Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and leading figure of the Russian opposition, was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement on Thursday, in what many critics called a politically motivated trial.
But after widespread protest following the verdict, the court released him on bail on Friday. The decision came in response to a request by prosecutors that Navalny, who is a Moscow mayoral candidate, be allowed to take part in the campaign. It's a move that many see as means of placating opposition outrage at his conviction.
After his release, the 37-year-old, one of the country's most prominent critics of President Vladimir Putin, said that his sentence "had been vetted by the presidential administration." But thanks to the thousands of protesters who came out in his support in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, "they rushed to go back on that decision," he added.
On Thursday night, there were reports of clashes between protesters and police, who made hundreds of arrests. Navalny has also received support from leaders in the United States and European Union.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that she has doubts about "whether criminal justice had been in the foreground of the trial," calling the sentence "disproportionately tough."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that United States President Barack Obama is "deeply disappointed and concerned" by the verdict, which he called a "disturbing trend of government action" against Russian civil society. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, also weighed in, saying: "This outcome, given the procedural shortcomings, raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia."
The verdict against Alexei Navalny is a further step toward turning the Putin regime into a dictatorship. Russia is not a democracy, but a police state under political justice. The Russian opposition is not only losing a potential leader but this also serves as a warning to all those who were in a position to take on a leadership role. The chances are thus diminished that democratic forces will emerge that can potentially take over after Putin's era. This is grim news for both Russia and its European neighbors.
The verdict comes as no surprise to those who see the thoughtless logic of a state apparatus at work in Russia, and not the calculations of a chess player. Those who place themselves in opposition to this apparatus will be swept aside. Anyone who yells 'stop the thief!' in Russia as Navalny has … will be condemned as a thief himself to keep the real thieves in office. The laws of the state are bent to this purpose, as is rationality itself. … That's how easy it is, and how predictable.
What options remain if one doesn't want to accept this injustice with a shrug? Alexei Navalny, who was convicted on Thursday, has led the way. His career and his actions are fundamentally different from those of the old school Russian opposition. The lawyer understands the mechanisms of corruption. Where the old opposition politicians made abstract demands and got worked up about the regime, Navalny revealed facts and showed the citizens ways in which they can defend themselves. Corruption is the most vulnerable spot in Putin's system.
Putin wants a compliant nation that does not challenge his power. He wants business owners who bend to his will. He has long since abandoned reforms for the vast empire -- he is all about preserving pure power and his fiefdom. The country, which has problems almost as big as the vast territory itself, doesn't matter to him.
What looks like strength is an alarming sign of insecurity. The system is overwhelmed and wasting energy only for the preservation of power, without even staging a makeshift attempt to conceal its wrongs. This exhibits a turbid mixture of arrogance, delusion and lack of socio-political perspective, and even a certain indifference by Putin regarding his own country.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst