Navalny Is a Thorn in Putin’s Side, But Silencing Him Won’t Be Easy

In Russia, August is commonly believed to be the month of bad surprises, when planes fall out of the sky and economic crises begin. But from the point of the view of the Kremlin, the last days of December are preferable for shock announcements. On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the first and last president of the Soviet Union; eight years later, on New Year’s Eve, Boris Yeltsin handed over the Russian presidency to an unknown former secret police chief named Vladimir Putin.

Late December is the best time for the Russian authorities to create a fait accompli, as the rest of the country is preoccupied with preparations for a deep holiday hibernation. And so it was this year, when a Moscow judge abruptly decided to sentence opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg on December 30 instead of January 15, as originally planned. Prosecutors were looking to jail the Navalny brothers in a bizarre embezzlement case in which the plaintiff, French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, said it had suffered no damages.

In an obvious attempt to ward off mass protests, the court rushed through its verdict, handing down Navalny, 38, a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence and his brother, 30, a 3 1/2-year term in a penal colony. Hundreds of supporters braved the cold to show up at a spontaneous protest below the Kremlin walls — but nowhere near the thousands Navalny had been able to mobilize in the past. The element of surprise, a confusing verdict, and the Russian winter kept people away.

Putin needs to start the new year with as clean a slate as possible. The legacy of 2014 is troubling enough, with the economy under pressure from falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Putin views last winter’s Maidan protest in Kiev, which ousted his Ukrainian client Viktor Yanukovych, as a coup orchestrated by foreign powers. For the Kremlin, avoiding unrest in the streets of Moscow is priority number one right now.

Putin’s strategy toward demonstrators has always been to break up any protest, no matter how small, to stop it from snowballing into something uncontrollable. Scaring Moscow’s liberal babushkas with police in riot gear was one thing. But when tens of thousands of Muscovites heeded anti-corruption campaigner Navalny’s call and went on the street to protest election fraud three years ago, Putin was caught off guard. Middle-class Russians with their Lexuses and iPhones were supposed to be grateful to him.

A campaign of repression began against any form of dissent. Pussy Riot, an obscure group of performance artists, gained world fame. Respected human rights groups were branded “foreign agents.” And Navalny, who attacked the government as a clique of “swindlers and thieves,” was saddled with embezzlement suits of dubious legal merit to prove he was no better. He’s currently under house arrest in his Moscow apartment on an earlier conviction.

Because of Navalny’s wide appeal, especially among younger Muscovites, the authorities are wary of imprisoning him and turning him into a martyr. That’s why he was given a suspended sentence and Oleg a real one, turning him into a de facto hostage to his older brother’s political activities.

Last year, Navalny was even allowed to run for mayor in Moscow. He came in second, behind Putin loyalist Sergei Sobyanin, with 27 percent of the vote. Muscovites like Navalny because he speaks truth to power — not as a fuddy-duddy dissident but as a charismatic orator who can work a crowd. During the protests three winters ago, Navalny helped build a coalition including Russian nationalists, old leftists, and pro-Western liberals. At one memorable rally, Navalny came just short of inciting the crowd to storm the Kremlin.

Navalny, a lawyer who began investigating shady deals at some of Russia’s biggest state-run corporations, has a key weapon: the Internet. His anti-corruption website invited ordinary citizens to report suspicious government contracts, and his blog has won him 872,000 Twitter followers. He has flouted a ban on his personal Internet use, saying he writes his blog posts by hand. His eloquent final plea in the Yves Rocher case has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube.

Navalny has been accused of being everything from a “Kremlin project” to a Western agent — after all he spent a semester at Yale University on a fellowship in 2010. One label he isn’t timid about is that of Russian nationalist. To Navalny, Putin is anything but a patriot because he fosters nostalgia for the Soviet empire with plans for a “Eurasian Union” instead of leading Russia to its rightful place among European nations.

“Russians’ most important interest isn’t in grabbing land but in the normal administration of the land we already have. Take a look at a map, there’s quite a lot of it. Russia should become a European country where there’s one law for all, and the national wealth benefits the people and is distributed fairly,” Navalny wrote in March, just days before the annexation of Crimea. While he condemned the backhanded way that Putin took over the peninsula, Navalny has since said that Crimea will remain part of Russia “for the foreseeable future.”

At the same time, Navalny has called it a “crime” for Russians and Ukrainians — Slavic brothers — to fight one another and blames “Goebbels-style” Russian propaganda for inflaming relations. It’s hypocritical for the Kremlin to express concern for the supposed repression of ethnic brethren in Ukraine when Russians in Chechnya or Turkmenistan were sold down the river, according to Navalny. As for the Maidan protest that set off the turmoil in the first place, Navalny sees it as a “people’s uprising” against a corrupt government. To Putin, he wrote, “an uprising against the same kind of thief-emperor in a neighboring country is a threat, a challenge, and a horrible example.”

Navalny’s biggest challenge now is to prove that he’s a national leader who can speak to Russians beyond the cities with a substantial middle class. One problem is that he doesn’t exist on Russian state television, which ignored his sentencing and the protest in his support. Under a de facto media blackout, Navalny’s message of individuals taking responsibility for their own fate is mostly reaching the converted.

After a century of wars and revolutions, the fear of chaos is what makes most Russians wary about changing the status quo. People don’t necessarily cling to Putin because they see in him a perfect leader, but because the fact he’s been around for 15 years is comforting — and the prospect of losing him a leap into the unknown.

Last December, Putin set free his imprisoned former rival, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in an act of supreme self-confidence and magnanimity. Now, just a year later, the Navalny verdict shows the fear and uncertainty in the Kremlin. Navalny dared the authorities by violating his house arrest and showing up at the protest in downtown Moscow. He was swiftly detained and returned to his apartment, but the authorities have refused to sanction him further. Paradoxically, Putin is afraid to send his new rival to jail.

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