The recent arrest of three of Alexey Navalny’s lawyers – Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin and Alexey Liptser – is a demonstration of insecurity on the part of Russian authorities. The Kremlin has proven unable to remove Navalny from the political scene by imprisoning him, just as it failed to remove him by poisoning.
Even though Navalny’s influence is now largest outside of Russia, the regular statements spread by his team get to the core of political life in the country and infuriate the Russian authorities – leading to this latest attempt to block channels of communication between Navalny in prison and his team in exile.
The arrests demonstrate that, even in the absence of real opposition forces beyond prison, the Kremlin is worried by the optics of next year’s presidential election – and the challenge of presenting a convincing case for an ageing president.
Arrests of lawyers
The arrests represent, in part, a broader crackdown on lawyers in Russia.
Russia’s Federal Chamber of Lawyers recently appealed to the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, sounding the alarm about the growing attacks on lawyers in the exercise of their professional activities. The number of criminal cases initiated against lawyers has grown, with several dozen a year recently.
But defending a person in court against the authorities in politicized cases is already a dying profession. Such lawyers have mostly been stripped of their licenses, imprisoned or forced out of the country.
For perspective, around 80,000 lawyers (advocates) work in Russia, so this repression is clearly targeted at a subset of such professionals.
A pre-election purge
The timing of the arrests can mainly be explained as part of a purge in the run-up to the March 2024 presidential election.
Navalny has already started his preparations for the event. In August, he published a detailed letter, My fear and loathing, in which he attacked ‘liberal reformers’ in the 1990s.
In effect, this was an attempt to adopt one of President Vladimir Putin’s key talking points – and to show that Navalny can address the same issues more competently and charismatically than Russia’s leader.
Importantly, it is a message directed at middle Russia, rather than Navalny’s natural constituency of liberal-minded Russians – another cause for concern for the Kremlin.
But the pre-election purge is not restricted to Navalny’s lawyers – or lawyers more broadly and the individuals they represent.
In mid-August, Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the movement for the protection of voters’ rights, ‘Golos’, was arrested. Although a lawyer by training, the arrest of Melkonyants appears to be motivated by his leadership of the election watchdog.
Searches were also carried out at the office and homes of ‘Golos’ activists, many of whom have already been designated as ‘foreign agents’.
Demonstrating support for the leader
The Russian authorities have established total control over the political landscape and so are not afraid of actual competitors emerging. Rather, they fear scandals, negative publicity around electoral falsifications, and a sense of popular malaise developing around Putin’s leadership.
The last relatively competitive elections in Russia’s regions were held in 2013 – an electoral cycle in which the authorities used Navalny in the Moscow mayoral race. The idea behind including him then was to demonstrate competitiveness, attract voters and give the elections a greater veneer of legitimacy.
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the toughening of confrontation with the West, elections began to take place according to a different model.
Elections are now held to demonstrate support for the leader, his course and his team. And the authorities do not want to give anyone the opportunity to legitimately criticize them during the election campaign.
In the last presidential election in 2018, Navalny was still able to present himself as an opponent, even without being a registered candidate. He created his own extensive network in the regions, which functioned as the only real political party in the country even without being granted official status.
The Kremlin has now destroyed that party’s infrastructure, meaning that in the 2024 election Putin’s main rival will be himself, only 20 years younger. That is, voters will compare the president to how he looked and behaved 20 years ago.
But the comparison will clearly not flatter the ageing autocrat, who has lost his aura of success following the botched invasion of Ukraine and the summer mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Regardless of these recent challenges, each new presidential election is more difficult for the Kremlin.
On one hand, it is necessary to report that the already high bars of support for Putin and of electoral turnout have been exceeded.
On the other hand, Putin’s image is dimming rather than becoming more attractive.
The question now is not so much who can challenge Putin for power, but who will say that the ‘king is naked’ so that everyone can hear. Navalny represents the living embodiment of this statement.
A divided opposition – but a worried Kremlin
Though Navalny remains a charismatic leader, his close-knit team of supporters does not represent a real political force in his absence.
‘Team Navalny’ also does not have a good track record of cooperating with other Russian opposition structures and individuals, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Zhanna Nemtsova, Garry Kasparov, Maxim Katz and others.