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Resetting The Crackdown?

Mikhail Kosenko at a hearing in a Moscow court in September.
Mikhail Kosenko at a hearing in a Moscow court in September.
Two courtrooms in two cities. Two pending rulings in two high-profile -- and highly politicized -- criminal cases. Two chances over the next eight days for the Kremlin to signal its intentions.

A court in Moscow this week is scheduled to render its verdict in the case of Mikhail Kosenko, the 38-year-old Moscow man who has become a potent symbol of the absurdity -- and cruelty -- of the so-called Bolotnaya case against demonstrators charged with instigating "mass disturbances" on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration.

And next week in Kirov, a court will hear opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's appeal of his conviction and five-year sentence on embezzlement charges that are widely viewed as trumped up.

Each case, in its own way, stretches the boundaries of logic. Each symbolizes the crackdown on dissent that has been in force since Putin returned to the Kremlin. And each puts the regime in a bind.

Kosenko was charged with assaulting a police officer during the May 6, 2012 anti-Putin demonstrations. This despite the fact that video footage shows him simply standing by as police scuffled with protesters.

Moreover, the police officer Kosenko allegedly attacked, Aleksandr Kazmin, refused to testify against him and said he shouldn't be jailed.

Kosenko suffers from a psychiatric disorder, the result of a concussion he sustained during his military service. For the past year he has been held in the psychiatric ward of a pretrial detention center and prosecutors are trying to get him committed to a psychiatric hospital -- despite the fact that he has successfully been receiving outpatient treatment for a decade. When his mother died in September, Kosenko was denied the right to attend her funeral.

Because of all this, Kosenko's plight has become a cause celebre. Russian rights activists have rallied to his defense and, on October 3, Amnesty International declared him and two other Bolotnaya defendants -- Vladimir Akimenkov and Artyom Savyolov -- prisoners of conscience.

His passionate and eloquent closing statement during his trial, in which he argued that "freedom is the greatest value in our society," is being widely circulated on the Internet.

The Bolotnaya case is potent for society and potentially dangerous for the authorities because most of the 27 defendants are not opposition leaders -- or even political activists -- but ordinary citizens who attended a sanctioned demonstration.

They're electricians, chemists, artists, travel agents, insurance brokers, and students. They have parents, and siblings, children, and friends who also have parents, siblings, children, and friends, and so on and so on.

And Kosenko's case personified this on one highly sympathetic figure.

"Michael lived a normal life. He is entitled to his convictions. He had a right to be at that rally. He had the right to demand fair elections. And for this he has been deprived of his liberty," rights activist Anna Karetnikova wrote on her blog on Ekho Moskvy. "He's not some great leader. He's just one of us."

Just over a week after the Kosenko verdict comes down on October 8, someone who clearly does aspire to be a great leader will also have his day in court. And what happens there will finally provide a clue about how the Kremlin intends to handle "the Navalny situation."

On October 16, a court in Kirov is scheduled to hear Navalny's appeal in the so-called Kirov Forest case in which he was convicted in July of embezzling 16 million rubles ($500,000) from the Kirovles state-owned timber company when he was an unpaid adviser to the region's governor, Nikita Belykh, in 2009.

Of the 35 witnesses called by the prosecution in the case, 33 testified to Navalny's innocence. And the prosecution's star witness, Vyacheslav Opalev, had a clear motive to frame the defendant.

In 2009, Navalny recommended that Opalev, then the director of Kirovles, be fired for corruption. Opalev was convicted of fleecing the company in December 2012 --- and was given a suspended sentence only after agreeing to testify against Navalny.

But this case was never about the facts. It's always been about politics -- and high-stakes politics at that. It's about the Kremlin seeking to silence a fierce and effective critic and rising opposition star and removing him once and for all from the political arena.

But the mass demonstrations in Moscow on the night of Navalny's conviction in July, the hero's welcome he got after being released pending appeal, and his unexpectedly strong performance in the Moscow mayoral election in September, appear to have sparked a rethink of this strategy.

Will the authorities try to tame Navalny by overturning his conviction and luring him into the Kremlin-approved "systemic opposition"? Is Navalny willing to be housebroken this way?

Recently, Putin even reportedly said Navalny's name in public -- something he previously had studiously avoided.

Some more clues should come into sharper focus after October 16.

So the Kremlin appears to be having second thoughts in both the Bolotnaya and Navalny cases and may be poised for a reset. Putin has said he won't rule out an amnesty for the Bolotnaya defendants. Likewise, Pavel Krasheninnikov, a leading United Russia member who chairs the State Duma's Legislation Committee, said he also agreed with the idea of an amnesty.

Reversing course in these two cases risks damaging the regime's credibility, as Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, pointed out in a recent "Power Vertical Podcast."

"This opens up a big problem," Guillory said. "The Russian government has made the Bolotnaya case out to be a vast conspiracy. They turned it into a giant show trial. If they turn around and amnesty these people then what are these charges? The same with Navalny. If they don't put Navalny in prison, then what were these charges? It proves that these cases were politically motivated."

-- Brian Whitmore

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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