Russia has versions of various western TV shows, but the courtroom genre would be particularly tricky to adapt to a country where big trials are always a foregone conclusion. There was never any doubt Alexei Navalny would be found guilty of new charges of stealing Rbs356mn ($4.7mn) of donations to his own anti-corruption foundation — even while he was already in prison for alleged parole violations. Only the length of his sentence was in question. Nine years was less than the 13 that prosecutors sought, but no less disgraceful for that. It threatens to silence one of the most vocal critics of Vladimir Putin and his war against Ukraine amid an intensifying crackdown on dissent.
Navalny has demonstrated extraordinary courage. The activist survived an attempted assassination with a highly toxic nerve agent that left him in a coma and having to be airlifted to Germany. He then helped to investigate his own poisoning and duped the secret service agent allegedly responsible into describing the hit in a phone call that Navalny then published. He returned to Russia despite facing likely arrest for missing parole hearings — while convalescing in Germany — linked to earlier bogus corruption charges.
In adding new accusations to extend his existing two and a half year prison term, the authorities followed the model used with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who clashed with Putin in the 2000s. Just as Khodorkovsky’s oil company was destroyed, Moscow has banned Navalny’s foundation for “extremism”, prompting dozens of his supporters to flee Russia.
The determined efforts to muzzle Navalny demonstrate just what an irritant to the Kremlin his exposés of the lavish wealth of Russia’s ruling circle had become. His video of a billion-dollar Black Sea palace allegedly built for Putin, complete with casino, skating rink and vineyard, has notched up almost 123mn views (Russia’s president has denied any connection to the building). Within weeks of its release, the independent pollster Levada reckoned a quarter of Russians had watched it.
Hours before Navalny’s sentencing, his team tweeted photographs of a luxury yacht they admitted was only “rumoured” to be Putin’s, but whose crew list allegedly consists almost entirely of Russians from the Federal Protection Service that guards the president and top officials. Work by Navalny’s team has provided a trove of data being used to help target western sanctions on Moscow’s inner circle.
Navalny has continued to post messages on social media via his lawyers even from a penal colony. But associates worry the new sentence, in a maximum-security prison, will isolate him from the outside world as Moscow bolsters its information monopoly.
For all the impact of Navalny’s probes, the state-owned pollster VTsIOM said this month that 71 per cent of Russians supported the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Though results in such a repressive climate — Putin last week threatened to spit out “scum and traitors” — probably overstate the reality, they still demonstrate the power of Moscow’s propaganda and nationalist narrative.
Yet the energy with which Moscow has pursued its critic suggests it worries its support is brittle and could crack. Navalny may now be less able to continue his campaigning and faces a new battle to preserve his health and safety in the ruthless surroundings of a high-security facility. But he announced on Tuesday his foundation would become an international organisation that would “fight until we win”. Inspired by his example, others will continue the work of holding an ever more dangerous Kremlin to account.