Expert Opinion

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny freed on bail

In this blog post History lecturer Dr Kelly Hignett considers the political ramifications following the news that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been freed from jail pending an appeal against a five-year jail term, after a conviction for embezzlement, in a case widely condemned as political.

On July 18 Russian activist and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in a corrective labour colony for the alleged embezzlement of 16 million roubles (£300,000) from state-owned timber firm, Kirovles.

Navalny strenuously denies these charges and the case against him is widely perceived to be politically motivated; a move that was designed to silence his continued opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration (famously dubbed a ‘party of crooks and thieves’ by Navalny in February 2011) and prevent him standing against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin in this September’s Moscow Mayoral election.

Navalny, a 37 year old lawyer, rose to prominence during the protests triggered by Vladimir Putin’s re-election and inauguration for a third Presidential term in 2011-2012, and he has become well known for his enthusiastic use of social media to appeal to disaffected Russians, even tweeting from the courtroom last Thursday: ‘It's OK. Try not to miss me’.

Moscow Kremlin

Photo used under Creative Commons license and courtesy of Pavel Kazachkov

Alexei Navalny is one of a growing number of Putin opponents who have suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the law in recent years: former Yukos CEO and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky has languished in a Russian jail serving an extended sentence for tax evasion, embezzlement and fraud since 2005 while media magnates Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky were both forced to flee Russia after criminal charges were bought against them in response to their critical stance on various elements of Putin’s political programme.

Two members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were jailed for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ following their performance of an anti- Putin ‘punk prayer’ in a Moscow cathedral in February 2012, in a case which sparked widespread international condemnation. Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a $230 million fraud scheme linked to Russian officials before he died in suspicious circumstances while being held in a Russian prison in 2009, was even found guilty of an alleged $17 million tax evasion scam in a posthumous trial held earlier this month.

Vladimir Putin is the latest in a long line of Russian leaders to perceive the law as an instrument of political repression and a convenient tool to combat opposition and suppress dissent. As far back as the nineteenth century, a popular Russian proverb claimed that ‘where there is a court, there is falsehood’.

In Tsarist Russia the policy of legal proizvol (‘official arbitrariness’) was well established and a number of political trials to supress opposition to Tsarism took place, such as Alexander II’s ‘trial of the 193’ in 1877-78, where 193 activists were charged with inciting populist unrest and spreading anti-Imperial propaganda (although many of the defendants were subsequently acquitted). During the communist period, Article 58 of the Russian Penal code allowed for the arrest and imprisonment of those suspected of ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. This was a deliberately broad term that could encompass a vast range of real or imagined ‘crimes’ and was routinely used to convict those whose loyalty to the regime was called into question.

Contemporary cases such as those involving Navalny and Magnitsky have fuelled comparisons with the notorious Stalin-era show trials that gripped Soviet Russia during the ‘great terror’ of the 1930s. However, a more fitting comparison would probably be with the later decades of communist rule, when, even during the relative ‘relaxation’ of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev leaderships, opponents were routinely convicted on spurious criminal charges, a policy designed both to punish those who dared to speak out against the regime and to send a clear warning to the masses.

Navalny’s recent trial has proven particularly controversial. The intrigue heightened when, less than 24 hours after Navalny was handcuffed and led from the court to begin his sentence, he was unexpectedly freed, pending appeal, subsequently returning to a heroes’ welcome from his supporters in Moscow, where he will now begin campaigning for the forthcoming election.

Some political analysts have suggested that Navalny’s sudden release may indicate the presence of a split within the powerful Kremlin elite who form Putin’s power base. Public pressure also played a part: Navalny hailed his release as a ‘victory for people power’ and as many as 8,000 Russians took to the streets to protest following news of his incarceration last Thursday. While a protest on this scale does not pose a serious threat to the stability of Putin’s regime, it was a large enough show of discontent to concern the authorities, who are keen to avoid any repeat of the mass demonstrations of 2011-2012.

Finally, Navalny’s status as a registered candidate in the forthcoming Moscow mayoral election was a key factor. The political elite seem to be gambling that the pro-Putin candidate Sergei Sobyanin will defeat Navalny, thereby discrediting him in the public eye and blocking any further political ambitions he harbours (he had previously announced his intention to run for the Russian presidency in the 2018 elections). Polls conducted by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center prior to the events of last week indicated that Sobyanin was the clear favourite to win, with 34% of Muscovites saying they planned to vote for him, while only 4% declared they would vote for Navalny.

However, this could turn out to be a risky gamble. The recent furore over Navalny’s trial will provide him with a more prominent platform to campaign from, and although his release pending appeal means the authorities retain the right to enforce his prison sentence in the future, this may prove problematic if Navalny succeeds in gaining a credible enough level of support in Moscow. It will be very interesting to see how this situation continues to unfold between now and the election in September.

Dr Kelly Hignett

Senior Lecturer / School Of Humanities And Social Sciences

Kelly Hignett is Lecturer in History. She specialises in the modern history of central and eastern Europe. Her research interests relate to crime, social deviance and dissent in communist and post-communist central and eastern Europe and the former USSR.

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