A Russian court last week convicted Alexei Navalny, the face of the opposition movement in the country, on charges of embezzlement. The ruling is consistent with the repressive atmosphere that has settled over politics in Russia. But the fact that the government felt the need to silence the opposition leader speaks volumes about the insecurities that dominate calculations in the Kremlin.
Navalny has ridden a tide of anger at corruption to a position of prominence among reformist forces in Russia. He organized mass protests in 2011 and 2012 against vote rigging in parliamentary polls, which prepared him for a run as mayor of Moscow. The campaign failed, but he did win nearly 30 percent of the vote, allowing him to come in second.
That effort earned him the ire of the Kremlin. He was tried and found guilty of embezzlement — the charges were generally considered part of a smear campaign to sideline a formidable opposition voice — in 2013 and put under house arrest. The European Court of Human Rights reviewed the verdict and concluded last year that the trial was unfair, throwing out the sentence and ordering Russia to pay him $67,000 in compensation.
Stung, the government tried him again in December, a hearing that concluded last week with a second guilty verdict and a five-year suspended sentence. Russian law bans convicted criminals from running for the presidency, so the new verdict effectively ends his presidential campaign.
Navalny has said he will run anyway, relying on Article 32 of the Russian constitution, which allows all citizens to run for office and bans only those “deprived of their freedom.” A suspended sentence would seem to fall outside that situation. He has said he will also appeal the verdict again to the European Court, arguing that the judge refused to call any of the witnesses for the defense — insisting that their testimony was already in the case file — and that the text of the second verdict was identical to that issued in the first trial.
The core of Navalny’s campaign is exposing the corruption that is rife within the Russian government. He established the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has detailed the secretly amassed wealth of top Russian officials. While state-sanctioned media has largely ignored its work — and him as a candidate, except when he can be called to account for legal problems — his 1.8 million Twitter followers have been informed of undeclared businesses, jaw-dropping dachas and personal peccadillos — such as a deputy prime minister sending his pets to European dog shows on private jets.
Navlany is not the only critic who has earned the Kremlin’s ire. Vladimir Kara Murza is a longtime critic of Putin, who works for Open Russia, a nongovernmental organization founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who crossed Putin in 2003 and served a decade in prison for defying him. Kara Murza has many foreign backers, which makes him a particularly nettlesome problem for the Russian government; his support for the Magnitsky Act — a U.S. law designed to punish Russian officials involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in a Russian prison after being held on trumped-up charges and who was allegedly tortured — is especially irksome. Earlier this month, he went into medically induced coma after he was diagnosed with “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance,” the same symptoms he had in 2015, when he suffered what he said was an attempted poisoning.
While such poisonings are usually the stuff of Cold War thrillers, a 2006 Russian law legalized targeted killing abroad. Former security forces agent turned government critic Alexander Litvinenko died in London in November 2006 as a result of polonium-210 poisoning, an act that most observers trace to the Kremlin.
The Kremlin’s vigilance and determination to squelch Navalny and Kara Murza are difficult to understand when President Vladimir Putin enjoys stratospheric public approval ratings, the media is tightly controlled and the political system so unwelcoming of any challenge. If Putin is so ensconced in power, he should be able to weather such challenges with nary a concern. Instead, the campaign to silence his critics makes him look weak.
There are a number of explanations for the attacks. Putin could believe that the new U.S. administration will not take a hard line in response to such moves. President Donald Trump’s reluctance to criticize Russia, his claim in a recent TV interview that “we have killers too,” and his inaugural pledge that the United States will not force its views upon other countries all give Putin a reason to act with impunity. Alternatively, Putin could be telling the new administration, as well as European critics, that it tolerates no dissent. This hard line lays down markers for any foreign power that wants to make deals with Moscow; domestic issues are off-limits.
A third interpretation is that Putin is worried that he may not be able to run for another term as president and that his proxy might be vulnerable to challenge. In this case, Putin must eliminate any credible alternative to his hand-picked successor.
Ultimately, killing and silencing opponents is a sign of weakness. A powerful government would tolerate a noisy opposition to show just how strong it is. Navalny, Kara Murza and other critics should take strength from the overreaction they have triggered; the rest of the world must support them to make their voices louder still.
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