Putin Takes A Hostage

Yesterday, a Russian judge pulled a stunt straight out of Game of Thrones, handing prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny a suspended sentence on politically motivated charges of fraud but sentencing his younger brother Oleg – a politically inactive postal worker – to three and a half years in a penal colony in Alexei’s stead:

Both men were found guilty of stealing 30m roubles (about £334,000 under the current exchange rate) from the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Asked by the judge, Yelena Korobchenko, if the rulings against them were clear, Alexei replied: “Nothing is clear. Why are you imprisoning my brother? By this you punish me even harder.” … “Of all the possible types of sentence, this is the meanest,” said Alexei Navalny outside court after his brother was taken away. “The government isn’t just trying to jail its political opponents – we’re used to it, we’re aware that they’re doing it – but this time they’re destroying and torturing the families of the people who oppose them,” he said.

Max Fisher explains what Putin’s playing at here:

Putin’s calculus in holding Oleg Navalny hostage is as transparent as it is ruthless. He wants to crush Alexei Navalny, whom he sees as representing one of the last substantial, internal political threats to his rule. And he wants to do it with cruel, brute force. But he does not want to make Alexei Navalny into a martyr by giving him jail time or worse.

Putin’s solution is to release Alexei from prison — he was also convicted today, but his sentence suspended, freeing him on house arrest after a year and a half in prison awaiting trial — but then punish Alexei by locking up his innocent brother. Think about that for a moment: Alexei Navalny’s only real crimes are organizing anti-Putin protests and running for Moscow mayor on an anti-Putin platform. Putin punished him with a year and a half in jail and now by locking up his innocent brother to intimidate him into silence. The punishment is also designed to send a signal to the Russian opposition more broadly: this is what happens. You are putting your closest family members at risk by speaking out, so shut up.

And as Katie Zavadski observes, the elder Navalny’s suspended sentence serves a political purpose as well:

While the suspended sentence may seem like Navalny was getting off with a slap on the wrist for standing up to Putin, in reality, the felony conviction means he’s barred from running for public office for a decade after he’s done serving his term — thus, essentially eliminating one of the main viable opposition candidates. He won 27 percent of the vote in Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, coming in second.

So who is this Navalny and why is he such a big deal? Well, says Keating, he sort of defies description:

Navalny describes himself as a nationalist democrat, and his ideology can be a bit difficult to place, beyond being anti-Putin. Though he has earned comparisons in the international media to figures ranging from Julian Assange to Nelson Mandela, there’s a bit of Pat Buchanan mixed in there as well. Navalny has called for Russia’s liberal opposition to unite with far-left and far-right groups who share an antipathy to Putin but have very different ideas about who or what should replace him. He has unapologetically appeared at rallies with ultranationalist, xenophobic groups. He was expelled from Russia’s largest liberal party, Yabloko, over his nationalist ties in 2007. Fellow members of the opposition have also accused him of intolerance to criticism and compared his occasionally hectoring, macho tone to that of Putin himself.

But the fact that Navalny is difficult to pigeonhole is probably a large part of his appeal: He’s a street activist and a savvy political campaigner at the same time and is just as comfortable talking to Russian nationalists as with readers of the New York Times.

And Amanda Taub voxplains why his activism makes Putin nervous:

Navalny has smartly focused his activism on the mechanics of politics and governance, which are unifying issues, rather than the specifics of issue-based politics, which are potentially divisive. (Especially so in his case, as Navalny’s actual politics appear to be disturbingly ethno-nationalist and on the rightward end of the economic spectrum.)

Da!, his youth movement, organized active political debates at a time when genuine opposition was missing from state-controlled media. His anti-corruption campaign is a savvy platform from which to undermine the legitimacy of Putin’s government, because its core demand is that politicians and their cronies should follow existing law, rather than a demand that the law should be changed or updated. And his broader political message is that inclusion is a defense against tyranny because “they cannot arrest us all.”

Several thousand Muscovites turned out to protest the verdict, and Navalny briefly violated his house arrest to join them before being arrested and sent home under guard. Bershidsky doubts Putin will lose any sleep over the demonstration but wonders how long he can keep behaving this way without paying a price:

Despite Navalny’s bravery, today’s protest was not big enough to make the Kremlin truly worried. Police were in full control, detaining 117 people. Putin will probably crack a smile when he hears his aides’ report of the tiny rally. He will see his chosen tactic as successful, and he seems intent on keeping Navalny out of jail despite his escapade today. Why make him a martyr if a few thousand active supporters are all he can muster? And, once emotions cool off, won’t he have to think about his brother?

Inside his feudal kingdom, Putin’s is waging the same kind of hybrid war as in Ukraine: a combination of psychological pressure, old-fashioned brute force and information trickery. So far, his enemies are much weaker, but continuing economic problems may mean someday — although likely not soon — Putin will meet his match, and the opposition, remembering all his dirty tricks, will take no pity on him.

Previous Dish on the Navalny saga here.