Opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Kremlin’s cross hairs: will his conviction prevent him from building a campaign movement?

On February 8th a Kirov city court in Russia found prominent opposition politician and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny guilty of embezzlement in the so-called Kirovles case. He and his co-defendant Piotr Ofitserov received suspended prison sentences of 5 and 4 years respectively, and a 500.000 RUR fine (about EUR 8.000). The conviction could pose a very serious obstacle to Navalny’s plans of running in the March 2018 presidential election. Given his high profile, a political motivation behind the case is more than likely. However, for now Navalny persists in his campaign plans regardless of the authorities’ actions, and the question is what he could achieve without an official candidate’s registration.

Alexey Navalny

Lawyer Alexey Navalny (40) made a name for himself throughout the 00s with his anti-corruption activism and (at the time) unusually harsh attacks on the authorities in general and President Putin in particular. His blog, created in 2006, quickly earned a large following and became a virtual space for active political discussion. His main focus of activity is anti-corruption, which includes financial investigations of concrete state officials’ (unofficial) incomes, and many other initiatives, like RosPil (investigations into embezzlement from the state budget), The Good Truth Machine (disseminating information to counteract state propaganda) and others. As corruption is a problem recognized by all in Russia, Navalny is known and even respected by a larger segment of the population than just opposition activists and dissidents, which has placed him in Kremlin’s cross hairs.

His relationship with the rest of the Russian opposition can be described as love-hate: some, like the liberal Yabloko party, are unwilling to work with him due to his nationalistic tendencies, exemplified by his participation in the Russian Marches. The party, from which he originally hails, even expelled him in 2007 over what it called ‘nationalist activity,’ but that didn’t damage Navalny’s political prospects; quite the contrary: by 2011 he was considered by many as the most prominent and trusted leader of the Russian opposition, and led the mass protests that followed the December 2011 parliamentary elections.

Kirovles case

In July 2012 Navalny is charged with grand theft from the state-owned Kirovles timber company, which he and his associates consider political retribution for his activism. A year later he is convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison and a 500.000 RUR fine. However, he is quickly released pending his appeal, which allows him to go ahead with his plans of running in the Moscow mayoral elections against Kremlin-backed Sergey Sobianin in September 2013. In that race, he finishes second behind Sobianin, with 27% of the votes against Sobianin’s 51%. Despite the seemingly large difference, the result shows Navalny’s popularity, as his percentage is far higher than could be expected under the circumstances. A month later a higher court upholds the guilty verdict, but changes the prison term to a 5-year suspended term.

In November 2016 Russia’s Supreme Court voids the verdict in the Kirovles case, sending it to retrial. That December Navalny announces his plans to run for President in 2018, and only two months later, in February, he is convicted at the retrial of the Kirovles case, receiving a 5-year suspended sentence. Navalny and his associates have pointed out that the new verdict is almost identical to the one that was voided (reportedly even including the same typos, leading to much mocking online), and have announced plans to appeal.

Many more examples of opposition politicians or critical civil society representatives facing obstacles in Russia can be given here, from administrative measures to poisonings and assassinations. Navalny’s case seems different, however, as the consequences for him personally have been relatively limited, compared to some others. This, in the eyes of many of his supporters, demonstrates the caution (some would even say fear) of the authorities when dealing with him. His seemingly fearless and engaging oratory and writing style and willingness to investigate even the most powerful members of the Russian elite have earned him a large following. Making him a martyr - by jailing or assassination – is not an option for the Kremlin, it seems.

Presidential elections

While the recent suspended term wouldn’t be an obstacle for Navlany’s presidential bid according to the Russian constitution, it is made very difficult if not impossible by a law passed by the State Duma in 2014, that precludes anyone with a conviction for a grave crime from running in elections for 10 years. Nevertheless, commenting on the proceedings when leaving the courtroom, Navalny said he still plans to go ahead with his campaign irrespective of the authorities’ actions, citing his constitutional right to be allowed to run in the elections.

It is highly unlikely at this point that Navalny will get registered as an official candidate. His appeal will probably not change the verdict in any Russian court. Navalny stands a better chance at the European Court of Human Rights. However, the Russian state will not feel obliged to comply following a 2015 law that states that Russia does not have to follow the rulings of international courts if those conflict with the Russian constitution, which is easy enough to ‘demonstrate’ with a state-controlled judiciary.

However, it will be interesting to see what Navalny can achieve if he indeed persists in running a campaign, even without an official candidate’s registration. In January, he unveiled his campaign plans, which included campaign offices in 73 Russian cities (including all the cities with a population of over a million), to be opened between February and June this year. His campaign reported that by January over 81.000 people had provided their signatures for his candidacy (with 300.000 total needed), and 18.000 had expressed a wish to volunteer for his campaign. As of January, the campaign funds consisted of 12 million RUR (about EUR 194.000) that had come in as donations from 6.120 persons. Especially considering the fact that all of this is achieved exclusively by himself and his team, with no help whatsoever from the state or mainstream media, it’s quite an achievement. Official candidate or not, this puts Navalny in a position to command a public stage with a big enough team and, possibly, finances, for an extensive  - for Russian opposition standards - nationwide campaign, even if it turns into a protest campaign rather than an election one.

Door: Marina Ohanjanyan

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