Letter From the Editors

Aleksei Navalny’s much-anticipated return to Russia was as dramatic as expected, and then some. Hundreds of thousands of people were tracking his airway route on Flight Radar, as well as via Telegram and other media outlets. The plane, which was supposed to land at Vnukovo airport, was diverted to Sheremetyevo (which was probably much appreciated by the other passengers). The turnout of supporters was also impressive, and kept OMON riot police busy at Vnukovo. But his fans wouldn’t have had a chance to greet Navalny even if they had arrived at the right airport – he was arrested in the transit zone immediately upon landing. The official reason was that Navalny was in violation of the terms of his 2013 suspended sentence.

 The hubbub surrounding Navalny’s arrival was a highlight of the State Duma’s opening spring session. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky railed that Navalny’s arrival “got more attention than that of a foreign leader. Just look at the police officers, all the police cars!” (Could it be that Vladimir Volfovich is just a little jealous? When was the last time his comings and goings disrupted the nation’s flight grid?) Zhirinovsky referred to Navalny as a “scumbag” and “saboteur.” He was echoed by perennial Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who while not daring to call Navalny by name (as Zhirinovsky had), compared him to the priest Georgy Gapon – notorious 1905 Revolution figure – and said he was sent by the West to “incite riots similar to the ones we saw in Ukraine.”

 For his part, Dmitry Peskov did his best to avoid the press, but the presidential press secretary was eventually cornered by nosy reporters and forced to do his job. He maintained that Navalny’s arrest was standard procedure: “We’re talking about noncompliance with Russian law by a citizen of the Russian Federation.” When asked to comment on demands by some Western governments for Navalny’s immediate release, he said: “We will not allow anyone to interfere in this and don’t intend to listen to such statements.”

 Curiously, the authorities’ response to Navalny’s return stands in stark contrast to their actions when the oppositionist was first convicted. Back in 2013, after Navalny and codefender Pyotr Ofitserov were found guilty, crowds also took to the streets demanding his release. But while the masses were laying siege to the State Duma, there was a surprise twist: The prosecutors in Navalny’s case appealed the court’s decision to imprison Navalny, petitioning instead for him to be released on his own recognizance until his appeal. Why such a soft-hearted approach from the prosecution – which by all indications had scored a decisive victory during the trial?

 Some commentators at the time believed the move had to do with Navalny’s bid to run for Moscow mayor. According to Maria Yepifanova, Navalny was released to make incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s victory look convincing. In addition, in 2013 the authorities seemed unprepared for protests of such magnitude over Navalny’s sentence. Apparently, they decided it’s “better safe than sorry” for 2021.  Perhaps all this screw-tightening has to do with the upcoming State Duma elections. Among other things, it was announced this week that A Just Russia party will be merged with Patriots of Russia and Za Pravdu [For the Truth]. According to Mikhail Shevchuk, A Just Russia was the Kremlin’s convenient backup option whenever it wanted to create the illusion of political competition. But once it was decided that United Russia was perfectly comfortable having a monopoly on power, A Just Russia was once again tossed in the bin (albeit with the right to retain its honorary position in the State Duma). Now, its leader Sergei Mironov is talking about joining all the other left-leaning forces, including the Communists, in a sort of “United Russia vs. everyone else” scenario. However, the problem with the so-called opposition parties is that “they have nothing to offer a politicized electorate,” and “have difficulty explaining the differences among themselves,” writes Shevchuk. No wonder the powers that be are so worried about Navalny!