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Putin's Navalny Dilemma

Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny (file photo)
Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

How do you solve a problem like Navalny?

The gang in the Kremlin, it appears, has absolutely no idea.

They seem afraid to imprison him; they've been unable to co-opt him; and no matter how much they harass him, they just can't seem to neutralize him.

Aleksei Navalny presents a thorny dilemma for Vladimir Putin's regime.

He's a pro-democracy activist with a nationalist streak and a talent for rabble rousing.

Unlike the rest of Russia's opposition, he appeals to both urban intellectuals and the disenfranchised working class.

His single-minded focus on exposing official corruption, and his skill at presenting his investigations in slick and entertaining online videos, hits the Kremlin in one of its weakest spots.

He has a network of loyal supporters and a proven ability to put them on the streets.

Navalny is the the Putin regime's worst nightmare in an opposition leader. He's the Kremlin's Freddy Krueger -- with a Twitter feed and a YouTube channel.

He's a social-media savvy Russian muzhik with a law degree.

Make no mistake: Navalny isn't a serious threat to the Kremlin monolith at this point.

But his potential ability to harness Russia's disenfranchised and dispossessed and to ride the populist wave that led to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States appears to be making the regime nervous.

Nothing better illustrates the Kremlin's jitters and utter indecisiveness about how to handle Navalny than a never-ending embezzlement case that dates all the way back to 2009 when he was an unpaid adviser to the Kirov Oblast government.

It's a case that will wind up, at least for now, in a courtroom in Kirov when the verdict is announced on February 8.

Navalny is accused of organizing the theft of 10,000 metric tons of timber worth 16 million rubles ($520,000) from the state-owned KirovLes company.

Since the investigation was first launched in December 2011, it has been closed for lack of evidence and then reopened numerous times.

It has taken so many dizzying twists and turns that even somebody unfavorably disposed toward Navalny would have reasonable suspicions about the allegations' veracity.

When the so-called KirovLes case finally went to trial in the spring and summer of 2013, Navalny was convicted and given a five-year sentence. The judge ordered that he immediately be imprisoned.

That night, rioting erupted on the streets of Moscow. And the very next day, the court reversed itself and released Navalny pending appeal.

When Navalny returned to Moscow he was greeted by an adoring crowd and gave a rousing speech at the city's Yaroslavl Railway Station -- drawing comparisons to Andrei Sakharov's return from exile to the very same station in December 1986.

At the time, the conventional wisdom was that, after much debate, the authorities ultimately decided they wanted Navalny released so he could run in the Moscow mayoral elections in September 2013 to give them an air of legitimacy.

And in those elections, Navalny ran an innovative campaign, finished a surprisingly strong second place to incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, and nearly forced a runoff.

In the appeal of the KirovLes case a month later, Navalny's conviction was upheld but his sentence was suspended, which kept him out of prison but barred him from again running for office.

But the case took on another dizzying twist in November of last year when the Russian Supreme Court unexpectedly overturned the decision and ordered a retrial.

A month later, Navalny announced that he would run for president in 2018.

Which brings us to now.

When the verdict is announced, it certainly won't be the last chapter in the Navalny story.

But it will provide a window into the Kremlin's current thinking about how to handle him as well as into the Putin regime's political strategy going forward.

Prosecutors are asking for the 2013 suspended sentence be upheld, which again would keep Navalny out of prison and out of politics.

In other words, it would mean the status quo, which raises the question of why the Kremlin decided to allow a retrial in the first place.

But if Navalny is acquitted, it would probably suggest that Putin is pretty confident that he could face Navalny in an election and prevail without any unacceptable damage.

And if he is convicted and imprisoned, it suggests the Kremlin has decided to solve its Navalny problem once and for all.

And it also suggests that it is more afraid of the populist challenge Navalny would pose in an election than it is of the unrest imprisoning him would cause.

We'll know the answer soon enough.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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