin says Navalny is welcome to return to Moscow. It also emerges Russia froze his assets while he was in a coma.
- October 1: Putin accused -
Navalny accuses Putin of being behind his poisoning. The president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov accuses Navalny of working for the CIA and calls his claims "groundless and unacceptable".
- December 21: Spooks stung -
Navalny releases a recording of him tricking a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent on the phone into confessing that he tried to kill him. The FSB describes the phone call as a "provocation."
- January 17: Going home -
In mid-January Navalny says he plans to return home despite a threat of jail. He is arrested shortly after landing in Moscow on January 17. The next day a court orders that he be held for 30 days. Navalny denounces a "mockery of justice" and urges Russians to "take to the streets."
- January 19: 'Putin's palace' -
On January 19, Navalny releases an investigation, which goes viral, into a lavish Black Sea property he claims is owned by Putin. The Russian president later says he does not own it. In the following days the authorities round up Navalny's allies and warn against protests.
- January 23 & 31: Mass protests, arrests -
On January 23 and 31, tens of thousands of demonstrators demand Navalny's release. The OVD-Info group, which monitors opposition protests, says more than 10,000 people were seized by police.
- February 2: Prison -
Navalny is sentenced to more than two years in prison. His supporters call for a protest, while many Western nations call for his immediate release.
- February 4: Call for new protests -
A close aide to Navalny calls for anti-government demonstrations later this year. Leonid Volkov said during a live stream that more demonstrations will take place "but not every week." Saying protests will be “properly organised,” he says “big” rallies will take place “in spring and summer."
by Jonathan Brown, AFP