Who Released Navalny and Why?

July 22, 2013
Alexei Navalny in the courtroom on Friday, July 19, immediately before he was released from incarceration | Новая Газета

Aleksandr Morozov is a political analyst, editor-in-chief of Russkiy Zhurnal, and director of the Center for Media Research of the Institute for History of Cultures who blogs at Live Journal. – Ed.

How can the strange story of the jailing and release of Navalny be explained? And what was the logic of the events, if there was one? In brief, what happened was as follows.

Sobyanin [current mayor of Moscow] had no need to postpone the mayoral elections to September. He is an experienced manager, everything is going fine for him in Moscow, he is working at Putin’s will, and he understands perfectly the arbitrary nature of the so-called “legitimacy” through elections in this system. It was [Vyacheslav] Volodin [first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration] who needed the elections to be moved up. He had to fulfill the program to move toward direct elections of governors which had long ago been passed by Putin.

They decided to move the Moscow elections so as to show the regions, using Moscow’s example, how the new model was supposed to work. As is known, at first Sobyanin announced that he himself didn’t plan to move up the elections, but then easily conceded to the decision coordinated by Putin to hold them now, not seeing any problems at all in this. At the second step, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation announced that it was nominating the unknown [Igor] Klochkov, and Just Russia was “in reflection” and was secretive regarding its candidates, but did not want to nominate either [Sergei] Mironov or [Nikolai] Levichev. [Mikhail] Prokhorov didn’t take part. Two weeks later, the same rumors came from people close to Volodin and Sobyanin: the beautiful “exemplary model democratic elections” were not turning out! They proposed to the Communist Party and Just Russia to replay the nomination – with candidates “no lower than the second persons in the parties.” They agreed. And then consultations led to both Sobyanin and Volodin beginning to look at the possible participation of Navalny as a useful element.

The entire ensuing chaos was only caused by the mess in the entire “management system” in Putin’s third term. Sobyanin figured that Volodin coordinated the participation of Navalny with Putin. And Volodin thought that Sobyanin had done the same. But neither of them had done it. Putin – and in fact the entire composition of the Politburo – could care less about these mayoral elections because they are busy with other important things. It didn’t matter whether the elections were with Navalany or without him. They simply aren’t visible under the microscope when people are involved with very large assets, projects to develop the Far East and the failure of the Olympics. No one called Judge Blinov during the entire trial. And without any particular instructions (that is, from the very top), the judge simply enforced the article and the punishment contained in the materials of the Investigative Committee.

It is possible that [Dmitry] Peskov [Press Attaché for the President] or Alexey Gromov [Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office] called him, when the sentence was being read. Blinov stopped the trial for 10 minutes and went out. It is easy to assume that Putin’s officers were simply finding out exactly what the sentence would be. They reported it to Putin, and he said, “Oh, good!” (in the sense of not “good” that it was five years, but “good” that they reported it to him.)

Navalny and [Pyotr] Ofitserov were taken from the court room. As a result, on 18 July in the afternoon, shock ensued in Volodin’s and Sobyanin’s offices. After all, before that, they had stated that they believed it was expedient to have the opposition take part in the elections and were prepared for Navalny’s participation. They organized and publicly supported the transfer to him of the votes of the municipal deputies so that he could get registered. Undoubtedly, a plan was already drafted for the whole campaign with the Navalny factor taken into consideration. It was even calculated how he would be sunk during the campaign. They estimated approximately how many votes could go here or there, so as to get 61-62% for Sobyanin, They discussed the possibility of closing down Navalny after 8 September – if not in the Kirovles case, the other cases – there are already other cases prepared to be opened against him. The situation appeared to be quite under control, if they had not slipped up on Judge Blinov’s decision.

Within moments, on 18 July, Volodin and Sobyanin killed their exemplary model campaign. The harsh sentence, together with the detention in the court room, was shown live on television. Many people saw it. Many had earlier been convinced that Navalany would get a suspended sentence. They were led astray by the public statements by Sobyanin and Volodin. Even a day before the sentence, Volodin’s experts close to the Kremlin had spread the rumor that the sentence would be conditional.

