Published:

Richard Royal is Chairman of Westminster Russia Forum

Navalny1In a
claustrophobic courtroom in the city of Kirov, ironically named after a popular
and prominent Bolshevik who fell victim to a jealous Stalin in 1934, a
controversial but not entirely unexpected sentence was passed down upon Alexei
Navalny, an equally popular and prominent political activist who appears to
have fallen victim to a jealous Putin in 2013.

The
name of this tall, articulate activist has been on
everyone’s lips of late, having gained widespread attention for his determined
questioning of big business and his canny use of social media. His prosecution
has catapulted him onto an even greater stage whilst subsequent reports have
placed him on the pedestal reserved for great men of history. But as is so
often the case, the frenzy of people clamouring to denounce the system neglect
vital details and considerations in their desperation to indoctrinate the
masses.

Moral judgement

We
have a bad habit of trying to simplistically divide the world into black and white
issues, excluding shades of grey. After 9/11 George Bush instructed the Earth’s
population that they needed to decide if they were “with us or with the
terrorists”. Throughout the seemingly never-ending ‘Arab Spring’ we impulsively
assume that rebels are democrats by virtue of them opposing a government that
happens to be non-democratic. And in Russia, we talk of those who oppose Putin
as anti-corruption campaigners or fighters for justice, without consideration
for how corrupt or unjust those same people may also be.

The
verdict sentencing Alexei Navalny to five years imprisonment was unquestionably
ludicrous, the evidence upon which it was based almost certainly fabricated,
and the decision without doubt politically motivated. But this doesn’t make the
accused a virtuous knight in shining armour, in the way he is being portrayed
currently.

One
might debate whether a leopard can change its spots but Navalny was stalking in
the wild Russian political tundra long before he became obsessed with the fight
against corruption for which he has won many admirers.

A controversial past

Navalny
may believe in protest now, but in 2007 when a group of hecklers protested
during a meeting he was speaking at, he offered them outside and shot one of
them with a 'traumatic pistol'. He later defended his actions by arguing that
he fired the shot from a reasonable distance and didn't aim for the demonstrator’s
head.

He
also had a dalliance with the extreme right, creating a group called ‘Narod’ resembling
the concept of the German ‘Volk’ and over several years spoke at and took part
in the Far-Right’s annual Russian March alongside skin heads,
ultra-nationalists and holocaust deniers. In quasi-political videos he warned
of the Islamification of Russia, portraying those from the Caucasus as flies
and roaches that need swatting and comparing illegal immigrants to bloodied
teeth that required painfully brutal extraction. Even his fellow activist Maria
Gaidar referred to his actions as ‘fascism’.

One
Human Rights leader banned Navalny from attending conferences, whilst his
antics got him expelled from the liberal party Yabloko, one of the few serious
legitimate organisations that might have stood a chance of challenging the
status quo if they could have harnessed him. But just like many turbulently
charismatic politicians throughout history, all others were mistaken in
thinking they could control and use his skills for their own ends. Putin may
well also find this to his cost.

As
usual our own media only tells readers half the story. Referring to him simply
as an “anti-corruption blogger” the BBC’s profile of his ‘rise to prominence’
begins in 2008, conveniently omitting his suspect previous activities, whilst The Telegraph begins its account in 2011
when he is already heading up mass protest movements. Some publications have even
referred to his imprisonment as “Russia’s Mandela Moment” which does a huge
disservice to the former South African President.

In
his excellent latest book, journalist Ben Judah describes Navalny as a
“rabble-rouser” and a showman with a quick temper. He astutely compares Navalny
to Putin himself, pointing out how over time the oppositionist has picked up
and run with several of the President’s core themes such as the ‘liquidation’
of oligarchs and heavy-handed policies in the Caucasus. Putin’s clamp down on
adversaries has also led to a political vacuum which such a man can fill by
replicating the popular side of early Putin and adding a double dose of
handsome charm. In many ways Navalny has out-Putined Putin.

Reputation and reality

Indeed
Navalny is nothing if not an opportunist. He has an enduring lust for power and
prominence which has seen him turn his sails whenever the wind changed over the
last decade. Those wondering why he looked so unmoved, even smug, when
listening to his sentence should look no further than the resulting crowds on
the streets chanting his name and the endless use of the #Navalny hash-tag on
the social media site he is so addicted to. He knows that with the perceived
dark figure of Lord Vader-Putin striking him down, he becomes more powerful
than the President could ever imagine.

As
with much else in recent years, it appears that Navalny has shrewdly recognised
the prevailing mood and ridden with it whilst Putin’s government has made what
could turn out to be a colossal misjudgement. Of the President’s own creation,
the recent political climate has woven together disparate organic pieces into
an increasingly united body and with his verdict, the prosecutor delivered the
lightning bolt capable of animating a monster.

Even
if an objective observer was not morally or ethically opposed to the judgement
he should be pragmatically opposed simply on the grounds that it foolishly
gives momentum to the very problem it is intended to prevent. Aside from adding
one of the most astute, charismatic and dangerous politicians in the country to
the growing list of symbolic martyrs that help to incite an already
disenchanted and active segment of society, it increases the dismay that many
Western observers feel when they look upon Russia from afar. I have said before
that Russia is like a teenage son, you may love it for a variety of reasons,
but its foolish and reckless behaviour often disappoints you. Russophiles
throughout the World, myself included, tear their hair out when confronted with
such a turn of events.

Within
hours of the verdict, the Russian stock market dropped by several percent,
losing around £200m from its exchange, with companies like VTB and Sberbank
losing up to 2.5% off the value. For a country looking to promote its economic
importance as a way of excusing its other problems, this is unforgiveable. Mikhail
Prokhorov quite rightly questioned why young businesspeople and professionals
such as lawyers would want to remain in a country where their endeavours are
put at risk.

Economic impact

Russia
needs external skills and investment, whilst it also seeks to partner with
Western businesses. But those potential providers, investors and partners are
understandably nervous about involving themselves with Russia in such
circumstances. Money and morality are rarely comfortable bedfellows and whilst
the occasional ‘activist’ is thrown in jail it is easy for ruthless businessmen
to look the other way, but they are much less likely to do so when each
slamming of the prison door also has an economic impact. If Russia wants businesses
to risk their capital within its borders rather than in other emerging markets,
it needs to provide stability and reliability not petulance and vindictiveness.

Whichever
stance you approach this judgement from, it is difficult to contemplate the
nonsensical decision making or to project a result anything other than a
victory for Putin’s critics.

Mark
Twain once said that “martyrdom covers a multitude of sins” and it is evident
that with this verdict the Kremlin has assisted Navalny in his rebirth from
sinner to saint. There are many who want Putin overthrown, but those talking of
Navalny as a messianic alternative should be careful what they wish for.

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