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Earlier today, Navalny received a custodial sentence of five years for the theft of 15 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from Kirovles.
It is simply not true to say that there was “no case” against Navalny, as the Western and Russian liberal media insists on doing. There is wiretap evidence and witness testimony that Navalny and Ofitserov exploited their official positions to rewrite Kirovles supply contracts so as to have them go through VLK, a shell company that took a signicant cut for its “services.” It is also a fact that VLK was indebted to Kirovles, the state lumber company that was allegedly defrauded, to the tune of around $100,000 upon the latter’s bankruptcy.
But that, at worst, would fall under Article 165 (“causing financial loss by way of deceit and misuse of trust”), and not under Article 160 (“theft”) on which Navalny was actually convicted. At the most elementary level, how can one “steal” $5 from someone, and yet only owe him $1 at the end of it? The evidence in support of this is that Navalny actually was charged in relation to Kirovles TWICE before, but under Article 165; it was also dropped twice, which perhaps indicates that the prosecutors didn’t believe the evidence was sufficient to secure a conviction. Until, presumably, a certain political decision was taken to go ahead with the prosecution after all. A decision that Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin himself all but admitted: “But if the person in question draws attention to himself with all his strength, or we can even say, teases authority – saying that oh I am so white and flawless, then the interest in his past increases and the process of exposing it to the sunlight, understandably, accelerates.”
So let’s put aside concerns about legal process, morality, and justice for a moment. Let’s even assume Navalny really was guilty of “causing financial loss by way of deceit and misuse of trust.” In short, let’s posit the most favorable possible interpretation and frame of reference as far as the Kremlin was concerned. What, exactly, does it gain by jailing Navalny on an article (“theft”) that couldn’t possibly have applied to him?
Well, let’s make a list, shall we.
(1) Proudly confirm Russia as a country where legal nihilism reigns. With Khodorkovsky, it was eminently credible that he was guilty of the charges made against him – an assessment later confirmed by the ECHR, even if neocons, faux-leftist liberals, and political shysters posing as human rights lawyers like Robert Amsterdam begged to differ. No such “defense” applies to Navalny’s conviction. Not to mention, of course, the conflict of interest involved in the IC deciding to prosecute Navalny – for real, this time – soon after he accused its head Alexander Bastrykin of having owned properties in the Czech Republic.
(2) By even further delegitimizing the Russian courts system – as if it didn’t have enough image problems already – it also undermines any other prosecutions the state might carry out. There is video evidence of Urlashov taking a bribe (even the NYT acknowledges that the case is probably legitimate); of the Bolotnaya “political prisoners” hurling stones and beating up policemen; of Udaltsov planning riots and taking money from a pro-Saakashvili Georgian. The Pussy Riot sentence of two years may have been extremely harsh, but it was undoubtedly legal; there was, furthermore, a roughly analogous case in Germany in 2006. But thanks to the Navalny mess, these cases are all going to be even further discredited together with the judicial system in general.
(3) There appears a man with a Messiah complex who claims he has “millions” behind him, but in reality enjoys the support of no more than 10% of Muscovites (and 5% of the entire country). He can’t gather enough signatures to pass the municipal filter required to participate in the Moscow elections, so you order your United Russia flunkies to help him out. He gets registered. You now have the prospect of a truly “competitive” election in in the capital – thanks to Navalny’s participation – but one that you are nonetheless all but guaranteed to win. Surely this would calm down the “hamsters.” And then, “BAHM!” Wave goodbye to that new aura of legitimacy you’d hoping for. In fact, you are now regarded by some people as a manipulative scumbag for “helping” Navalny in the first place. That is the story of Sobyanin. One almost feels sorry for him.
(4) Make a martyr out of a man with 5% approval ratings, who’s popularity has been decreasing even as his name recognition spread through Russia. It couldn’t matter less whether or not he “deserves” that status. The reality is that the PR efforts to portray Navalny as a timber chief have been entirely unsuccessful – not that surprising, really, considering the Kremlin cares so little for its image that it left its propaganda to bloggers like Stanislav Apetyan – and as such, according to opinion polls, more than half the Russian population views the Navalny case as politically motivated.
Navalny is not tainted by the mass theft and thuggery of the 1990s. He is a member of the upper middle-class who drives a fairly modest car, lives in a good but not luxurious apartment, and has a lot of things to say about corruption and bureaucrats. Yes, not all those things might be true; and you are also free not to like him for his “nationalism,” or any one of his various other political stances. Nonetheless, the fact remains that as far as most normal Russians are concerned he still cuts a vastly more sympathetic figure than Khodorkovsky, the first “martyr” of the non-systemic opposition.
(5) The street opposition has split into squabbling groups and petty infighting. The Coordinating Council has become something of a byword for ineffectiveness and political impotence, with its recent chief Treasurer suspected of stealing its funds and making off with the proceeds. So what’s a great idea? Give them something to rally over!
