New Year is Russia’s biggest public holiday: a time when gifts are exchanged, and families and friends celebrate and look to the future. For opposition leader Alexei Navalny—in Germany where he received hospital treatment for a poison attack he has blamed on the Russian security services—there was an unpleasant surprise.
The Kremlin’s most vocal critic was warned that he must return to Russia December 29—or face jail.
Navalny did not comply with the order to hand himself in to the authorities in Moscow—but his understandable desire to avoid prison leaves him with a big question: how effectively can he continue his political campaigns against the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, from outside Russia?
2021: A Big Year In Russian Politics
The upcoming year will be a big one in Russian politics. It will offer clues as to how Putin intends to use the potential new powers (including the possibility he can remain president until 2036) he was granted in a constitutional changes in the summer of 2020.
There will also be a test at the ballot box for the popularity of his policies.
Putin himself is not running for election. His current term lasts until 2024. But the United Russia party—characterized mainly by its unwavering support for Putin and his political program—will be taking part in parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2021.
United Russia currently holds 338 seats in the 450-seat lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma. There is no serious prospect of the kind of political earthquake that would see them lose their grip on the legislative process—but the Duma election presents a major opportunity for Navalny and his supporters to launch the kind of in-person and online campaigns that have been the most effective at getting their message across.
Navalny’s Limited Opportunities From Abroad
The former, though, will be impossible if Navalny is out of the country; the latter arguably much less effective.
Navalny understands that. He said during a CBS interview aired October 18 2020 that he was determined to return.
Russia has a long history of political exiles seeking to influence events from abroad. Still, as Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, pointed out in a recent comment to the Financial Times, even the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, made it back to Russia before his party seized power.
The American author, John Reed, famously characterized that turning point in Russian history as Ten Days That Shook The World. The events of this year are hardly going to be in the same league—but if Navalny decides to stay outside Russia his influence on them will surely be lessened.
There is a dilemma for the Kremlin, too. While Navalny’s claims that he was poisoned by the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, have been completely dismissed—and Navalny himself described as deluded (although both Putin and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refuse to refer to Navalny by name)—the Kremlin will need to decide how to deal with a sharply critical voice they have so far been unable to silence.