I had not given much thought to the verdict handed down yesterday on Alexei Navalny following his conviction for large scale financial fraud relating to the 2018 presidential elections. As I understand the case, Navalny was accused of continuing to solicit and receive public contributions to his electoral campaign for President well after his candidacy had been disqualified by the authorities. Presumably he diverted the incoming funds to his own pocket or reassigned them to his various political activities.
The trial has, of course, been condemned in the West as a sham, as one more high visibility indication of the ongoing domestic repression practiced by the Putin regime, a repression of all opposition figures in the context of an unpopular war in Ukraine to maintain political stability at all costs.
Let me say up front that I have never found Navalny a worthy cause for freedom fighters. He is an obnoxious character who has in the past espoused racist and ultra-nationalist views which would place him more appropriately among the backers of the neo-Nazi regime in Kiev than in the Russian Federation. At the same time, I see disproportionality between the financial crimes for which he has been tried and the latest sentence of 9 years of further imprisonment under conditions that are more harsh than what he has been serving for defrauding the French manufacturer Yves Rocher. The net effect will be to cut him off from the outside world and ensure he is properly silenced.
The Western press calls the trial and sentencing a sham. Sham it may be, but that is beside the point. Navalny is paying the price not for the given financial frauds but for the much bigger crime of sedition, for which he was never punished properly going back to the clearest evidence of his call for overthrow of the government during the December 2011 big demonstrations in Moscow over alleged irregularities in the Duma elections. Specifically he called upon the masses before him to march to the Kremlin and put “the people” in power.
The revolutionary moment passed with the new year 2012 and Navalny pursued his wrecking operation more discretely but always with the same purpose: to shatter the aura of respectability around the government leadership and to try to prove by real or fake videos and other documentation that Putin and everyone around him were crooks. The logic of such defamation is always the same: overturning the legitimately elected authorities by mass action, or, if nothing better is available, by voter turnout of irate (if misled) citizens.
The legal treatment or mistreatment of Navalny in his trials for financial fraud are the Russian version of the most widespread procedure in the United States for putting Mafioso behind bars. They are almost never tried for murder, causing physical harm in shakedowns or similar activities which they, of course, practice with abandon. Jury trials for such crimes would face enormous obstacles of evidence gathering from the omerta, the sworn silence within and around the criminal world. Instead, mafia figures are put away for years if not decades on charges of perjury or of tax evasion which are much easier for the federal authorities to document beyond any reasonable doubt.
Navalny’s sentencing comes against the background of an evident government crackdown on the more diffuse sedition that has just been denounced by the President as Fifth Column activities. Yes, part of this crackdown has been the long-awaited closing down of radio station Ekho Moskvy and television (internet) broadcaster Dozhd. These stations had been deeply resented by patriotic Russian elites for their editorial lines discrediting the country and its leadership at every turn. Ekho Moskvy had been financed by a Gazprom subsidiary for the sake of giving the Liberal loudmouths a place to let off steam. But that policy was no longer tenable under conditions of the present life-or-death struggle of Russia versus the U.S.-led Collective West which has the name of the Russia-Ukraine War. Meanwhile, the opposition print outlet Novaya Gazeta has been issued with a formal warning by the media monitor. Nobel Prize in the pocket of its editor or no, that newspaper may very well be forced to shut down in the weeks ahead.
Does the crackdown on free speech mean that Russia is on the path to Soviet style totalitarianism? Of course, the answer is “no.” The state broadcasters still air divergent views on panel discussions. Nearly all global news providers are accessible throughout Russia via satellite or cable subscriptions. And by general agreement, the internet remains largely open to the world. The exceptions, bans on social networks like Facebook, have been brought down on their heads by the flagrant challenges to Russian sensibilities of their top management by allowing messages calling for the death of Russians to be posted on their platforms.
Navalny was treated with great indulgence back in 2011 when he openly engaged in sedition. That was still a time when Russia tried hard to adhere to rules of Liberal Democracy which states in the West were often disregarding without “consequences.” Remember that in virtually the same time frame, Occupy Wall Street, a seditious movement in the United States, was brutally crushed by police measures. Demonstrators in New York who were swept up and taken to prison for interrogation were threatened with years of deprivation of liberty for their very minor infractions of civic order. You needed a good lawyer to get out of this trap, as I heard at the time from some relatives living in New York who fell into police hands.
Today is a different day in Russia from 2011, and the limitations placed on the personal liberties of Russians result directly from the enormous pressure being applied on Russia economically, politically and militarily by the U.S.-led West. Personal freedoms everywhere in the world do well in conditions of peace and prosperity; they wilt in conditions of war and belt-tightening. ©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022