Putin’s Most Powerful Opponent is Free, For Now

October 16, 2013

Alexei Navalny walked out of a Russian court a free man this morning, after his five-year prison sentence was suspended. Over the summer, Navalny was convicted for embezzling 16 millions roubles (about half a million dollars) worth of wood. The initial trial was widely viewed as a political sham, as the defense was not allowed to call witnesses, and nearly all of the prosecution’s witnesses actually testified on behalf of Navalny.

Navalny’s conviction was predicted, “unsurprising and unjust ,” in the words of The Interpreter editor Michael Weiss. What happened since Navalny was convicted, however, has been full of surprises. First, immediately following the conviction of Navalny he was detained in the courtroom. That same day, however, the prosecution expressed anger that Navalny was taken into custody, and they soon released him on technicalities, allowing him to remain a free man and participate in Moscow’s mayoral election. He ran for election and received a surprisingly high 27.2% of the vote, despite the fact that pollsters and pundits had not expected him to break the 20% mark.

Today’s ruling upheld Navalny’s conviction, but overturned his sentence. As convicted felons are not allowed to run for office, possibly indefinitely but at least for a period of years[1. There are efforts underway to put a limit on how long a conviction would bar one from holding public office], Putin has effectively disarmed Navalny’s threat, at least as a political candidate, for at least a little while.

Why would Navalny be released? The naive might answer that Navalny was released because the judge didn’t think the sentence fit the crime or the evidence. The conventional wisdom is that this is smart politics. By not placing Navalny in prison, Putin is avoiding making a larger symbol out of Navalny, or possibly sparking more protests. At the same time, Navalny remains a convicted felon who can’t run for office, and unless you’re a punk rock star, being convicted of a crime rarely adds credibility to your name.

However, it’s also possible that the Russian government is just postponing Navalny’s prison term, because these aren’t the only charges Navalny is facing. It’s likely no coincidence that just yesterday the Moscow City Court announced that it would not be dismissing other charges against Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg, who stand accused of defrauding a cosmetics company, Yves Rocher, of 55 million rubles ($1.8 million).

This news will now be buried under the news of Navalny’s freedom. It also means that Navalny’s credibility can be further chipper away at, and a possible prison term for Navalny could still be an option for the Russian government should the political calculus change.

There is another reason why the Russian government doesn’t want protests right now. This past weekend, Moscow was engulfed in race riots after an immigrant killed a resident, sparking an anti-immigrant pogrom. Russia’s failed immigration policies have finally allowed ethnic tensions to reach a tipping point. A major part of Alexei Navalny’s campaign was centered around reforming the way immigrants integrate into Russia’s capital.  Navalny has been called a nationalist, a racist,  and — to those who believe that immigration issues have become a plague to Russian society — a reformer. After sending some controversial tweets the day after the riots, Navalny wrote a blog post that said that the failed immigration policy was to blame for Russian citizens using “primitive methods” to solve the problem themselves. Putting an outspoken critic on this issue, with as high a profile as Navalny, behind bars this week could have unleashed tremendous protests on the streets of Moscow.

The Russian government has taken steps to co-opt the opposition before. They are arguably doing it again. A former mayor of Moscow, in the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper, echoed many of the arguments Navalny made about immigration policy. Now Navalny is being set free, but with little chance that he’ll ever run for office again, and with another court case looming over the horizon. If Navalny’s supporters see this as a victory, then the Kremlin would have proven itself shrewd co-opters indeed.