Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kremlin Critic Detained After Returning To Russia Following Poisoning

NOEL KING, HOST:

Five months ago, Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, went to Germany. He was very sick. He'd been poisoned. Authorities in Russia warned Navalny, if you come back, we'll arrest you. And then yesterday, he went back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Non-English language spoken).

KING: After his plane landed in Moscow, Navalny said the criminal cases against him are fabricated. He said the truth is on his side. He said he has no reason to be afraid. Then he said goodbye to his wife, and the police arrested him. NPR's Lucian Kim is following this from Moscow. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Why did Navalny go back if he knew he was going to be arrested?

KIM: Well, Alexei Navalny has never shied away from publishing an investigation into government corruption or attending a protest rally because he was afraid of arrest. He spent literally hundreds of days in jail in the past and has faced criminal cases that he says are trumped up. As you mentioned, he was in Germany for the past several months recovering from a poisoning with a nerve agent, but he vowed to return to Russia. Yesterday, the flight he was on was diverted to another airport at the last minute. And maybe that's because crowds of his supporters had gathered at the airport where he was scheduled to land. Navalny had time to make the statement we just heard, and then he was arrested by police.

KING: All of this makes him a fascinating, almost cinematic character. What does he represent, and how did he get to this point?

KIM: Well, Navalny is a lawyer by training. He's been an online gadfly for years uncovering shady government deals and attacking President Putin's rigid political system. But he's also developed a real offline presence by opening campaign offices across Russia when he ran for president in 2018, even though he was barred from that election. And then last summer, he was poisoned on a domestic flight. And only after the German government intervened was he allowed to be flown out for medical treatment. Navalny blames Putin for ordering the poisoning. The Kremlin, of course, denies any involvement. And Putin has even suggested that Navalny is too insignificant to be killed.

KING: Well, he is a very significant member of the opposition, clearly. So what does his arrest mean for them?

KIM: Well, I think it's important to understand that there is no organized opposition in Russia besides a handful of political parties that cooperate closely with the Kremlin. And I think that's what makes Navalny such an outstanding figure because he mastered social media long before the government figured out what it was. He kept soldiering on even when he was relatively unknown, calling people to protests and running that presidential campaign that was really doomed from the start. So his return is hugely important to people who oppose Putin. Many Russians - and I personally know quite a few - have left Russia because of the repressive political climate here. Navalny could easily have stayed in exile, but now he's giving a signal that his place is in Russia, and he sees himself as a future leader of the country.

KING: And much of the world is watching this. So is Vladimir Putin risking anything by arresting him?

KIM: Yeah, well, the authorities had hoped that by threatening Navalny with arrest, they could keep him away because his return presented them with a real Catch-22. You could either jail him and face international outrage or just let him continue his political activities. Right now, we do see that outrage internationally. The Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration have condemned the arrest. The Kremlin doesn't have high hopes for relations getting better under Biden, but the arrest of Navalny will mean things get off to a very rocky start and will make Putin even more isolated internationally.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thanks, Lucian.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.