News of the return of Alexei Navalny, the outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been trending after he arrived in Moscow on a flight from Berlin and was arrested over the weekend.
The Pobeda Airlines flight Navalny was on was diverted at the last minute to a different airport in order to avoid crowds of supporting protesters and journalists.
But who is the politician The Wall Street Journal calls “the man Putin fears most?” And what was behind his rise to prominence?
Navalny qualified as a lawyer in 1998 and his political career began to find traction in 2008 when he started posting on an online blog about alleged corruption at some of Russia’s state-controlled companies.
One such expose involved the publication of documents about an audit of oil pipeline Transneft alleging that $55 million were stolen during the construction of the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline.
The company denied the allegation.
His online following became popular among Russia’s younger population, and in 2011, he garnered attention after being arrested at a protest against the election victory of Putin’s United Russia party.
He described United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves” in a 2011 radio interview with Moscow’s Finam FM.
Navalny was arrested in 2013 for embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison, seen as a political gesture. But he was unexpectedly released and allowed to run for mayor of Moscow, finishing second behind Putin’s ally, Sergei Sobyanin.
After the European Court of Human Rights stepped in to say that Navalny was not given a fair hearing at his first embezzlement trial, the charges were dropped. In 2017 he was re-tried, found guilty and handed a five-year suspended sentence.
In 2019, Russian authorities opened up a money-laundering investigation into Navalny’s FBK, his so-called anti-corruption foundation.
On August 20, 2020, Navalny was on a flight in Siberia when he fell ill. He was later transferred to a hospital in Berlin where it was determined that he had ingested the Novichok nerve agent, used to poison a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom two years earlier.
Russia opened a criminal case against Navalny in late December for suspected large-scale fraud.
Investigators accuse him of spending more than $4.8 million of donations made to his organizations for private purposes, such as taking vacations abroad.
On Sunday, Navalny boarded a plane from Berlin to Moscow, knowing that he faced the threat of arrest upon arrival.
Supporters and journalists gathered at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, but just before the plane was scheduled to land it was diverted to nearby Sheremetyevo Airport, where Navalny was arrested at passport control.
He has since been remanded in custody for 30 days.
- with Reuters