July 18, 2013 7:04 pm

Jailing Navalny makes Kremlin’s mantra of repression look shaky

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Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny stands inside a courtroom in Kirov...Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny (C, back) stands inside a courtroom in Kirov, July 18, 2013. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in jail for theft on Thursday, an unexpectedly tough punishment which supporters said proved President Vladimir Putin was a dictator ruling by repression. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Alexei Navalny, centre, at his sentencing in Kirov on Thursday

“Never give up despairing!”

Those were the dark-humoured words of Nikolai Punin to his wife, the poet Anna Akhmatova, as he was hustled out the door of his Leningrad flat by the secret police in 1949, never to be seen again.

More than half a century later, the same spectacle was repeated: a dissident, torn from his wife’s arms, led away by policemen to a prison far away.

This time, however, the occasion has been marked not by the private reminiscence of an aggrieved widow but by a live internet feed broadcast all over the world. As Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison in the provincial Russian town of Kirov, he and his wife, Yulia, embraced tenderly before he was led away to jail in handcuffs.

But he did manage to echo some of Punin’s sarcasm when, on hearing the sentence, he tweeted: “OK. Don’t miss me. And most importantly – do not be lazy. The toad will not remove itself from the oil pipeline” – apparently a reference to President Vladimir Putin.

Few doubt that jailing Navalny was the result of a calculation by the Putin government that leaving him free to run in elections and challenge the Kremlin’s hold on power would have caused more headaches in the short term than imprisoning him.

But amid the unprecedented publicity for Navalny created by the verdict, it is just as obvious that things are different these days than they were in Stalin’s time.

The state has seemingly been caught off guard by the furore the sentence – and the scene of Navalny being led away in handcuffs – has generated. Early in the day the conviction and sentence was a cautious number five story on the state-run NTV channel news, the Kremlin’s main mouthpiece for attacking the opposition. However, by the evening news at 7pm the station was running it as the top story – and showing crowds of protesters in central Moscow.

An hour later, the prosecutor’s office said it had not asked for Navalny to be imprisoned until his sentence had gone into effect – following appeals in the next several weeks – and he might be released again as early as Friday.

By 8pm in Moscow, up to 7,000 people had gathered near the Kremlin to demand Navalny’s freedom, a large number for a spontaneous and unsanctioned demonstration.

The next days and weeks will reveal whether the Kremlin’s calculation – that repression works – was the correct one.

“What a grand biography the regime is writing for him,” said the nationalist opposition leader Vladimir Tor, himself echoing words by Akhmatova about the 1960s trial of the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky. Navalny’s supporters say the five-year sentence will transform him into a genuine dissident and the undisputed opposition leader in Russia, capable of uniting a number of contradictory forces behind him – once he gets out of jail.

“They are making him into the symbol of a political prisoner, the most popular influential opposition leader in the country,” said Mr Tor, standing outside the courtroom in Kirov following the trial. “Of course, he now cannot take part in elections, form political parties, participate in normal political life. At the same time, his political weight simply grows larger and larger.”

But this new status will be counterbalanced by the inability to use it until he is free again. Experts make an equally valid observation: in Russia, repression (usually) works, as the longevity of many Soviet leaders makes clear.

For the past year and a half, since Mr Putin returned for a third term as president, he has overseen a gradual but deliberate tightening of the screws on the street protest movement which burst out in December 2011 in response to rigged elections.

Other opponents have been jailed, though none has Navalny’s status, and a series of laws has cracked down on independent civil society organisations and increased penalties for protesting.

So far this approach has worked. The size and intensity of protests against the Kremlin has died down since its peak in the winter of 2011-12. But the resentment that has built up among a new middle class anxious to have political rights has not disappeared, says Ilya Ponomarev, a liberal parliamentarian who appeared in the court on Thursday as a supporter of Navalny.

“They can’t use such completely Soviet methods on people any more, it just doesn’t work because were not a Soviet society,” Mr Ponomarev said.

“Giving him a long prison sentence means they have simply run out of ideas. They’ve chosen stupid, primitive means to stay in power and sooner or later this will be exhausted.”

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