Why Aleksei Navalny's Trial Will Define Putin's Third Term

His case is sending a message that the Kremlin is frightened of a blogger with a cult following who made his name exposing graft in high places.
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Russian political and social activist Aleksei Navalny speaks during an opposition protest in central Moscow December 5, 2011. (Reuters)

It's always interesting when officials get caught telling the truth.

In a recent interview with the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin pretty much admitted that the criminal case against anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny is politically motivated.

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"When somebody is constantly attracting attention to himself and even mocking the authorities, claiming he is so pure, then interest in his past increases and the process of exposing it is accelerated," Markin said.

Navalny's trial on charges that, while working as an unpaid advisor to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, he organized the theft of 16 million rubles from a state-owned timber company is set to begin on April 17.

Navalny has dismissed the charges as "ridiculous" and, in an effort to make a public case for his innocence, posted all the case materials online.

There are bank documents, and we show those documents to everybody: to the investigation, to the public, to everyone. And everybody, apart from the investigation... said, 'oh God this has been totally fabricated.' But the investigation is not interested in this," Navalny said in an interview with Reuters .

The fact that the Kremlin has decided to go ahead and prosecute a case against Navalny that has been dropped numerous times due to lack of evidence is a sign of the times. Like the prosecution of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky a decade ago, it has the potential to be an era-defining event.

"It may not be the trial of the century, but it could be the trial of the decade in terms of defining what is going to happen [in the coming years]," Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," said recently on the Power Vertical podcast .

Indeed, Navalny's trial could turn out to be the mirror image of the 2003 Khodorkovsky case, which helped consolidate and strengthen Vladimir Putin's ruling elite by sending a message that politically uncooperative tycoons would be dealt with harshly.

Khodorkovsky's prosecution also played well with the public, which was weary of the wild capitalism of the 1990s and supportive of cracking down on the oligarchs who defined that era.

The Navalny case is doing the opposite. It is fracturing the elite and sending a message that the Kremlin is desperate and frightened of a blogger with a cult following who made his name exposing graft in high places.

"Navalny is a far far more dangerous enemy/victim for the state than any they've taken on so far," Galeotti said.

"In prison, Khodorkovsky has been able to reinvent himself as a liberal martyr, but at the time [of his prosecution] he was just one more of these arrogant get-rich-quick oligarchs. [Here] you have a very weak case and you've got a Kremlin with less credibility."

Navalny, Galeotti adds "is not a man who enriched himself obscenely, this is a man who has gone after corrupt officials." Moreover, the trial will give the PR-savvy Navalny "the platform to create his own narrative" and define himself before the public.

In fact, he is already doing so. In media interviews he has showcased his modest lifestyle . He has stressed that he will continue to expose corruption , even if he has to do it from behind bars. And he recently admitted that he wanted to someday seek the presidency to continue his antigraft fight and change the way that Russia is ruled.

And he is seeking to frame the trial as a David and Goliath showdown, pitting an honest blogger against Putin's overbearing Kremlin monolith, which "will destroy anybody who opposes Putin being a lifelong president."

And at least publicly, he appears to be accepting the inevitability of a guilty verdict and the possibility of a long prison sentence stoically.

"I understood that this would happen," he told Reuters. "I perfectly understood that I was fighting against people who stole billions and have seized power in a vast country. And I understood that these people would defend their right to steal those billions. And they will not give up just like that."

Navalny's case is about to join last year's Pussy Riot trial and the ongoing prosecutions of the May 6, 2012 protestors on Bolotnaya Square as defining events of Putin's third term in the Kremlin.

And if the 2003 Khodorkovsky trial, regardless of its merits, showcased a confident and ascendant regime, these cases are exposing one that is exhausted, frightened, and increasingly desperate.


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