Alexei Navalny, the most prolific and well-known campaigner against Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in July 2013 on doubtful charges. The anti-corruption activist was prosecuted for a deal he made while serving as an advisor to the governor of Kirov in 2009, when he negotiated a cheaper price from a state owned timber company on behalf of a struggling firm.
The courts have now convicted Navalny of stealing 16 million rubles (about $500,000) from the timber company and, therefore, from the government. To most, this would seem like a savvy business deal. The Russian court, however, classed it as embezzlement and fraud. Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison, while Pyotr Ofitserov was imprisoned for four years for refusing to testify against his former business partner.
Despite inadequate evidence, the judge used the full extent of Russian law to pass sentence. Navalny continued to tweet throughout the lengthy ordeal and, upon finally hearing his punishment, encouraged his supporters on Twitter to act, suggesting that “the toad [Putin] will not get off the oil pipeline on its own.” The ruling was met with public outrage, with thousands of Nalvany supporters marching outside the Kremlin. Police came out in large numbers, roads were closed down, and about 200 protestors were arrested.
A request to release Navalny during the ten-day appeal process was initially denied, but that decision was overturned on Friday 26 July. This rare change in a judge’s ruling signifies uncertainty within the Kremlin about the social consequences of Navalny’s imprisonment following demonstrations throughout Moscow.
The decision to imprison the popular campaigner has been met with outrage from the international community as well. The act of turning opponents into political prisoners and using the judicial system to do so ‘legally’ severely inhibits the rule of law in Russia. Putin, formerly prime minister before being elected as president in 2012, refuses to loosen his grip on premiership in Russia.
Despite his popularity with the younger generation and online observers, Navalny’s numbers in opinion polls regarding his upcoming campaign for mayor of Kirov are surprisingly low—so low as to not form a serious threat to the president. However, Putin does feel threatened. This campaign against an opponent shows how Putin is willing to throw his political weight around. The fact that he has the full support of the Russian courts and judges is worrying, not least for businesses and investors, who must walk a tight rope not to upset the political climate.
In a stark reflection of the uncertainty surrounding Russia’s political future, the Russian stock market dropped by 2 percent (equivalent to $8.6 billion) moments after the announcement of the trial’s outcome. If Putin continues to show signs of illegitimacy in his struggle for power, the country risks losing a significant level of international investment, which could have damaging repercussions on the Russian economy.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many have debated the future of Russia: whether it will re-emerge as a superpower or whether it will remain in the shadows of its chequered history. It now seems that a corrupt government and juridical system reign, led by a president with a tight grip on power. Those who fight this corruption are imprisoned, ironically, for corruption. Within such a stifled environment, the Russian economy will experience a reduction in investment and entrepreneurship. All these indicators point to a scenario, in which the majority of the Russian populous will be the ones to bear the brunt of Russia’s political and economic problems.