If Aleksei Navalny Goes to Prison, Will He Become More Popular?

If the opposition activist is jailed even as he manages to convince the public that he is innocent, his stature will only grow.

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Police detain opposition leader Aleksei Navalny during a rally in central Moscow on December 15, 2012. (Reuters)

Aleksei Navalny says he is prepared to go to prison. But he is also determined to make sending him there as painful and costly as possible for the Kremlin.

One round in Navalny's long-running battle with the Kremlin will be decided in a courtroom in Kirov Oblast, where the trial that could land him a 10-year sentence is scheduled to begin on April 17. In that venue the outcome is likely preordained.

But the enduring part of the Navalny saga, the part that will have potentially long-term political implications, will be determined in the hearts-and-minds struggle to define him in the public imagination.

And it is here where the crafty anticorruption blogger and opposition figure just might have an edge -- even as he is being smeared by the state-controlled media

Last week, Navalny posted all the case materials from his upcoming trial online and used his blog and Twitter feed to urge the public to make up its own mind about his guilt or innocence.

In a recent interview with "Moskovsky komsomolets," he made a point of stressing that he has lived in the same modest apartment his whole life, drives a simple car, and sends his children to ordinary public schools.
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"This is the life of an ordinary Muscovite. And meanwhile they are telling fairy tales about how I stole millions," Navalny said.

Navalny himself says he's certain he will be convicted of organizing the theft of 10,000 metric tons of timber worth 16 million rubles ($520,000) from the state-owned KirovLes company.

"The case is ridiculous," he told "Moskovsky komsomolets." "All the evidence for the prosecution is simultaneously our evidence too, from the payments to the wiretapping by the FSB. It is immediately clear from the wiretap that I am absolutely innocent."

The case dates back to 2009, when Navalny was an unpaid adviser to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh. It has taken so many dizzying twists and turns that even somebody unfavorably disposed toward Navalny would have suspicions about the allegations' veracity.

Since the investigation was first launched in December 2011, it has been closed for lack of evidence and then reopened numerous times, most recently in April 2012 at the very public insistence of Navalny's arch-nemesis, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin.

But in the case's latest incarnation, individuals who previously testified against Navalny are suddenly being named as his co-conspirators.

"The Investigative Committee has no legal strategy. It has a PR strategy," Navalny told "Moskovsky komsomolets." "My defense against this PR is to post all the case materials on the Internet -- all the payments, all the bookkeeping."

The strategy is classic Navalny -- using his nimble online organizing skills and his army of devoted supporters to get his message out.

But it also represents something of a twist.

Up until now, Navalny excelled at this online looking-glass war by playing offense. He famously rebranded United Russia as "swindlers and thieves." He exposed Bastrykin's undeclared property in Europe and managed to dub Russia's top cop "Foreign Agent Bastrykin." He forced the issue of top officials' overseas properties into the national conversation.

But with his trial looming, and with state television certain to be repeating like a mantra that "Navalny stole 16 million," he now appears to be taking steps to define himself, to seize control of his own public image and narrative.

The authorities can, no doubt, get the verdict and the sentence they want from an expectedly obedient Kirov court -- the evidence notwithstanding.

But if they imprison Navalny even as he manages to convince a critical mass of the attentive public that he is innocent, his stature will only grow -- and take on the added glow of martyrdom.

In various interviews, including a recent one with "The New York Times," Navalny has suggested that the real goal of a conviction could be to legally disqualify him from running in the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma -- something he says he is planning on doing.

If that is the Kremlin's goal, he would likely receive a suspended sentence.

"If they give you a suspended 10-year sentence, you are sitting in a restaurant in Moscow fat and happy and cannot say the bloody regime ruined your life," he told "Moskovsky komsomolets." "But you cannot run for anything either."

But Navalny also doesn't rule out the possibility that he could be sent to prison. "There is a high probability that this will happen," he said. "The thought does not give me the slightest pleasure, but I have been ready for it for the past few years."

And even if he is sent to prison for a decade, Navalny says he believes time is on his side and he is certain that the regime will change before his term is up.

"The regime can extend and revive itself, but everyone has come to understand that it is doomed," he said. "Nevertheless, difficult times lie ahead for us for a year or two."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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