A plane heading from Tomsk to Moscow had to make an emergency landing on August 21 last year because one of the passengers was seriously ill. It was the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the victim of an alleged poisoning with a substance used in the production of chemical weapons and which was later attributed to the Kremlin. The event opened another chapter in the relationship between Navalny and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And since then the pulse seems to intensify more and more. Since then, a series of mutual attacks have shown the relevance of the opposition leader and how uncomfortable it is for the Russian government.

Navalny was arrested two weeks ago when he arrived in Russia from Germany – where he was treated for poisoning. Days later, an investigation by the opposition leader was published in which Putin is accused of having a luxurious “palace” on the shores of the Black Sea, with a vineyard, hockey stadium, and casino. The video of the complaint has been viewed by more than 100 million people. Navalny is the great accuser of the Russian regime as a corrupt and authoritarian state, Jairo Agudelo, professor at the Department of History and Social Sciences at the Universidad del Norte, told the local news agency.

The Russian president seeks to defend himself by trying to project an image of strength and control, but his popularity is at the lowest levels since the beginning of 2020 after the arrest of Navalny and the massive opposition protests demanding his release. According to a poll released Friday by the Kremlin-linked Public Opinion poll company, Russians’ trust in the head of state fell to 53 percent, its lowest point in a year. On the one hand, Putin’s popularity is not what it was 10 years ago, but it is still important, and on the other, “Navalny has been gaining echoes, especially among young people,” according to Mauricio Jaramillo, professor of Relations. Internationals of the Universidad del Rosario, in dialogue with the local news agency.

Experts agree that while the activist does not pose a threat to Putin in electoral terms, he does represent a problem given the destabilizing nature that his accusations bring to the regime. Putin’s popularity has not stopped falling since the publication in December of the videos in which the digital media Bellingcat and Navalny accused the Federal Security Service (FSB, former KGB) of being behind the poisoning with the chemical agent Novichok. For now, the Russian government has been accused of using repression to contain the support that the Russian opponent has received. Just last weekend, authorities detained nearly 4,000 people in historic anti-government protests.

And then they attacked Navalni’s collaborators and associates, arresting several of them before a new day of demonstrations scheduled for today in more than 200 Russian cities. They were accused of violating sanitary regulations during the massive protests in January 23Today, the opposition wants to start the opposition march in Moscow from Lubyanka Square, where the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB, former KGB), which Navalny accuses of poisoning it, is located.

Some reiterate that the demonstrations are not just for Navalny. “The main organizer of these actions is the power itself, its behavior,” political scientist Alexander Kynev told AFP. However, some analysts consider that the demonstrations have an impact on the Kremlin. Showing an internal protest is not good for Putin at the international level, for the image of his leadership. Putin’s policy and the power in Russia are to ignore Navalny or to present him as someone not politically significant, Aymeric Durez, professor of International Relations at the Javeriana University, told this newspaper.

But the Russian president did not count on dealing with decentralized mobilizations that reached more than 119 cities, such as Perm and Yakutsk.
Putin is concerned about the great capacity that Navalny has to gather people through social networks, so much so that he threatened to sanction those companies for inciting minors to participate in the protests. However, Jaramillo predicts that the new meeting will not have an impact on the political system. They are important, significant protests, but they do not question the regime. Putin’s power is not in danger, said Durez.

Despite this, the academic affirms that the president’s strategy of hardening the regime could be questioned, which could pave a way for internal debates and flexibility with the opposition so that it does not become increasingly firm, an idea that would annoy Putin. For now, the international community has rejected Navalny’s arrest for “political reasons.” The G7 called for both his release and that of the protesters arrested last weekend. For his part, US President Joe Biden told Putin in their first phone conversation this week that he was concerned about the Navalny situation.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed that the Democrat also called for his release. According to Agudelo, although, likely, the US president will not apply sanctions against Russia, he will “seek to condition it strongly.”However, the requests seem to be in vain: Justice has already rejected an appeal against Navalny’s arrest and the Kremlin has already said that it would ignore requests such as Biden’s because they are an internal matter and accused the US. of “interference”. It is a very sensitive issue for the Russians in which they are not going to allow a president, least of all a US president, to tell them what to do, argued Jaramillo.

Putin wants to make decisions regarding Navalny without influence. But, according to analysts, if he continues to apply harsh measures against the opponent, it is most likely that he will increase his visibility and make his face and voice roll even more across Russia and the world. Now, attention is focused on what will happen to the activist, who already faces multiple investigations before the courts. Due to the accusation that falls on Navalni of violating a Russian judicial control when he was transferred for health reasons to Germany, it is most likely that he will be convicted.According to Jaramillo, it is important to remember that, despite the nature of this statement, in the end “what weighs on Navalny has mainly political content. But with another ongoing scam investigation, Navalny is not only putting his freedom at stake but also part of his support, as he is accused of spending nearly $ 5 million in donations for his personal use. Thus, apart from facing ten years in prison, the trust that his followers have in him could also be upset.

In this pulse, Navalny represents a problem for the Russian president and it is clear
that goes for everything. He was not afraid to return to his country despite the warnings of going to prison, and now with him and some of his allies in detention he seems not to have much to lose. For the president, keeping the opponent imprisoned “may be bad to reinforce his figure of martyrdom, and releasing him would be a sign of weakness of power. There is no good solution, there is a dilemma, according to Durez. For now, what Putin has done is, with heavy blows, enrage and strengthen the opposition. But now you have a double-edged sword in your hands that you must wield, and while you are expected to know how to do it, it is anticipated that it will not be an easy task.