Much of Vladimir Putin’s governance is characterized by actions both utterly plausible and in their own way shocking. Putin’s heavyhanded crackdown on the Moscow protesters following the elections in late 2011 with the world watching is one example. His support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; the ruling party’s electoral shenanigans; the imprisonment of an all-female punk-performance art group; and the judicial system’s posthumous prosecution of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died at the hands of that very same judicial system, are others.
And now the same can be said for the verdict today in the trial of opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. Russian corruption is alarming to say the least—it ranks 133rd on Transparency International’s 2012 index. Navalny’s anti-corruption crusade couldn’t come a moment too soon. Navalny became a shareholder in major Russian corporate and government entities, better enabling him to follow the money trail in the hopes of uncovering kickback schemes. He also utilized the Web to crowd-source corruption allegations. He nicknamed Putin’s United Russia the party of swindlers and thieves, a moniker that caught on and made Navalny officially a political threat to Putin.
His status as an enemy of the state was further solidified by his participation in the Moscow protests and his recent announcement that he was running to be the next mayor of Moscow. His imprisonment was only a matter of time. Today, a court in Kirov convicted Navalny on trumped-up charges of embezzling funds from a state-controlled company. He was sentenced to five years in prison. His “trial,” such as it was, followed the staged, predetermined process that has become typical of such cases, as the New York Times reports.
Although Navalny’s conviction was a foregone conclusion, many—apparently Navalny among them—hoped he would receive a suspended sentence, mistakenly assuming Putin would fear the backlash of jailing a public figure. But that expectation got it backwards: Navalny has a gift for organization and rallying the public; without him on the streets, Putin expects the backlash to be disorganized, haphazard, and leaderless. Putin has more to fear from an antagonized, but free, Navalny.
If that is indeed what Putin is thinking, his view is not unanimous even among his allies. As the Washington Post reports, authorities in Moscow actually wanted Navalny to be able to participate in the election because they believed they would win (or, rather, “win,” as such things go) and strike a blow against Navalny by defeating him instead of disqualifying him. Additionally, Navalny is not yet a household name. And he is prone to bad judgment: he has a history of allying with anyone who will join him, including racist and xenophobic nationalist groups—a tendency he has embraced rather than sought to curb, and which has alienated him from Russia’s liberals in the past.
And there is obvious benefit to Putin to rig the electoral process against his opponents rather than jail them. “Managed democracy” may have always been a farce, but the shaky illusion of democracy at least plays into Russian nationalist instincts to want to believe the country’s critics are wrong about modern Russia. The appearance that Putin fears Navalny, moreover, only fuels his supporters’ belief that Putin is weaker than people think. Turning a blogger into a dissident is no sign of strength.
As the Times article notes, both friends and foes of Putin are intimating that the verdict went too far:
Aleksei L. Kudrin, a close associate of Mr. Putin and former finance minister, described it on Twitter as “looking less like a punishment than an attempt to isolate him from social life and the electoral process.”
The crime novelist Boris Akunin, who is also a political opposition leader, said the verdict showed there was little hope to change Russia by democratic means. “Lifetime deprivation of elections — this is what the verdict means not only for Navalny but for all who thought it was possible to change this system through elections,” Mr. Akunin wrote. “As long as the Putin regime is alive, there will not be elections. The answer to the question ‘to be, or not to be’ that is to boycott or not boycott, has been answered. For other elections as well.”
The best parallel to Navalny’s case is not the punk trio or the whistleblower, but the jailing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, arrested a decade ago and still in prison. Though Khodorkovsky’s story is far different in almost every way from Navalny’s, the important similarity is the underlying reason for their persecution: they challenged Putin in the political sphere. (Though in seizing Khodorkovsky’s assets, Putin was also reclaiming what he believed rightfully belonged to the state).
Putin’s leadership has been based on a grand bargain in which Russians are permitted all the Western culture and consumerism they desire (or can afford) so long as they don’t attempt to interfere in his political control of the country. Khodorkovsky wouldn’t play by those rules, and neither will Navalny. Whistleblowers can make Putin look bad, and punk activists can ridicule him, and those are both punishable offenses in Putin’s Russia. But they pose no major risk to his consolidation of power. The same could not be said of Khodorkovsky then or Navalny now.