Putin Should Worry

How the Kremlin botched the trial of Alexey Navalny and why the opposition leader -- even jailed -- is still a force to be reckoned with.


MOSCOW — Ahead of the July 18 verdict in the Alexey Navalny trial, it was clear that President Vladimir Putin had a dilemma: Send the country’s most charismatic and dangerous opposition leader to jail and risk him becoming Nelson Mandela, or let him free and risk turning him into Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

In the end, due to a bizarre and clumsily improvised volte-face, the Kremlin managed to do both. Navalny was Madiba for a day, sent to prison for five years while vowing never to give up in his struggle to bring down Putin’s "feudal system" (and on Mandela’s birthday, no less).

Then, the next day, after thousands of Muscovites noisily rallied in the center of the capital for several hours in anger at the verdict, Navalny and his co-defendant Petr Ofitserov were unexpectedly released on bail pending appeal, in the most surreal Russian court hearing of recent months (and that’s a pretty  high bar).

The appeal from the state prosecutor against sending the defendants to jail immediately — from the same state prosecutor who had argued during the hearings that Navalny should be locked up straight away — was so unprecedented that Navalny himself joked in court that the judges ought to check whether a body double had not somehow found his way into the prosecutor’s chair.

Instead of five years of incarceration, Navalny was behind bars for just 22 hours. On the morning of July 20, he arrived in Moscow as Lenin once did in St. Petersburg in 1917, exiting his overnight train to address crowds of well-wishers at Yaroslavl Station through a loudspeaker. With his characteristic angry rhetoric, he vowed to continue his candidacy for the Sept. 8 Moscow mayoral elections.  

Of course, these hyperbolic comparisons with other inspirational leaders may not be particularly helpful in any meaningful historical sense, but it was exactly these parallels that were thrown around on the Russian internet. Even U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul mischievously got in on the act, allusively tweeting "Happy International Mandela Day! My hero." shortly after direct messaging Navalny, telling him he was watching the video feed from the courtroom.

Navalny rose to international prominence during the street protests that followed the rigged parliamentary elections of December 2011. A blogger who specialized in uncovering the most heinous corruption cases among Putin’s elite, he was swiftly recognized as the most promising opposition figure to emerge for a long time. He has none of the haughty disconnect from the masses that opposition leaders have had for years. This is partly due to his fiery Russian nationalism, which has disturbed many moderates. He is a fluent orator, occasionally speaking with an aggression that has led some to muse whether he might not be more similar to his arch nemesis Putin than he might like to admit.

Whether the Kremlin recognized the broader political threat or simply got angry at the embarrassing corruption revelations, a decision was taken to "get Navalny." The initial impetus came from Alexander Bastrykin, the hardline head of the Investigative Committee and like Putin a former KGB officer, whom Navalny personally irritated by uncovering his undeclared Czech assets last year  At an extraordinary televised meeting of leading investigators, Bastrykin screamed at his subordinates that they needed to find dirt on Navalny and berated them for closing a case of embezzlement against him due to lack of evidence.

Thus the embezzlement case was dredged up again, and court proceedings started, although independent legal observers said the evidence that Navalny skimmed off around $500,000 of proceeds from a timber firm in Kirov region simply did not stack up. Judge Sergei Blinov looked depressed and reticent when Navalny delivered his powerful "last word" to the court, but on July 18 handed down the sentence that was required of him nonetheless. Except that this time, there was another twist in the tale.

The days when Putin’s Kremlin was famed for its subtle manipulation of opposition forces and exquisite execution of meta-politics within a carefully managed matrix seem long gone. Instead, Putin and the hardliners at the Investigative Committee vindictively locked up Navalny, angering his supporters and creating a huge protest, and then backed down in a move that looked weak, indecisive, and improvised. They created a martyr without actually getting Navalny out of the way.

"It’s completely clear to me that if it wasn’t for all of you, neither I nor Ofitserov would be standing in this spot for another five years," said Navalny at the station, crediting the large Moscow protest with frightening the authorities into releasing him.

This is not how the Kremlin works, though, and the real reason for the change of heart likely has more to do with Kremlin infighting between Bastrykin and other hardliners, and with Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, who is due to face Navalny in the election for that position just seven weeks from now.

Sobyanin is no liberal, but he has presided over a certain "hipsterfication" of Moscow: the young "creative class" that drove the protest movement now has cycle lanes, gentrified parks, and a generally higher quality of life. Many of these people may vote for Navalny, but Sobyanin is nevertheless unlikely to lose. A recent poll showed 53 percent of Muscovites who planned to vote favored Sobyanin; just 5 percent said they would support Navalny. A lot could change over the next two months as Navalny campaigns and gets his message across to more and more voters, but it would be shocking if he managed to win over more than 20 percent of Muscovites. Given this, Sobyanin apparently feels that he is better off with Navalny in the race as a long-shot candidate than behind bars as a powerful symbol for the opposition. 

An informed source told the newspaper Vedomosti this week that the mayor personally asked Putin to release the opposition leader. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov did his usual eyebrow-rolls of disbelief at suggestions that the president himself might have been involved in Navalny’s release. "Such suggestions are, at the very least, stupid," said Peskov. "To suggest this would be not to understand how the judicial system works. The court’s decision to arrest him was appealed legally, and to insert the president into this equation is illogical and incorrect."

But an understanding of how the Russian judicial system works is exactly the reason for suspecting Putin’s involvement in the case, or at the very least high-level government interference. Before the trial started, the Investigative Committee’s official spokesman openly said that Navalny’s case had been accelerated because the opposition leader had "teased authorities," and all but the most naïve observers are aware that the Russian court system is far from independent.

Putin has never uttered the name "Navalny" in public, but if his aides are feeding him reliable information (which is itself a good question) he should be worried about the opposition leader. Navalny is, for now, still a potential rather than a real threat, but the speed with which he has grown from an angry blogger to the first credible opposition leader of the Putin era is remarkable, and Kremlin attempts to co-opt his anti-corruption agenda have fooled few.

With real politics absent from Russia for so long, the persecution of Navalny has made people willing to rally around, or at least sympathize with, a figure whose nationalism and radicalism they might not ordinarily find palatable. At the rally in Moscow on the evening of the sentencing, there were employees of state-run banks, and of state-run television channels among the protesters. One of the latter had not been to any previous protests but said it was now "impossible not to go to the streets," and unleashed a string of profanities to describe the Kremlin’s actions. Those who had previously been deeply skeptical of Navalny, such as former state television presenter Anton Krasovsky, were infuriated by his clumsy jailing. "I feel so ashamed today," he wrote on his Facebook page. "Ashamed that I used to be on the wrong side."

The Kremlin now finds itself faced with another lose-lose proposition. If they leave him be, Navalny now has an opportunity to make his mark on the Moscow mayoral election and build his credibility as an opposition leader. If they reject his appeal and throw him back in jail, it could create an even bigger protest. It’s therefore quite possible that a final decision on what to do with the troublesome blogger has not been taken.

When Lenin made his famous arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station in April 1917, returning from exile in Germany, he was also a marginal figure with a small support base, but was able to use the incompetence of the regime and the lack of credible alternative opposition figures to turn things round incredibly quickly.

While there are of course many more differences than there are similarities between the situations, Navalny’s charisma, partisanship, and ruthless excoriation of the current regime do bear a passing resemblance to the father of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the medium term, if not the short term, Putin should be very worried indeed. 

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