Why Putin Crushed Navalny

The Kremlin Loses When Russia Chooses

Navalny on trial, June 19, 2013 (Sergei Karpukhin / Courtesy Reuters)

For the last several weeks, Alexei Navalny has been a man living with a split personality. He has been carrying on a spirited campaign for the post of Moscow mayor while, at the same time, mounting a defense in his trial for embezzlement in the city of Kirov, 500 miles from the Russian capital. No longer: on Thursday, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. He was taken into custody and his supporters announced he was suspending his mayoral campaign. His double life has become one.

The verdict, and the prison term, carried the air of inevitability: as I wrote when the trial began in April, once the gears of the Russian justice system click into motion, the machine cannot slow itself down, let alone reverse course. That is all the more true in political cases. Yet some, including Navalny himself, believed at times that the court might hand down a suspended sentence, which would have kept Navalny out of prison. Such a move would have spared the Kremlin the opprobrium that would have resulted from handing down a lengthy jail sentence but still allowed it to prevent Navalny from running for political office. That would be the subtle and clever move; but subtlety and cleverness are not traits that mark the current presidential term of Vladimir Putin.

The charges themselves were strange. Navalny was accused of helping to steal 16 million rubles (around $500,000) from a state-run timber company. The case had been closed by local investigators years before for lack of evidence but was reopened last summer for openly political reasons. The main prosecution witness was a former director of the timber firm whom Navalny had recommended be fired and investigated for corruption. The defense had little chance to present its own case. “They refused us everything,” one of Navalny’s lawyers, Olga Mikhailova, told me. “They refused us an opportunity to cross examine prosecution witnesses, refused us the chance to call our own witnesses, refused our request to conduct an independent analysis.” From the outset, it was clear where proceedings were headed. The point was to paint Navalny, the famed anticorruption fighter, as a crook, while quarantining him from politics and public life. 

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