In the months after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt, a strange debate fanned out from Moscow, mainly in the social media, about possible parallels with Russia. The arguments were not completely fanciful. Younger Russians felt that the country’s economy was stagnating and its politics were going nowhere. When Vladimir Putin decided that he would, after all, stand for President again, that conjured up a prospect of eternal Putinism. And when, in December 2011, frustrated voters took to the streets to challenge the results of parliamentary elections, these were the biggest popular protests since the last years of the Soviet Union and the loudest calls were for Putin to go.
Yesterday, it can be argued, this first flicker of Putin-era opposition was snuffed out. Alexei Navalny, who attracted a huge following on the internet and whose characterisation of Russia’s ruling party as a bunch of “crooks and thieves” became a national catchphrase, was sentenced to five years in prison for fraud. Articulate and photogenic, Navalny had been the unofficial leader of the 2011 protests. He had recently announced his intention of standing for mayor of Moscow in September, and even mooted presidential ambitions. Shrinking violet, Navalny is not.
It does not take any stretch of the imagination to find the politics behind his trial. The case against him – embezzlement of a sum equivalent to £300,000 from a timber firm – had been investigated once before, and abandoned. The trial itself bore all the hallmarks of stage management. It was held far beyond Moscow – in the city of Kirov – where the alleged crime was committed, but where judges and journalists were likely to be more malleable. The effect, assuming any appeal fails and Navalny serves the sentence prescribed, will be to remove an effective opposition campaigner in the run-up to the next presidential election (due in 2018) and perhaps to disqualify him from politics in perpetuity.
If you apply the age-old test “who benefits?”, the Kremlin clearly stands accused. Nor was Navalny himself at all shy about blaming politics. His view – blogged and tweeted during the trial – was that the case was initiated by a disgruntled former employee, but suited a much bigger purpose. And it is hard to disagree. His anti-corruption campaign made him a hero at home, and this, plus his highly plausible manner and excellent English, made him lionised in the West. On both counts he got under the Kremlin’s skin. His jail sentence elevates him into the select group of opposition figures behind bars. The trial – which was broadcast over the internet – appeared designed to convince viewers that this supposed honest man of the people was just another of the “crooks and thieves”.
While many, especially outside Russia, will regard the prison sentence as just the latest repressive action by a nervous regime and Navalny as a martyr to his cause – one Putin foe yesterday compared him, improbably, to Mandela – the closest parallel, in cause and effect, is the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which began in Putin’s first term. The oil tycoon was imprisoned for tax fraud in 2005, then convicted of additional charges, including money-laundering, in 2010. His real crime, though, was widely seen as flouting Putin’s concordat with the oligarchs that they could keep their money if they stayed out of politics. His real punishment was less his prison term than being shut out of power.
The similarities between these two cases are instructive, even though they are 10 years apart. In both, there was resort to the courts which, despite improvements over the decade, can still be used as a tool of the state. Both call into question Putin’s claim that people in Russia are not prosecuted for their politics. And both cases show opposition to be a risky activity.
To conclude, as some do, however, that either Khodorkovsky or, now, Navalny is a Russian leader in waiting is to be blind to their considerable personal baggage. The anarchic state of Russia through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continuing vagaries of Russian law means that almost anyone with even a passing acquaintance with business will have done something that can be interpreted, if required, as illegal. Both were vulnerable the moment they put their head above the parapet.
There is also the matter of policies and character. The more of a public figure Navalny became and the greater his support, the more that support started to fracture. His meticulous investigations into official corruption coexisted with a brand of Russian nationalism that increasingly alienated him from elements of his liberal constituency. In common with other would-be leaders of a Russian opposition – Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov come to mind – Navalny looked less and less convincing as a leader of a coherent opposition.
Putin’s strength always lay, and still lies, in his ability to occupy Russia’s middle ground. The street protests of December 2011 showed a new generation, and a new class, expressing discontent with the state of national politics. As yet, though, there are not enough of them to constitute an organised opposition, and even if there were, Navalny is probably not the man to lead it. As a member of the “bridge” generation – born into the Soviet Union, with his formative years in the chaotic 1990s – he belongs more to the end of the old age than the beginning of the new.
And the fading of the street protests after Putin’s return to the presidency last year is what, in the end, demolishes the argument that Russia has very much at all in common with Egypt. Those who demonstrated against political and economic corruption across Russia had something to lose; they had a stake in Russia’s stability. Mostly young and educated, they have transferred their protests, and their debates, online. They are also free to leave – as many have – if they cannot see a future for themselves at home.
This should be no consolation to the country’s present rulers; it is, rather, a terrible indictment of their failure to engage many of Russia’s brightest and best. But until the opposition grows to the point where it can afford to fracture, or produces a leader who is less flawed than those who have emerged so far, Vladimir Putin has little to fear.