(6) Attendance at the Moscow protests has been dying down ever since the rally at Prospekt Sakharova in February 2012. It entered freefall since the May 6th riots, when the protesters lost a lot of goodwill from the population by getting into scuffles with the police. So what’s a great idea? Jail Navalny and incite them all out into the streets again! Why not, LOL?
(7) In recent weeks, Russia got the image and propaganda coup of a decade thanks to Snowden’s decision to stay and seek asylum there. It was entirely undeserved, of course, given the status of whistle-blower protections in Russia; that is to say, they don’t exist. Though granted, Russia was was singularly sluggish about taking full opportunity of the windfall, e.g. aggressively positioning itself as a safe haven for Western dissidents. After all, “our relations shall not be the hostage of Snowden or other US or Russia extravagant persons,” according to certain influential people linked to the Russian government.
But he might not have worried overmuch. Sandwiched as Snowden was in between the conviction of Magnitsky’s corpse and the jailing of Navalny, he might as well not have existed so far as the media narrative will be concerned in the next months. He will become one of those “extravagant persons” at the center of US – Russia relations, the latest in a long line that stretches back to encompass Magnitsky, and before him, Litvinenko, Khodorkovsky, and Berezovsky (funny, and sad, how that list progressively goes from oligarchs, to their employees, and finally to just an ordinary citizen). Defending the Kremlin’s clawback of the state from the oligarchs in the early 2000s was reasonable and proper. As regards Litvinenko and Magnitsky, the situation was a lot less clearcut, but still far too murky to make any clear judgment one way or the other. With Navalny, however, the Kremlin is now clearly in the wrong.
And so it will be Navalny! – Navalny! – Navalny! for the next months and years to come, in the absence of an (improbable) acquittal in an appeal. And unlike in earlier years, no longer unjustifiably so.
(8) But what about Serdyukov? So unfair *wah* *wah* *wah*. Well, look, unless you suffer from some infantile disorder of idealism, you will know that society is corrupt, hierarchic, and unfair. In some countries the law levels the playing field to a greater or lesser extent. In Russia, the emphasis is very much on the latter: “For my friends – everything; for my enemies – the law” might be cliche, but it is impossible to deny its continued relevance. It sometimes seems that the more you steal in Russia, the better your chances of getting away with it. Ordinary bureaucrats who have stolen orders of magnitude more than Navalny – even if we take at face value the $500,000 he was convicted of – typically get suspended sentences for their efforts (gazeta.ru has compiled a detailed list). Akhmed Bilalov, the fall guy for the Olympics cost overruns that made them the most expensive games in history, was “allowed” to emigrate to Britain. Former Moscow Mayor Luzhkov walks freely, commuting between Moscow and his mini-palace in London. The Oboronservis scandal that developed under former Defense Minsiter Serdyukov, where losses are at more than $100 million and counting – that’s more than 200 times greater than the most than the least favorable possible accounting of Navalny’s demeanours – remains at liberty as a mere suspect to the case, while his lover Elena Vasilieva who did the dirty work is under “house arrest” in a central Moscow luxury apartment with 13 rooms, and gets three hours off per day to do boutique shopping. This is all not so much even a question of “morality” as of basic legitimacy and whether such a state of affairs will continue to be tolerated indefinitely. When Putin was asked why Serdyukov wasn’t in jail at his annual Q&A by a Komsomolskaya Pravda reporter, he replied, “We don’t want another 1937.” Because, of course, imprisoning types like Luzhkov and Serdyukov for corruption is totally equivalent to rounding up and shooting hundreds of thousands of saboteurs and spies. At this rate, sooner rather later people will be DEMANDING a new 1937.
(9) Even the Prosecutor-General Office thinks Navalny’s immediate jailing is way over the top and uncalled for! So on top of reigniting opposition protests, the conviction may well have provoked an inter-siloviki scuffle as well.
(10) Last, and admittedly least, a note to the Kremlin: If you ever end up following La Russophobe’s advice, chances are it’s time to stop, and reconsider.
Power summary: If the Kremlin wanted to provoke instability both within the elite and without, invite contempt from broad swathes of otherwise neutral or apathetic social groups, and sully its image both internally and in the West for many more years to come, then jailing Navalny was a great idea. It could have hardly have chosen a better way to go about it.
The verdict is worse than petty and hypocritical. It’s incredibly stupid. I do not think it was so much a “Kremlin” decision as an initiative of the siloviki around Bastrykin, the IC, and Sechin (suffice to say that even the Prosecutor-General’s Office isn’t all that happy about it). One need hardly mention the liberal/technocratic wing of the Kremlin, which actually helped Navalny get past the municipal filter to participate in Moscow’s elections. Why would Sobyanin do that intentionally, just to come off looking as a total scumbag when Navalny was jailed and arrested? Sobyanin doesn’t need it. Even Putin doesn’t need it! As he himself might say, jailing Navalny is a lot like shearing a pig: Little fur, and a lot of squealing.