Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny was arrested at passport control as he returned home after spending five months in Germany recovering from a poison attack that immediately sparked an outpouring of commendation by Western leaders.
Navalny was taken into custody by police as he reached passport control at Sheremetyevo International Airport.
The Russian courts last week changed a suspended sentence ruling into a real one on the basis that Navalny had broken the terms of his parole and failed to meet with his parole officer in December, while he was still in Germany.
He now faces up to at least 3.5 years in jail for allegedly flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence. He has been put into a pre-trial detention pending a court hearing that could confirm his sentence. Other charges as expected to be brought against him that could see him jailed for up to ten years.
The international reaction was immediate, as the case has been closely followed by Western leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the arrest and met with Navalny while he was in Berlin receiving treatment after he had been poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.
Merkel was clearly upset by the attack on Navalny and hinted that the Nord Stream2 gas pipeline project linking Russian gas fields and Germany might be halted unless those responsible for the attack were brought to justice.
Observers expect that more sanctions may be imposed on Russia as a result of Navalny’s arrest, as his case has become a cause celebre.
Navalny’s decision to return to Russia was a brave one, as it was very clear that he was almost certainly going to be arrested on his return.
But Navalny chose to defy the Kremlin. The court’s decision to change his conviction from a suspended sentence to actual jail time was widely seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to persuade Navalny to remain in exile in Germany.
There are crucial Duma elections in September and Navalny has been a persistent thorn in the side of the Kremlin. Navalny organised a “smart voting” campaign in the regional elections at the end of last year, where his activists campaigned for any candidate that was not from the ruling United Russia Party but had some chance of winning a local election. While United Russia won the majority of seats on offer in the regional elections, the Navalny team did manage a few upsets in local elections for regional councils and governorships.
A Facebook event page saw over 2,000 people sign up to attend Navalny’s homecoming at Vnukova Airport in Moscow, where his plane was due to land at 7:20pm, but it was diverted to Sheremetyevo at the last minute.
The official explanation was that a snowplough had broken down between the two runways and flights had to be diverted. Once Navalny’s plane touched down in Sheremetyevo the problem with the snowplough was fixed and Vnukova continued to operate as normal.
The authorities had begun preparations early in the day at Vnukova and had erected fencing around the arrivals hall in the morning. Several buses of police arrived in the evening and OMON riot police were deployed in the terminal.
Several prominent Navalny supporters waiting for his arrival were detained by police, including opposition lawyer Lubov Sobal and Navalny’s brother Oleg, who were led away from the arrivals hall by police. Other opposition activists that tried to travel to Moscow from St Petersburg the day before were detained as they tried to board trains the day before.
Outside Vnukova as police closed off access to the terminal, several dozen supporters gathered and chanted “fascists” in defiance of the police.
Navalny boarded the plane in Berlin packed with reporters in a defiant mood.
“Will they arrest me? That is impossible,” he told a dozen journalists who had bought tickets to the same plane. A handful of German passengers were also on the plane and complained about the “rude” journalists, for which Navalny later apologised.
The press pack surrounded Navalny on the plane pelting him with questions, most of which he answered, all in Russian, despite the English language questions by international media. Navalny was being careful not to open himself up to the charge of being a quisling in the pay of foreign security services, especially after he co-operated in an investigation by CNN into his FSB tail where he was interviewed in English.
Navalny said that he was "absolutely happy" that he had arrived, calling it the "best day in the last five months."
Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, accompanied him on the flight and caused a small storm on social media after she turned to a camera, took off her face mask and said: “Young man, bring us vodka! We are flying home.”
Delivered deadpan and to camera, this is a very famous line from the Russian smash hit movie Brother 2 that is instantly recognisable to all Russians.
After the bus ride to the terminal Navalny was met at the passport control by several policemen that ask him to come with them.
Navalny initially objected, asking for the reason and insisting that his lawyer, who had travelled with the couple from Berlin, be allowed to accompany him. The police refused and after briefly turning to kiss his wife Navalny walked away with the officers.
The international reaction was swift and outspoken, which was predictable and probably the motivation for Navalny to make the trip. His arrest will only increase the pressure on the Kremlin and further sully Putin’s bad reputation in the West, as well as probably bring down more sanctions on Russia.
US Secretary Michael Pompeo tweeted: “Deeply troubled by Russia's decision to arrest Aleksey Navalny. Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain political opponents.”
Both the heads of Czechia and Slovakia responded, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been supportive of the Kremlin, remained silent.
“I follow with great concern the detention of @navalny upon his return home. Alexey Navalny place is in free and safe political competition and not in custody,” tweeted Ivan Korcok, the Czech Foreign Minister.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya joined in the condemnation and parallels between her and Navalnaya are already being drawn.
Tikhanovskaya tweeted: “Detention of Alexey @navalny at a Moscow airport is a dangerous step to depriving Russians of political alternatives. Belarus has seen the outcome of such treatment of political opponents. This does not serve the interests of the Russian people and of the country.”
The three Baltic states issued a joint statement within hours of the arrest: “Detaining Alexei @navalny by the Russian authorities is completely unacceptable. We demand his immediate release. EU should act swiftly and if he is not released, we need to consider imposition of restrictive measures in response to this blatant act.”
Former Polish president Donald Tusk tweeted: “They didn’t break Navalny with poison, they will not break him with prison. Let our solidarity be his strength.”
Navalnaya and Navalny’s press spokesperson were allowed through customers and emerged to the waiting press corps.
“Navalny's wife Yulia and spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh have just come out of the terminal but refused to make a statement. Yarmysh said neither Navalny nor his lawyer has been given any documents sanctioning the detention,” tweeted Daily Telegraph correspondent Nataliya Vasilyeva.
Navalny’s return to Russia was a PR disaster for the Kremlin and commentators believe the Kremlin was forced into overplaying its hand. While the Kremlin continues to argue that Navalny is of no importance and refers to him only as a “the Berlin patient” in official statements, the size of the police presence and the scale of the operation to defuse the situation will only enhance Navalny’s reputation in domestic politics.
“The Kremlin has really played a blinder if they wanted to silence Navalny by poisoning him or keeping him in exile with the threat of arrest. Navalny is box office again after his popularity and influence had waned in recent years,” sarcastically tweeted Jason Corcoran, a well-known Russia reporter, accurately summing up the situation.
However, Navalny remains a marginal player in Russian domestic politics. Tv Rain highlighted that according to independent pollster the Levada Center, only about 2% of the population support Navalny.
By calling the Kremlin’s bluff and returning to Russia, Navalny has upped his game and his profile in what was a very brave move.
With Navalny in jail one possible scenario going forward is Navalnaya follows the trail blazed by Tikhanovskaya, who stepped into the shoes of her husband Sergei who was a presidential candidate in the Belarusian August 9 presidential elections until he too was arrested.
Navalnaya’s vodka quote on the plane was delivered as a bit of fun but could be a calculated move to up her public profile, as she has stayed in the background until now. It is a defiant and anti-establishment line when put into the context of the famous two Brothers’ films.
With Navalny likely to be in jail for the next few years it seems likely that Navalnaya will now standing in his stead in the September Duma elections and could well ally with Tikhanovskaya in a common cause to the international community.