Aleksei Navalny gets five years in prison. I’m shocked but not surprised. Shocked because I keep thinking that with each case, each showdown with the political opposition, and with each proposed idiotic law, the Kremlin will wake up and stop the skid. I’m not surprised because in each case the the Kremlin swings a harder and heavier hammer. It chooses to sooth political irritations with an electric sand belt. It decides to reveal its weakness, even fear, instead of confidence and strength. If there is any lesson to be taken from the Navalny conviction they are, obviously, that anyone who speaks up is a potential target and that the Kremlin is happy to perpetuate the spiral downward to satisfy its own fantasies that enemies are everywhere. Barring appeal or parole, Navalny will sit for five years in a Russian prison. Probably longer. They have four more cases against him, after all.
I was in Russia a week ago. And like most visits the life on the street didn’t reflect the life in the news. Still political events were in the air, Navalny’s trial being one of them. The political conversations I had mostly with Russian academics and university students were steeped in despair and pessimism. They were universally opposed to Putin and the system he represents. And some of these people were well connected with power. One historian I talked to is on familiar terms with Kudrin. He calls the ex-Finance Minister directly to put out often state manufactured bureaucratic fires in his university. Despite his connections with “above,” he didn’t mince words about the nature of the current system and the elites that inhabit it. When I asked a Russian human rights lawyer about Navalny, he told me that they’d give him four years to “appear liberal.” Not so liberal it seems. Putin has long ditched the pretense of keeping up appearances.
Allowing Navalny on the ballot for Moscow mayor is now a cruel Kremlin joke. The Kremlin was clearly taunting the Russian opposition with the prospect of having an election with “real politics.” Navalny has pulled out the race. He has more important things to worry about now. And playing along with electoral politics will undermine his own call to “leave the world of fantasies and fairy tales.”
I’m not a partisan for Navalny’s politics. I’m skeptical of his political positions. I abhor his nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. But his integrity is without question. The importance of his anti-corruption work is immeasurable. No politician, except for Putin, has had more of an impact on the Russian political scene in the last few years. There are many reasons to believe that Russia’s political future is Navalny’s if he manages to connect to people beyond his circle of supporters.
This is why Navalny is going to jail. It’s not that he’s currently a threat. He’s a potential one. His conviction is a preemptive strike to blacken his name and position. Many decry the lawlessness of the Russian system. But the rule of law is exactly what this trial is about. In Russia, you see, the law is an instrument of state power. Raw political power. It’s not that it’s selective. And it certainly has nothing to do with justice. Rather the rule is that legality is a scalpel to cut out imagined malignancies. And with each slice, the Kremlin misses the real cancers that rot its insides further.