Russia's most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was found guilty of embezzlement once again in a retrial of his overturned 2013 conviction. At the conclusion of a hasty but flashy show trial today, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison, but the sentence was subsequently suspended, at least temporarily. The Kremlin's intention was not to eliminate the opposition leader but to use the trial's verdict to sideline him from running for president next year. The Kremlin still wants to be able to use Navalny's case as a warning to others.
Navalny has long been a target, because of both his exposure of corruption and malfeasance in the Kremlin and his ability to bridge the political spectrum of anti-Kremlin activists. Navalny also connected with some of President Vladimir Putin's core loyalists in rallying with the Stop Feeding the Caucasus movement in 2011, a series of protests that morphed into mass anti-Kremlin demonstrations with Navalny at the helm. Soon after those protests, Navalny was charged with embezzlement. He stood trial in 2013 and was convicted. He appealed the verdict, which was later overturned, and the Kremlin vowed to stage a retrial. As he awaited the new hearing, the opposition heavyweight was in and out of prison and under house arrest, bringing him media attention that he used as a platform to further antagonize the Kremlin.
Navalny's retrial was facilitated quickly after he announced in December that he would challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Navalny even began work to open an election headquarters in St. Petersburg in recent weeks. Now, his federal conviction legally prevents him from ever running for president.
The trial followed a series of crackdowns on the Kremlin's opponents across Russia. Social media reports Tuesday detailed five raids by the Federal Security Service in Moscow that resulted in the arrests of opposition figures. Prominent anti-Kremlin activist Vladimir Kara-Murza remains in critical condition after he reportedly was poisoned last week. This pattern of repressive operations targeting the opposition is the largest in the country since 2013.
The Kremlin doesn't actually think that Navalny or any other opposition leader could dethrone Putin, who will be seeking his fourth presidential term. Navalny did run for mayor of Moscow in 2013 after he filed an appeal of his original conviction, and he did vastly exceed expectations for his performance in that race. But he still lost by nearly 25 percent of the vote. The real impact of his run came from the dialogue it sparked in the country and the spotlight it threw on a class of Russians who were growing unhappy with their leadership.
Recently, the Kremlin has been masking a string of domestic problems that have deeply affected the Russian people. Over the past two years, a quarter of Russians have had their salaries cut, and 15 percent have lost their jobs. Officially, 14 percent of Russians are living below the poverty line, though the World Bank believes the figure is likely nearer 30 to 40 percent. Hundreds of small, disconnected protests have sprung up across the country, but no uniting voice or campaign has been able to create a mass movement against the Kremlin. Russia's leaders have deployed the National Guard and FSB agents in growing numbers to thwart any linkages, and the government has used its new draconian internet laws to stifle messaging on social media. This week, the Kremlin conducted a campaign to replace regional leaders who have resisted its pressure.
The Kremlin's actions come as the centennial of the Russian Revolution and fall of the Russian Empire approaches. The Kremlin has already masterfully spun coverage of the historic events, publicizing a series of playful Twitter accounts that purport to relay the developments from 1917 as if they were in real time. Its version of history and the retrospectives produced by the Kremlin-linked news media all emphasize the success of the strong Soviet government that prevailed and not the actual revolution that brought about Imperial Russia's downfall.
But there are reasons the Kremlin is cracking down on dissent now, and it isn't just because of paranoia and concern. The Kremlin senses an opportunity. The West (and most of the world) is preoccupied with deciphering the intentions of the new presidential administration in the United States and distracted by divisions within the European bloc — situations that Russia has exacerbated. Typically, the Kremlin's blatant targeting of the Russian opposition is met with sharp rebukes from the West. During protests in 2011-2012, the U.S. State Department supported the activists. The Kremlin's recent efforts, however, have been met either with silence or ineffectual challenges. Last week, the European Commission on Human Rights ordered the Kremlin to compensate Navalny for violating his right to peacefully protest over the year — an order the Kremlin has shrugged off. There has been no collective outcry against Russia's current domestic activities, and the divided Western front has given Moscow more space to move freely at home.