It’s been in almost every newspaper and Eurasia blog recently: One of the leading voices in Russia’s protest movement, Aleksei Navalny (RU), is on trial in the city of Kirov, to the northeast of Moscow. He stands accused of the theft of approximately half a million dollars from a timber firm in Kriov. He is more well-known for his vocal stance against corruption and his opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
The trial has already been adjourned until April 24, barely a week after it began on April 17. These accusations and possibility of trial have been brought to court, dismissed, open, closed – have we brought you a story yet that wasn’t complicated? Here’s the basics:
Who is Aleksei Navalny? Navalny is an opposition figure in Russia that made a name for himself using digital activism and transparency to showcase corruption in the government. He became popular through his blogs, which showcased corruption at the corporate level, and then took on Putin’s United Russia party, ‘rebranding’ them as ‘crooks and swindlers.’
So they are accusing him of….what? Theft. RFE/RL succinctly states: “Navalny, 36, is accused of the theft of 16 million rubles ($510,000) from a timber firm in Kirov, when he was working for Kirov’s governor.”
Did he steal from the timber firm? It appears that Navalny was framed. He defends himself through the same methods that made him famous - transparency and controlling the digital message by displaying data online. In this case, Navalny posted all of his court documents online, encouraged the public to decide for themselves and stressed his modest apartment he lives in, his simple car and the fact that he sends his kids to public school. This interview was meant to ask the public, if he stole so much money, where is it (in essence)?
His average lifestyle also serves to make him more relatable to the common person in Moscow, as compared to the political elite who are known to benefit from government kickbacks.
Can he actually ‘win’ his case? That depends on how you define winning. The court in Kirov will almost certainly convict Navalny if the trial reaches that stage. However¸if you don’t define winning by what the Russian courts declare, Navalny stated in an interview with reporters prior to the trial that he defined winning a bit differently:
We will definitely win this case. No matter what the ruling is, I am absolutely confident that we will prove our innocence and it will be clear to everybody that this is a political trial.
So if he is convicted – what then? Navalny suspects he’ll be put in jail for at least some time, and the courts have threatened to imprison him for a decade for the theft charges. However, this is likely to give him something of a ‘martyr’ status among his followers. In December 2011, Navalny spoke to a
crowd of 80,000 in Moscow – the biggest demonstration since the fall of the Soviet Union. While it’s not a clear measure of importance, Navalny does have a large following on social media – over 346,000 followers on Twitter. This trial is likely to largely be seen as a political spectacle, making Putin look weaker for putting Navalny on trial.
For more on the impact of this trial, The Atlantic has a great article discussing why this trial will define Putin’s third term, and just how weak the trial makes Putin look:
Indeed, Navalny’s trial could turn out to be the mirror image of the 2003 Khodorkovsky case, which helped consolidate and strengthen Vladimir Putin’s ruling elite by sending a message that politically uncooperative tycoons would be dealt with harshly.
Khodorkovsky’s prosecution also played well with the public, which was weary of the wild capitalism of the 1990s and supportive of cracking down on the oligarchs who defined that era.
The Navalny case is doing the opposite. It is fracturing the elite and sending a message that the Kremlin is desperate and frightened of a blogger with a cult following who made his name exposing graft in high places.
What’s the catch? In the Guardian article linked to previously, Tom Parfitt points out some unsettling affiliations between Navalny and nationalist groups, and an analyst from the Carnegie Endowment points out Navalny’s desire to please via populism is, in some ways, not that different from Putin:
Yet Navalny’s more nationalist views are troubling. Last year he spoke at the Russky Marsh, where some protesters made Nazi salutes. He has also endorsed a movement called Enough of Feeding the Caucasus, which protests against the theft of state funding but which critics see as xenophobic. And a video that Navalny recorded for Narod several years ago called for arming the population to shoot Chechen bandits.
Shevtsova believes the lawyer could yet become a destructive force. “We don’t know what he thinks strategically,” she said. “He seems to have a bouillon of incompatible beliefs because he is a populist and wants to please everybody. In this ideologicial pragmatism, he is no different to another Russian politician: Vladimir Putin.”
But – all of that being said and noted, it still stands that an opposition leader is on trial after likely being framed. The point of that trial is to scare other opposition leaders with the threat of jail and to quiet one of the loudest voices in the anti-United Russia (Putin’s political party) opposition. So much like last year’s debacle with Pussy Riot, this case is likely to make it all the more clear that Putin cares less and less about the veneer of democracy in Russia and more about keeping those who are unhappy quiet.