The media’s reaction to the 5 year prison sentence handed to Russian opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, after his trial for embezzling timber, is familiar. The editorials read very much like any number of columns written after Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s multiple appearances in court, or the outcry after members of ‘Pussy Riot’ were sent to prison. However this verdict is different and has more regrettable implications.
Firstly, even staunchly pro-Russia commentators acknowledge that the case against Navalny is not strong. At Da Russophile Anatoly Karlin argues that the trial is ‘further delegitimizing’ the Russian legal system.
When the state previously used legal methods or the threat of proceedings to sweep aside political challenges from Gusinsky, Berezovsky and, famously, Khodorkovsky, it was acting against men who were determined to use their wealth and influence to manipulate the democratic process. The nature of the oligarchs’ asset grab in the 1990s provided ample grounds to act and there were both legal and moral arguments to do so.
Navalny does not have immense wealth at his disposal, he does not own a television station and he is not sponsoring political opposition for personal gain. He became prominent through the very modern methods of blogging and Tweeting. His opinions, which are strongly nationalist, may be unpleasant, but that doesn’t entitle the authorities to remove him from the electoral scene or to stop him from protesting, if those are the pretexts behind the case.
The strategic puzzle is that Navalny’s trial has made him more prominent. From a relatively obscure figure he could become a serious contender in Moscow’s mayoral race, should he be permitted to take part. There are suggestions that, from a standing start, he could command up to 30% of the vote.
Khodorkovsky is an odious character and he had become one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the world, through highly dubious methods. His apparent conversion in gaol to a benevolent, freedom-loving champion of the Russian people was unconvincing and as the owner of Russia’s biggest company, Yukos, he posed a credible threat to the rejuvenated country which Vladimir Putin was struggling to build.
In contrast Alexei Navalny is a minor figure and, should the 5 year sentence he has received be upheld on appeal, the result will be to create another dubious, high-profile martyr and a rallying point for opposition in Russia.