MOSCOW BLOG: Navalny found guilty, but Kremlin got the wrong man

By bne IntelliNews July 18, 2013

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A court in the regional city of Kirov found anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny guilty of corruption on the morning of July 18 in a closely watched case. Navalny has been sentenced to five years in jail for theft and embezzlement, with Judge Sergei Blinov rulng the anti-corruption campaigner had defrauded a timber firm.

The verdict in theory bans Navalny from public office for life. According to the law on the main guarantees of suffrage in Russia, those Russian citizens who "are imprisoned some time ago for grave and heinous crimes, except for the cases, when under a new criminal law these offences are not found grave or heinous crimes," do not have the right to run in elections.

Navalny has already declared his intention to run for president in the next election in 2018. He will also probably be unable to run in the Moscow mayoral election this September, for which he was accepted as a candidate earlier this week. According to reports, a higher court decision is now needed to decide the issue.

The case has become a cause célèbre and taken as an example of the misuse of the judiciary by the Kremlin to further its political aims.

According to Navalny's camp, the charges were trumped up and nonsensical, but the outcome of the trial was never really in doubt: the presiding judge has never acquitted a defendant in his career, according to press reports.

However, the Kremlin has convicted the wrong man. If the point of the trial was to neuter a political rival, then Navalny is not that man. While he serves a useful job as an anti-corruption blogger - three senior Duma deputies have been forced to quit this year on the basis of evidence of dodgy dealing provided by Navalny - he remains a political non-entity amongst the Russian voting population.

Journalist Irina Galushko tweeted from Kirov just before the trial opened a comment by a local passerby: "#Navalny's trial again? so f***** sick of it, when will they finally put him away!" - a sentiment that sums up a widespread attitude to the case by most Russians.

Take the Moscow mayoral election: incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has a massive lead in the race with some 46% of the vote , according to the most recent opinion poll. Navalny has around 3% of the vote - he won't even be an "also ran" unless something dramatic happens. And this is in Moscow where opposition to the regime of President Vladimir Putin is at its very strongest.

The problem is Navalny is not the Nelson Mandela figure that most international press reports make him out to be. He has not founded a party (he refused to join a political party set up by his own followers.) He has come up with no alternative programme. And he doesn't even have grassroots support. Indeed, the entire opposition movement is losing its relevancy with the Russian people, as it has failed to offer any ideas other than "not Putin," which is not a political platform.

Navalny's name has been climbing up the recognition stakes, which in other countries would mean he would have a shot at a political career. But in Russia, as Navalny becomes more famous, his popularity with Russians is actually falling - perhaps because he has not put forward any concrete reasons for people to support him.

The irony here is another poll found that most Russians think Navalny's trial was politically motivated, but at the same time most Russians could give a monkey's if he is convicted or not.

Other polls found what Russians really care about is inflation and unemployment - both scoring over 60% in another poll, whereas freedom of speech and rule of law comes way down near the bottom of the list, says Levada Centre research.

The appeal of Putin is that he offers stability and prosperity, whereas Navalny offers change and uncertainty; what most commentators miss is that Russians are making their political decisions in the context of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos that followed. In this context, uncertainty is very unappealing so most prefer (and polls show increasingly reluctantly) to take the stability over more freedoms. That will change, but it is going to be a long, slow process - perhaps even a generational one.

In the meantime, Navalny's campaign so far consists almost exclusively of playing to the international media that have been following him about in a swarm; almost the entire international press corps made the trip to Kirov to report on the trial to the point where the court posted a list of "first come, first served" correspondent names on the door of the court the day before the trial, as the room couldn't hold everyone who wanted to watch.

This is not to say Navalny or his campaign is irrelevant, or that the international press should ignore the case. Navalny is important because he is the personification of the lack of rule of law, the atrophied state of civil society, an illustration of the impunity with which the elite can rob the country of its riches, and, most scary of all, the 1930-esque intolerance in the Kremlin has shown for any sort of organised opposition to its rule.

But if the Kremlin was worried about opposition politics then it would have done better to ignore Navalny because he is not building an effective opposition alternative to the powers-that-be. All the Kremlin has done is give itself (yet another) huge PR black eye, and if anything bolstered Navalny's very thin credentials as a politician, as opposed to his real credentials as an effective civil society activist.

But there is the rub: other than Navalny, there is no one else in the opposition that can don the mantle of "leader." Hence the furore over this case.

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