The Crusader Is a Convict
Russia’s leading oppositionist has been sentenced to five years in jail. Can the protest movement go on?
MOSCOW — Russian opposition activists are furious about today’s court decision to send young lawyer Alexey Navalny to a penal colony for five years. Everybody in the opposition agrees that he’s a charismatic and popular figure, and many had even hoped to see him become president one day. With Navalny in jail, the anti-Putin opposition finds itself forced to regroup and plan a new strategy. Fewer than two hours after the handcuffed Navalny was escorted from the courtroom, 10,000 Facebook users confirmed their intentions to demonstrate against his arrest at a non-sanctioned rally on Manezh Square this evening, right by the wall of the Kremlin.
Environmental movement leader Yevgenia Chirikova has marched with Navalny at dozens of street rallies. "This is the end of Putin’s stupid power," she says. "The Kremlin has never learned the lessons of history." She compares Navalny to Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. "By throwing such a popular opposition leader behind bars they gave him a bigger rating and lost their own popularity. Most important is not to cry and not to panic now!" Chirikova’s relative optimism is characteristic of many members of the opposition. But the majority of Russians seem indifferent.
Sergei, my taxi driver, turned down the radio when I asked him about the trial. "Oh, I’m not so sure about this Navalny guy. So he stirred up the dirt — and guess what happened." By "dirt," he was referring to Navalny’s slogans condemning Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia Party, which Navalny so memorably rechristened as "the party of crooks and thieves." Thousands of protesters chanted Navalny’s words on streets and squares all across the country during the big anti-government protests last year. But even as Sergei was sharing his views, the man who was the driving force behind the protest movement stood in the courtroom, listening to his "guilty" verdict.
I looked at Sergei: a tall, ruddy-cheeked, well-dressed young man with a golden suntan. He was keener to chat about his recent trip to Odessa than to talk about "lousy and "filthy" politics. "Protests can’t change anything," he told me — a view common to the overwhelming majority of Russians. "Everybody steals, we all give bribes, and Navalny is no angel."
The authorities have arrested a string of dissidents this year, disillusioning many of Sergei’s counterparts. A recent survey [in Russian] by the Levada Center, the respected pollster, showed that 81 percent of respondents have no intention of participating any in protests. Only 11 percent still had the courage to come out against the authorities despite a high risk of getting clubbed or detained.
Navalny’s popularity has soared over the course of the past year. "I want to change the way the country is run," he declared in an interview not long before the trial. "I want to make it so 140 million people live normally, in a European country." He also took the occasion to reveal his presidential ambitions, and, as always, many took him at his word. In the past, it’s been enough for Navalny to post a single tweet in order for thousands to answer his call.
On the night of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, Navalny suggested that Muscovites should "take a walk" against Putin in downtown Moscow. Hundreds complied.
The walks eventually turned into a long-term Occupy movement, a camp for the opposition to share ideas, read poetry, sing, and even perform plays. Many other "walks" followed; Navalny’s charisma appealed to hundreds of thousands. His approval rating rose from 6 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in March 2013, much to the chagrin of those he called "crooks."
Young volunteers are recreating his strategy. Until recently, their leader Navalny was the second-most popular candidate in Moscow’s mayoral race. Now he’s a convict. That means they have to figure out how to organize support for the prisoner. "I’m trying not to think, not to lose my motivation," 20-year old Galina Koposova said. She fainted when she heard Navalny’s verdict, but was on her feet again just an hour later. Like her hero, she’s not the type to give up just because she’s been knocked off her balance.
(Note: Navalny has now been freed on bail pending appeal — something that doesn’t happen in Russia very often. Some are speculating that the protests by his supporters may have had something to do with it.)