Once again, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has demonstrated its fondness for warmed-over Soviet-era tactics in defence of its mafia state. With this week’s announcement that anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has been charged with embezzling £320,000 worth of timber products from the state-owned KirovLes company, the Kremlin has escalated its campaign of intimidation against Russia’s pro-democracy movement.
It was only a matter of time before the Kremlin made this move against Navalny, who has emerged as one of the most charismatic leaders of the revived opposition movement, and now faces up to ten years imprisonment if convicted. Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations, published on his blog RosPil, have uncovered evidence of corruption in state-owned companies implicating the highest echelons of Russia’s political and business elite – and you don’t have to be a Kremlinologist to know that these are virtually indistinguishable in Putin’s Russia.
The link between the charges brought against Navalny and his most recent accusations of high-level governmental corruption could not be more obvious. It is no coincidence that these charges came only days after Navalny embarrassed the elite of the state security services with allegations that Alexander Bastrykin, the Director of the Investigative Committee and a close adviser of Vladimir Putin, had failed to disclose real estate and other investments in the Czech Republic.
Bastrykin was last in the headlines for threatening to kill the deputy editor of Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and then rather sheepishly issuing a public apology – aptly demonstrating that the Kremlin’s reputation for thuggishness is no exaggeration. Adding insult to injury, Navalny mocked Bastrykin as a “foreign agent” and a “spy” – ironically reappropriating the hyperbolic, Soviet-era insults which the Kremlin uses against the opposition movement.
Fast on the heels of Navalny’s publication of documents accusing Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov of corruption, the severity of these new charges against the anti-corruption activist are hardly surprising. Navalny’s work attacks the core interests of the elite which currently sustains the Kremlin, and in so doing appeals to the wide segment of Russian society increasingly angered by the corruption they see at almost every level.
The latest charges follow several prior attempts to intimidate and defame Navalny: he has been under criminal investigation since 2011, has been accused of working for the CIA, and has been arrested multiple times for participating in protests. In June, Navalny was rather comically ordered to pay damages to a member of United Russia for coining the now-infamous moniker of the “party of crooks and thieves”.
With powerful figures such as Alexander Lebedev lining up in defence of Navalny, and the words “political prisoner” already on the lips of many, will the Kremlin be foolish enough to make this popular and charismatic young crusader Russia’s next dissident martyr? It’s not necessarily easy to predict.
Thus far the Kremlin has reacted to Russia’s revived pro-democracy movement with a series of pseudo-legal measures designed to squeeze and intimidate the opposition without undertaking a dramatic, violent crackdown. However, with a show trial in full swing against the anti-Putin punk band Pussy Riot, and given Vladimir Putin and his inner circle’s paranoia about an “Orange Revolution,” nothing is certain. Veteran dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva has pessimistically commented: “This marks the beginning of a campaign of reprisals against the opposition.” Navalny could well be imprisoned to send a message, much in the way the billionaire and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed as a warning to Russia’s oligarchs to follow the leader or get out of the game.
Navalny responded to the charges made against him in characteristic fashion: by making fun of them. Within hours of leaving court, he published an article entitled “How I stole the whole forest”, displaying the irreverence and fearlessness so threatening to authoritarians. But such playfulness should not disguise the very serious threat faced by Navalny for the crime of standing up to corruption and cynical authorities. For students of Russian history, this is a familiar, if farcical, scenario – but one which there can be no doubt the Kremlin treats with deadly seriousness.