July 19, 2013 6:49 pm

Russia: The retreat from Moscow

The release of Alexei Navalny suggests that policy making is becoming more erratic
Alexei Navalny©Reuters

Cry freedom: only seven hours after Mr Navalny was sentenced, prosecutors announced that he would be released pending an appeal

The arcane workings of the Kremlin are a strictly kept secret. To outside observers, President Vladimir Putin presides over a Byzantine court that rarely makes mistakes or, at least, rarely admits them.

But even to those inclined to give Mr Putin the benefit of the doubt, it appears that he made a colossal miscalculation on Thursday when a court in the provincial district of Kirov sentenced Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader and blogger, to five years in prison on charges of embezzlement.

Some of Russia’s elite believe that the severity of the sentence was a sign that Mr Putin, who has been tightening the screws on the opposition since he returned to the presidency in May 2012, has gone too far and that the punishment was a sign of desperation rather than resolve. Mr Putin had “passed the point of no return”, according to Sergei Aleksashenko, an economist and former deputy governor of the central bank.

While the Kremlin denies that it influences the courts, there is a widespread belief that the case was politically motivated. Any lingering doubt about the government’s role has disappeared after a bizarre turn of events late on Thursday that led to Mr Navalny walking free on Friday.

Provincial prosecutors in Kirov, who had initially sought a six-year sentence, announced unexpectedly that they would release Mr Navalny temporarily pending an appeal that could take weeks. On Friday, Mr Navalny was expected to board a train back to Moscow, where he will resume his campaign for the capital’s mayoral election in September.

The about-face by prosecutors even shocked lawyers in the case. Olga Mikhailova, acting for Mr Navalny, said it was unprecedented for a prosecutor to suddenly take the defendant’s side. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she told Interfax news agency.

Vadim Klyugvant, a lawyer not involved in the proceedings, says the interference in the case damages the reputation of Russian jurisprudence.

“For me, what happened can only be an indication that the position of the prosecutor’s office is formed by some additional factors and not by the law or any logic,” he says. “The prosecution initially sought six years for Navalny and his incarceration upon conviction. The court granted this request, reducing the term of imprisonment in a verdict by a year. In such a case, it would make more sense for the prosecutor’s office to complain of unwarranted leniency by the judge and not about unreasonable severity.”

Exactly what happened in the seven hours between Mr Navalny’s sentencing in Kirov and the prosecutors’ announcement that they would free him is hard to determine.

Mr Navalny suggests that spontaneous demonstrations in Moscow and elsewhere convinced Mr Putin that he had simply overplayed his hand and had not counted on the furore the sentence would generate. “Thank you everyone who came out on the street,” Mr Navalny wrote on his blog yesterday. “Without you it would have been impossible to free us.”

Others suggest something murkier is going on and argue that the case offers a rare insight into conflict among Mr Putin’s own circle. Pavel Svyatenkov, a political analyst in Moscow, says: “There are signs of a major political struggle in Navalny’s arrest and subsequent release.”

Leonid Volkov, the head of Mr Navalny’s mayoral campaign, argues that the Kremlin’s calculations hinge on the contest in the capital, which the opposition leader had threatened to boycott.

But the reasons why powerful figures want Mr Navalny at liberty to run in the elections are hotly disputed and illustrate the complexities of the rivalry among the clannish leadership that holds power in Russia.

Some argue that he has been released in the expectation that he will be defeated in the mayoral election. This would then give greater legitimacy to the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, who is loyal to Mr Putin. “They wanted [Navalny] to run without being able to campaign and get 5 per cent, like a straw man,” says Mr Volkov. “We reject that. We will only run if he is free to campaign.”

Still, the scope for conspiracy theories in Russia is wide and one version says the exact opposite: that other powerful individuals are actually helping Mr Navalny. Indeed, according to this theory, sections of the Russian elite are mobilising behind Mr Navalny, who could use the mayorship as a springboard to the presidency, succeeding Mr Putin.

“The people who indisputedly own Russia and run it are for some reason going to great lengths to help so that the person we all called a blogger yesterday will become the first person of the Russian state tomorrow,” Oleg Kashin, the influential Moscow journalist, wrote on Friday, hailing Mr Navalny as “the next president of Russia”.

. . .

Another view is that such theories exaggerate the depth of logic underpinning the whole affair. Mr Putin’s leadership is considered as increasingly erratic and the president betrays signs that he is sinking into the condition that Gabriel García Márquez termed the “solitude of power”. The Colombian writer contends that a long-time ruler convinced of his own infallibility will ultimately descend into a personal labyrinth of delusion in which his inner circle does not tell him the truth.

That sense of invincibility has been reinforced by Mr Putin’s ability to weather bouts of international outrage provoked by cases in which opponents, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon, and Pussy Riot, the rock group, have been sent to prison.

Since his return for a third term as president, Mr Putin has displayed more of the paranoia associated with longstanding rulers. After 12 straight years as Russia’s paramount, unquestioned leader, the regime has begun a harsh crackdown on the opposition, including the posthumous prosecution of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer, on a decade-old charge of tax evasion.

In another dubious move that portrayed Russia on the international stage as a hostage to an unhinged vengeful autocrat, Mr Putin denied dozens if not hundreds of Russian orphans the chance of family life by imposing a ban on adoption by US citizens in December.

Wilder rhetoric has also become a staple on the nightly news. In April, Mr Putin told a national television audience during a call-in show that the US had invented al-Qaeda. During a meeting with the English language TV channel Russia Today, he scolded the US state department for funding opposition rallies. When the main state TV channel ran an editorial item claiming the US and al-Qaeda had formed a “strategic alliance” in the Middle East, the US embassy in Moscow was forced to tweet a denial.

Alexei Makarkin, a political expert at the Centre for Political Technology in Moscow, says that the strange and seemingly cruel decisions issuing from the Kremlin these days are a symptom of Mr Putin’s obsession with the loyalty of the elite, which was called into serious question by street protests that broke out in December 2011.

When tens of thousands of Muscovites came out to protest against Mr Putin, that elite – composed of policy makers, business leaders and academics – was conspicuously silent.

“There were a great number in the streets and the elite was silent,” he says. “The regime was quite well aware that the majority of the elite would join whoever won.”

The government put the uprisings down with repressive tactics in the spring and summer of 2012, passing laws to increase punishments for civil disobedience and launching numerous investigations and police raids against opposition leaders. After this, the Kremlin began to focus, according to Mr Makarkin, on “how to make the elite more controllable”.

. . .

Part of the effort, he said, was to make the elite more complicit in the more contentious policies that the Kremlin was peddling – such as the adoption ban passed in parliament on a near unanimous vote.

“This was a conscious attempt to tie the elite to the fate of the regime,” says Mr Makarkin. “Having voted for the law almost unanimously, it was now much harder for them to, in case something happened, come to some sort of agreement with the opposition. They became more odious, isolated, and dependent.”

“Voting for this law was a sign of loyalty, devotion, and dedication that the regime demanded of them.”

However, the phenomenon of Mr Navalny already shows that many in the elite are placing side bets on him, says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant. “Navalny is very good at exploiting the contradictions in the ruling clans in order to gain influence as a leader,” he says. “Navalny is using the fights for his own purposes.”

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Letter in response to this article:

May we look for a Russian spring? / From Mr Adrian Scrope

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