Sentencing of blogger a blow to anti-Putin camp

If verdict is upheld, charismatic leader Alexei Navalny will not stand for election

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny is handcuffed and escorted by interior ministry officers inside a courtroom in Kirov, on Thursday. A judge sentenced  Navalny to five years in prison after convicting him of large-scale theft in a trial Navalny said was politically motivated. Photograph: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny is handcuffed and escorted by interior ministry officers inside a courtroom in Kirov, on Thursday. A judge sentenced Navalny to five years in prison after convicting him of large-scale theft in a trial Navalny said was politically motivated. Photograph: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

 

The sentencing of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny to five years in prison for embezzlement will outrage democrats in Russia and abroad.

It is also likely to strengthen and perhaps embolden the opposition to President Putin and the streets of Moscow may witness tougher demonstrations in the build-up to the Moscow mayoral elections on September 8th.

The liberal-minded members of the new middle class have formed the bulk of Moscow’s anti-Kremlin demonstrators up to now but their numbers are likely to be augmented by protesters of a different stripe.


Rights breach
The earnest, middle-aged, highly educated and peaceful marchers who have taken to the streets for a more democratic Russia will, like most in the West, view the sentence as a breach of human rights, an attack on political freedoms and the culmination of a show trial in which Navalny himself has tweeted that “in general all the evidence has been falsified”.

There is another very different stream of support that Navalny has cultivated over the years and which may now take a more prominent role on the streets.

These are younger than the liberals and predominantly male, some of them businessmen frustrated with the corrupt practices of officialdom, but others from the darker ranks of Russian nationalism.

Navalny has taken part in meetings and demonstrations such as the “Russian March” in which “Russia for the Russians” has been a prominent demand.

Some of his videos on YouTube have encouraged young people to become “nationalists”, and in one he poses as a dentist extracting “rootless” foreign teeth from the Russian mouth (youtube.com/watch?v=MLomyPHr91s)


Right to bear arms
Navalny’s is not the mild nationalism of the SDLP in Northern Ireland. Neither is it as wild or violent as that of the notorious Black Hundreds of early 20th century Russia but it has been enough to alienate many on the more liberal side of the anti-Putin camp.

His views that Russians should have a right to bear arms similar to that of US citizens, formulated perhaps during his fellowship at Yale, has alienated others. But yesterday’s verdict may well help to cement the cracks that opened up between his supporters and other opponents of Putin.

The prison sentence will remove Navalny from the race for mayor unless he is successful in an appeal, but he had little chance of gaining the powerful job as boss of Europe’s biggest city. Reliable polls put his support at about 8 per cent. Nationally his profile is even less striking.

A poll just a week ago by the Levada Centre showed that in Russia as a whole 59 per cent of those questioned either had never heard of him or just vaguely remembered hearing his name. So why take him out of the race?


Interference
The official answer, not only in the case of Navalny, but also the imprisonment of former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsy and the bizarre posthumous guilty verdict against corruption whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, has been that the Kremlin does not interfere in the judicial process.

This may literally be true – but it is also a fact that the courts in Russia know which verdict will please the president. They do not need to get a direct message.

In this case the accused had, after all, vilified Putin regularly on the internet.

He had coined the slogan “Party of Crooks and Thieves” for Putin’s United Russia, an epithet that quickly gained popular currency.

He had also been the most active and by far the most charismatic proponent of the street protests that began after the disputed parliamentary elections in 2011 and which at one stage brought up to 100,000 to the streets.

The incumbent Sergei Sobyanin is almost certain to win the mayoralty in September.

He will now be opposed by Nikolai Levichev of the tame “A Just Russia” party, Ivan Melnikov of the Communists, and Mikhail Degtyarov of the bombastic Liberal Democrats who are neither liberal nor democratic.

The extra-parliamentary opposition has in Navalny (37) lost its most charismatic young leader.

Another, the pro-Communist Sergei Udaltsov (36) is under house arrest and of the triumvirate of young activists only the more liberal Ilya Yashin (30) remains in the field.

On the right and left, the activists whose only common ground has been opposition to the Kremlin could now throw up an even younger leadership more willing to break the restrictive laws that govern demonstrations in Russia.


Séamus Martin is a former International Editor and Moscow Correspondent of The Irish Times

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