Aleksei Navalny may be on the ropes, but at the same time he’s also on something of a roll.
The on-the-ropes part was in full display in Kirov on June 18 when Judge Sergei Blinov flat-out refused
to allow Navalny to call any defense witnesses in his embezzlement trial. Blinov’s move only underscored the widespread belief that the criminal case against the anticorruption blogger is completely fabricated and politically motivated.
But the same day as Blinov’s decision, Navalny also scored a key victory
when the Opposition Coordinating Council voted to support him as its single candidate in Moscow’s September 8 mayoral election.
The Coordinating Council’s decision is significant. As maligned as the council has been of late for its infighting and ineffectualness, it is still the one opposition grouping that enjoys any popular mandate to speak of.
And its endorsement came on the heels of what has been a pretty remarkable string of news cycles for Navalny.
It started with opposition protests in Moscow on the June 12 Russia Day holiday, where he was front and center as the adoring crowd chanted, "Navalny is our mayor!"
A day later, rumors swirled in Moscow that Navalny’s arrest was imminent, forcing the authorities to release a statement insisting that this wasn’t the case.
The next day, June 14, the Party of Peoples’ Freedom (Parnas) formally nominated
Navalny as its candidate for Moscow mayor. The move frees him from the need to gather 70,000 signatures from supporters to register as a candidate. He still needs to pass the so-called municipal-filter requirement and gather the signatures of 110 Moscow district council members.
Three days after the Parnas nomination, on June 17, Navalny stole the show
during his trial in Kirov, taking the stand
to defiantly and eloquently pick apart the case against him, denouncing charges that he conspired to steal 16 million rubles' ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company as "absurd" and discrepant from "the actual circumstances of the case."
WATCH it here starting at the 1:09 mark:
The juxtaposition of Navalny’s ongoing show trial in Kirov and the Moscow mayoral election is one of the key ongoing narratives in Russian politics.
The intertwined stories -- if Navalny is convicted, even if he is given a suspended sentence, he will be barred from the ballot -- illustrate both the Kremlin’s methods of dealing with its foes and the asymmetrical tactics that the sharper minds in the opposition are using to fight back.
"Navalny has this ability to take what seem to be negative situations and turn them into massive PR positives," longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti of New York University said on the most recent Power Vertical Podcast
Barring an epic political miracle, Navalny won't be elected Moscow’s mayor in September regardless of how many endorsements he picks up from opposition groups of various stripes.
And despite how articulately he picks apart the charges against him on the stand, the odds are still good that he will be convicted in Kirov if the Kremlin wants him to be.
But Navalny is nevertheless skillfully raising the price of the Kremlin's campaign against him. Given the events of the past week, a conviction in Kirov will now look even more shamelessly political.
He has also put the authorities in a difficult position in the Moscow mayor's race.
“If he is in the race he gets to talk to people he hasn't been able to talk to until now. He doesn't expect to win, but by being in the race he is a part of conversations that weren't there before. And they are conversations he is ready for," Galeotti said on last week’s podcast
And keeping him off the ballot in Moscow gives the impression that the Kremlin is afraid of him.
Which, according to political commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev, it is.
"Free elections are not something the regime needs, and serious figures will therefore not be given access even to a simulation of such elections," Inozemtsev wrote recently in "Moskovsky komsomolets
"Mikhail Prokhorov, with his financial and organizational potential and serious program, and Aleksei Navalny, with his noisy support, albeit without basic organizational structures, are deemed nearly equally dangerous."
Getting Prokhorov out of the picture was easy and painless. The billionaire oligarch simply has too much to lose by annoying the authorities. A clear message
from the Kremlin to back off from his mayoral ambitions was, apparently, sufficient.
Getting Navalny out of the picture will also be easy -- simply make sure the Kirov court delivers the guilty verdict everybody expects. But with Navalny’s ever-rising profile, this is not going to be painless. And with each passing day, it looks like it will become more and more costly.
-- Brian Whitmore