If the trial of Alexey Navalny was, as his supporters say, politically motivated, the Kremlin appears to have decided that Russia's most charismatic opposition figure would be more trouble in jail than out. An appeals court in Kirov in northwest Russia upheld Mr Navalny's conviction for theft yesterday, but spared him the five-year prison sentence handed down at a the end of a controversial trial in July.
While the court’s decision to allow Mr Navalny to remain free looks lenient, the ruling casts a shadow over the political future of Mr Navalny who, after a strong showing in a recent mayoral election, has emerged as the main political opponent of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Law enforcers will restrict Mr Navalny from leaving Moscow or travelling abroad, while legislation barring Russians convicted of serious crimes from holding public office could scupper his presidential ambitions.
After yesterday’s court ruling, Mr Navalny hit out at the Russian judiciary, saying the decision to suspend his sentence had been “personally taken” by Vladimir Putin. “The authorities will not succeed in excluding us from the political struggle,” he said. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Mr Putin, denied the Kremlin had influenced the case. “This is a court decision,” he said. “We have no relationship with the ruling.”
Mr Navalny rose to political prominence leading a wave of anti-government street demonstrations after a rigged parliamentary poll in 2011. Even before then, the lawyer and blogger (37) had needled the Kremlin with his online campaign to expose corruption in state corporations and the abuse of power by crony politicians.
Charges against him for stealing $500,000 worth of timber during a stint as adviser to the governor of Kirov were first raised in 2009, but were dismissed after investigators failed to uncover sufficient incriminating evidence.
After the 2011 protests, the case was revived, culminating in a guilty verdict in July when Mr Navalny was led away from the court in handcuffs.
In a surprise move, the judge relented within one day, ordering his release on bail pending an appeal. While that judicial U-turn was likely influenced by a large pro-Navalny demonstration that erupted in Moscow, there are indications of a high-level disagreement in Russia about how best to contain the threat posed by the opposition activist.
Hardliners driving a crackdown on dissent are keen to see anyone who challenges the authorities behind bars. Even as the court hearing opened yesterday, the Russian prosecutor urged the judge to uphold Mr Navalny’s prison sentence.
There are others though who appear to agree with Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, who has warned that by jailing Mr Navalny, the authorities would risk creating a political martyr like a Russian version of Nelson Mandela.
For now Mr Navalny is mainly popular among young, socially mobile, urban Russians in Moscow, eager for political change and an end to endemic corruption. However, after capturing an unexpectedly large 27 per cent of the vote at a mayoral election in Moscow last month, Mr Navalny has shown he is capable of garnering more broad based support.
Locking him up could exacerbate the problem. Allowing him a restricted existence as a convicted felon is a political gamble. For now, he seems in no mood for compromise.