The trial in Russia of Alexei Navalniy on charges of embezzlement is a long running saga. The case was first brought in 2009 but then dropped by local prosecutors. Now, the trial has gained international prominence with many seeing it as a political show trial of a blogger who threatens Vladimir Putin's regime by undermining its legitimacy.
Comparisons, encouraged by Navalniy himself, are already being made with the trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot. Even before the trial began on 17 April, many, including in the Russian opposition and Navalniy, anticipated a guilty verdict, with attention therefore focused more on the sentence – which could be anything from a suspended sentence to ten years in jail – rather than on the trial itself.
The trial will raise questions about the nature of Russian justice, the politicization of the legal system and the nature of the evidence – and political forces – arrayed against Navalniy. The Russian legal environment is characterized on one hand by dense and complex regulation, and, on the other, informal influence in judicial procedures. It is therefore easy to be found to be in violation of the rules. Furthermore, many assert that the case has a political undercurrent, and is part of an attempt by the authorities to undermine the anti-corruption campaign that Navalniy is pursuing against senior figures and a wider political attempt to weaken the opposition.
Navalniy's trial should be seen alongside the suspension of the activities of non-parliamentary opposition parties such as the Left Front, and the arrest of other opposition figures, such as Sergei Udaltsov, who are charged with inciting public disorder. If convicted, Udaltsov also faces between four and ten years in prison. This is important because Navalniy and Udaltsov are the leaders of the recent demonstrations who advocated a more confrontational approach to the authorities. A criminal sentence would prevent them from running for political office. This would effectively render the confrontational non-systemic opposition movement leaderless.
A central issue of the discussion about Navalniy’s trial, therefore, is that his conviction would mean the stifling of an opposition political career in its infancy through legal manipulation. Smart and young, Navalniy is something of a celebrity in the West, seen to be the 'new face' in Russian politics, a 'tech savvy' blogger and anti-Putin activist, and epitomizing the 'new urban middle class' protest movement.
Yet despite a political career of more than ten years and some successes both in exposing official corruption and minting catchy political slogans such as the 'party of crooks and thieves' for the United Russia party, Navalniy is far from a household name in Russia. Opinion polls suggest that awareness of him among the wider population has grown over the last year, but only to approximately one third of the population, and that just one per cent would vote for him in a presidential election. This is because he has been unable to advance a coherent and popular political agenda, and because of scepticism about his personal political motives. Indeed, some of his attempts so far to shape an agenda ought to give Western liberal democrats pause for thought, particularly his nationalist leanings.
It is not clear, therefore, that Navalniy currently poses a substantial political threat to Putin. And although it is rarely noted in the West, the greater political threat to the United Russia party comes not from the non-systemic opposition Navalniy leads, but from the political left and especially the Communist Party, who were the main challengers to United Russia across the country in the regional and parliamentary elections in 2011.
Will the trial lead to greater exposure and consequently increased support for Navalniy in Russia? Perhaps, but a trial on charges of misconduct while acting as an adviser to the authorities is unlikely to enhance his reputation among a sceptical electorate that is increasingly frustrated with just that problem. Furthermore, there may be a case to answer: even if there may be political aspects to the trial, Navalniy may have fallen foul of complex legal regulations. A spokesman for the Investigative Committee has suggested that it is a 'banal' case of misconduct, the sort of thing that investigators 'have to deal with all the time'. He suggested that Navalniy’s profile accelerated the process, but indicated that the case would have gone ahead anyway.
At the same time, Putin is appropriating Navalniy’s anti-corruption approach with his own 'de-offshorization' legislation and the dismissals and resignations of a number of senior figures – even members of Putin’s team, such as Anatoliy Serdyukov – and parliamentarians. Such an agenda meets popular concerns, and so may enhance Putin’s popularity; even as Navalniy’s anti-corruption profile is undermined.
Navalniy's political career faces a serious dual challenge: pressure from the authorities from above and a lack of popular support from below. More importantly, he himself faces prison – and, if the national anti-corruption committee’s proposals to increase the penalties for corruption to the severity of treason gain support and are implemented before he is sentenced, this could be for many years.