On the evening of 18 July, Moscow said loudly “uh-oh!”. The axe of Sobyanin’s electoral campaign, which was supposed to sail down the river smoothly, sunk in the water and rapidly fell to the bottom. Thousands of people came out on the street in an unauthorized gathering, and closed off Tverskaya. Instead of Sobyanin, now Navalny would be at the center of the Moscow campaign until the end. Worse, no matter what contrivances to fix the situation the staffs of Sobyanin and Volodin could take in August, the campaign was already doomed. A huge scandal was built into it at the outset. Most likely no legitimate elections would come out of it.

Question: who released Navalny the following day? Of course, no one will take public responsibility upon himself for calling the prosecutor’s office, who found himself in an awkward position – he had only arrested him yesterday, and now he was letting him go. Now we had an epic fail of the judicial system before us. As lawyers said, they could not recall a case in their practice when convicts with those kind of sentences were released from the court room before their appeals. This was in fact a terrible demonstration of “telephone law.” And a confirmation of the political nature of the trial. Volodin? Sobyanin? This is impossible. Both of them are devoted officers of Putin. But under the conditions of the fall of Putin’s “political cabinet,” both of them, however, are less influential than Gromov and Peskov. Volodin, Sobyanin and Bastrykin are apparatchiks who are of equal weight – but they aren’t members of Putin’s “Politburo”. They could not influence anything in the Navalny’s case by going around Putin. I think that as a result of some big telephone calls back and forth on the afternoon of 18 July, in which Governor Belykh took part, they obtained the opportunity through a decision of the local prosecutor to release Navalany. The consequence of these calls back and forth was the blessing of Vladimir Putin to this rapid step.

Where did the “blessing” come from? The so-called “West” does not have influence on Putin, ever. On the contrary, Putin has been supported by the West for all 13 years of his rule. And no one in the world wants Putin to drive himself of his own accord into a situation of “rats in the corner” — above all, Putin’s friends, who live in other countries and manage large assets. I think that through the joint efforts of these friends, and also their major economic partners in the West, the thought managed to be conveyed to Vladimir Vladimirovich that he was rapidly approaching the line separating “our bastard” from “mad dictator”. Putin is a highly rational man. His policy for the major global leaders has always been transparent in his intentions and did not go beyond the realm of commonly-accepted logic. Like Mubarak, and Assad and many other regional leaders, throughout the long period of his rule he has been in good standing with his partners – both as a guarantor of regional stability and as an economic partner and even as an autocrat whose “glass of democracy” was half empty, but half full as well.

But here in the last year, starting with the inauguration of his third term, he began to drift somewhere beyond the buoys. And the “Navalny case” likely seemed the signal that clearly proved that the drift was picking up dangerous speed. With the joint efforts of influential people well-disposed to him abroad and at home, he was given a friendly blinking red light of “alarm!” And he treated this concern about common future prosperity without any alarm and with understanding.

Now the situation is in Navalny’s hands. As a result of the management mistake by Volodin and Sobyanin, the mayor’s campaign in Moscow is already killed for the authorities. The systemic continuation, as it can be seen from behind the Kremlin’s wall, can only mean one thing: Navalny may move toward creating a large party (a movement?). Relying on this support of his advocates, he may demand early parliamentary elections. And they are not ruled out.

Navalny’s possibilities have grown enormously in an instant. Yesterday, at the Yaroslavl Station, this was expressed visually with great clarity. Throughout his entire past political life, Navalany (and we along with him) saw the police and the OMON [riot troops] in helmets only as a “front,” only along an invisible line on the pavement which separated them from us. But yesterday, we saw that people in helmets freed up a corridor for Navalny to pass from the train out on to the square.

While it is narrow, a CORRIDOR has now appeared for Navalny. I think that there are more risks than advantages for the Kremlin to close down Navalny again using the same court case. It’s impossible to rule out that this could be done through another case. But for now, the main thing is the fact itself of the corridor.

I think we have to enter it. Not for Navalny’s sake, not because we support him in the capacity of some imaginable leader of some imaginable revolution, and not because we tie our social ideas and expectations in fact to him.

But simply because the widening of this corridor is the answer to our hope for a peaceful transformation of the system. The widening of the corridor creates new opportunities not only for Navalny but for all of us. For all those who would like social changes without disaster.