Thursday, 9 February 2017

RUSSIA: Analysing Navalny's conviction

Russia's main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has been found guilty of embezzlement and handed a five year suspended sentence. With this sentence, the Russian judiciary has put Vladimir Putin's sharpest critic on ice.

Mr Navalny is likely to only serve 18 months of the five year suspended sentence because the judge has taken into account time served from the previous sentence before the ECHR ruling. However, with this verdict, Mr Navalny's political career will be finished. According to a law passed by the Kremlin in 2012, someone who has been convicted of a crime cannot run for public office.

Mr Navalny's conviction came in a retrial after the European Court of Human Rights ruled the first trial to be unfair. The Court, in city of Kirov, found Navalny, guilty of embezzlement in relation to a timber company called ''Kirovles'', for which he was handed a 500,000 rouble ($8,500) fine. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay the opposition's leader more than $67,000 in compensation, for his human rights violations, rights of peaceful protest, in cases dating back to 2012.

Navalny had made a name for himself as a fighter for transparency in state-owned enterprises like Gazprom, and knew his way around balance sheets. Belykh brought him to Kirov to help him with the reorganization of the ailing state forestry. According to the state prosecutor, however, Navalny abused his position as adviser. He supposedly forced the state forestry to sell wood from the state forest to his acquaintance Peter Ofitserov's company. Ofitserov, a businessman, was similarly sentenced by a Moscow court to four years in a prison.

The governor of Kirov had been appointed by Putin's chief of staff, who was weak, but interested in reforms. By appointing Nikita Belykh, he was putting a man in power who had, just a few months earlier, protested against Putin in the streets. Kirov was a high-profile experiment -- a small opening
Putin's chief of staff had provided to the opposition, an opportunity for them to demonstrate that they could govern.

Navalny had no official post as an adviser to the governor, his position was unsalaried and he was not authorized to issue directives to the forestries. The prosecution argued that Navalny exploited his long-time friendship with Governor Belykh to pressure him, that Navalny had an office in the provincial administration building and had been the main speaker at administration meetings.
Witnesses remembered nothing of this.

The Court's verdict doesn't seem to have accomplished the Kremlin's goal of discrediting Navalny as corrupt in the eyes of the Russian people. According to a poll by the Levada Center, 44 percent of Russians believe that Navalny's trial was an attempt to muzzle him. Another 13 percent believe it was an attempt to prevent his candidacy. Only 23 percent believe that the reason for the trial was actually misappropriation of funds.

Navalny's conviction is a further step toward turning Putin's 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 candidate 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.

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 had … 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 has led the way. His career and his actions are fundamentally different from those of the old school Russian opposition. Alexei Navalny, as a 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
International Affairs Expert
Political Analyst/Author

Photo Cedit: AP-photo od Russiean Opposition leader: Alexei Navalny