How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
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.
What ultimately made Thursday’s verdict inevitable was not what happened in the courtroom, but what Navalny represented outside of it. Put simply, Navalny, although far from a perfect politician or the savior of the opposition, was what the Kremlin fears most: an alternative, even a theoretical one. At the moment, Navalny is an untested political leader with limited public support -- recent Levada Center polls showed him getting just eight percent of the vote in the Moscow mayoral race -- and would have been unlikely to defeat the Kremlin’s incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin. He has openly stated his presidential ambitions, yet for now, he lacks national, presidential appeal.
But the logic of Putin’s rule does not require a person to be a true, credible challenger at the ballot box to be a threat. All that’s needed is that a person remind Russians that there is a choice at all, that the cynical and choreographed stage show of politics the last decade is not the only fate that post-Soviet Russia deserves or can aspire to. As Nickolai Petrov, an expert on Russian domestic politics at the Higher School of Economics, explained, the emergence of Navalny as the first opposition leader in years around whom many -- liberals, nationalists, libertarians -- could potentially coalesce was “dangerous because it could change the very model of the political system,” in which the public doesn’t so much choose between Putin and a concrete opponent, but between Putin and no one, between Putin and the abyss. There is no room, as Petrov put it, for “independent, uncontrollable actors. They simply do not have the right to exist.”
AN UNCREATIVE STATE
For a time after the protests of 2011 and 2012, it seemed that the Kremlin would allow a newly widened space for participating in formal politics -- creating parties, for example, or running for office -- while discouraging and cracking down on street demonstrations and other forms of unsanctioned opposition. But that window has since closed, if it ever was open to begin with. Navalny’s party, People’s Alliance, was refused registration by the justice ministry and now Navalny is a convicted felon apparently barred from office.
Navalny’s prosecution marks a new and further degradation of state institutions in the Putin era, in which the criminal justice system, said Maria Shklyaruk, a researcher at the Institute for the Rule of Law at the European University in St. Petersburg, has become the "last dependable instrument" left to the state. "Any and all problems are to solved with investigators and prosecutors," Shklyaruk said. As the state has gotten more aggressive, it has gotten less creative.
With Navalny headed to prison, it would be foolish to say anything other than that the Kremlin has won this skirmish. But not without a cost: over the past few months, with the dual platforms of his trial and the mayoral campaign, Navalny has turned himself from a widely followed blogger and activist into a respected orator and politician. Quite remarkably, he managed to turn his own show trial on its head, gaining the visibility and stature that the Kremlin desperately wanted to deny him. His last statement in court read like a political tract. “No one has the right to neutrality,” he said, suggesting that inaction only “helps this disgusting feudal regime, which, like a spider, is sitting in the Kremlin.” In the end, the state’s propaganda efforts appear to have failed: another Levada Center poll showed that only 23 percent of those Russians surveyed thought the case had any real merit.
Still, his imprisonment is an undeniable loss for the opposition. Although Navalny’s political instincts are still maturing, he was the only protest leader who could galvanize a crowd. As Vladimir Ashurkov, a former banker who is a close adviser to Navalny, told me, it is “true and unfortunate that he is unrivaled.” Some of his projects, such as the Fund for the Fight Against Corruption, have their own staff and momentum, and are thus likely to continue. But as for competing for political office, Ashurkov said, it is “inconceivable that this can be made into a self-efficient mechanism without his participation.”
That perhaps speaks more to the cultivated grayness of Russian political life to than to Navalny’s particular brilliance. Russian politics suffer from a lack of charisma and magnetism; Arseny Bobrovsky, one half of the popular satirical duo Kermlin Russia who also interviews political figures for Russian GQ, complained to me “there are no personalities” among Russian officialdom. Navalny, with his confidence, humor, and feel for Internet-speak, is if nothing else a personality.
It is that appeal that brought thousands of people into the streets of downtown Moscow in the hours after the verdict. The Kremlin’s bet is that it can weather the short-term costs more easily than the long-term danger of allowing Navalny to remain free to run for office. Putin and his advisers have effectively abandoned the country’s urban professional classes, which constitute Navalny’s main constituency. Sergei Guriev, an early Navalny backer and the former rector of the New Economic School who fled Russia in May fearing his own prosecution, told me by phone from France that, "the whole calculus changed a year ago." Earlier, Guriev said, the Kremlin thought it "could not go after Navalny because that would be unpopular among the middle class. But the government gave up trying to remain popular with the middle class. If they are unhappy, so be it."
That leaves the most educated and advanced portion of Russian society without a political outlet or voice. That will induce a sense of defeat among many and a motivation for escalation among others. “People will get depressed and disoriented for some time,” Ashurkov told me. “But the desire for change will not go away, this desire will find other ways to express itself.” The danger for the Kremlin is that this desire can stew unnoticed for some time, and then, with the right catalyst, explode into the open -- as was the case in December 2011.
THE CAMPAIGN CONTINUES
This past Monday -- a muggy, rainy day in Moscow -- I went to Navalny’s campaign headquarters on a quiet prerevolutionary lane. Dozens of young volunteers sat behind laptops, tapping out emails and studying maps of municipal districts; a whiteboard marked metro stations where campaign workers would hand out fliers during rush hour.
A little after six in the evening, Navalny walked in. His face was tired and sweaty, but he hopped around the office shaking hands and peering over laptop screens. I asked him about his political evolution and its purpose. “It would be hypocritical and stupid to think that it’s possible to engage in investigations of corruption and not engage in a struggle for political power,” he said. “What we are doing right now in this office, regardless of the fact that it’s not at all a battle against corruption, in fact is very much a battle against corruption. I would never have run for office if my other methods for fighting corruption had worked. When this system controls the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and everything else on earth, you have to change the system itself, that’s all.”
We talked about the impending verdict in his trial, but it was a question Navalny kept trying to bat away. He knew the import of what awaited him, but he felt no need to dwell on it. “The very fact that we are organizing this campaign already has a result,” he said. “We showed there are new methods of self-organization. We once and for all want to show everyone that we are all sick of these political technologies that over the last years have replaced real politics.” He went on, “We want to show everyone -- ourselves, most important -- that we can do it differently.”
The Kremlin, however, has shown it prefers do things the same way. But whether thanks to Navalny or its own internal decay, it seems the state cannot act with the same easy omnipotence as before. On Friday, one day after the verdict was issued, the court in Kirov reversed itself and released Navalny and his co-defendant until September while their appeals run their course. Navalny is free again, even if temporarily. He may restart his electoral campaign. Perhaps the Kremlin was spooked by the crowds in the streets of Moscow; more likely, Sobyanin, who would like to fancy himself a legitimate mayor, made an alliance with other forces inside the system wary of the legal crackdown led by the Investigative Committee. Either way, the system is not getting smarter -- it is getting less cohesive and more indecisive. Even though Navalny lost his trial and seems headed to prison, he is not the one who looks weak today.