Just before the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison, he stood up and addressed not just the nervous young judge but the bailiffs, the prosecutors in their sky-blue polyester uniforms, and the cameras. He had been convicted on a convoluted embezzlement charge involving a lumber company in the Kirov region called Kirovles. (The allegations were so complex that Navalny’s allies started simplifying the charge to “stealing a forest.”)
“Despite the fact that you put me here in the defendant’s seat, my colleagues and I will end up defending you against this feudal government,” Navalny said. “I declare that we will do everything in order to destroy this feudal system in Russia. ... We will not allow this bunch of freaks to continue to force our people to drink and decay in poverty.”
The judge ignored the impassioned last stand, read the verdict in the manner of a shy hog auctioneer, and Navalny was handcuffed in front of his stunned wife and led out of the courtroom.
That was in July 2013. Three and a half years later, on February 8, 2017, a different nervous-looking judge found Navalny guilty of perpetrating the very same fabricated scheme to steal the very same forest.
This time, when Navalny—who was trained as a lawyer—got up to give his closing argument, he took stock of all that had changed, and all that hadn’t, in the intervening years. “I started this morning by looking at my old closing statement in the first case of Kirovles,” he said. “Today, we counted it: In the last four years, this is my seventh closing argument.”
In the last four years, a lot has happened for Navalny. That summer of 2013, thousands of opposition-minded Muscovites poured into the streets, shocked by the sight of their flag bearer being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. At the time, Navalny was running for mayor of Moscow, and the Kremlin wanted the election to seem as clean as possible—even if it made sure he lost. The point was to avoid the kinds of mass protests that followed the crudely falsified parliamentary elections of December 2011. So the authorities let Navalny out, changed his five-year prison term to five years probation, and let him continue challenging the Kremlin’s candidate, the incumbent Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Navalny of course lost in the end, but he came uncomfortably close to forcing Sobyanin into a run-off. At that point, the Kremlin seems to have decided that using Navalny as window dressing might shatter the whole fragile and carefully crafted façade of Russian electoral pseudopolitics.
In the last four years, Navalny has appealed the first Kirovles verdict all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights (which found that the Russian court violated Navalny’s rights) and to the Russian Supreme Court, which overturned it in November 2016. Navalny immediately declared that he would run for president in 2018 against Vladimir Putin, who is running for his fourth term. He did this at that precise moment because a Russian citizen cannot run for office while serving a sentence for a serious crime. Which is exactly why the Russian state immediately relaunched the Kirovles case.
It is also why, in the last four years, the Kremlin has decided to make absolutely sure that Navalny could not do to Putin what he did to Sobyanin. The leader of a nation does not get forced it into a run-off, and this leader happens to be a former KGB officer who lives the agency’s core modus operandi of eliminating all possible risks. And so, between the 2013 Kirovles verdict and Wednesday’s reprise, Navalny has also been forced to give a closing statement at five other unrelated show trials in five other cases.
These have been cobbled together so shoddily that, in a 2014 case in which Navalny and his younger brother Oleg allegedly defrauded the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, the company protested that it had not even been defrauded and had no claim against the Navalnys. And that time, Putin, who has made sure the judiciary is not independent and whose cronies pressure judges in politically sensitive cases, also made sure that no one would come into the streets if Navalny were convicted. And so instead of throwing Navalny in jail and risking protest, the authorities gave Navalny probation but sent his brother to a prison camp, where he has complained of being the target of unduly harsh, sadistic treatment—a hostage to his brother’s political ambitions.
In the last four years, Navalny has served a year of house arrest (for yet another case) and has been barred from leaving the country. But at the same time, his organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has continued to publish reports exposing the disproportionate, and ostensibly ill-gotten, wealth of some of the most powerful Russian government officials. In one report, he and his foundation revealed that Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s socialite spokesman, wore a $600,000 watch to his wedding, even though that price was four times Peskov’s official salary. (Peskov reluctantly admitted to the watch, but said it was a gift from his new wife, a celebrity figure skater.)
Navalny made sure to mention all of this in Wednesday’s closing statement. “Four years ago, I announced here, addressing the court and the prosecution [and] those who ordered this trial, that we will not stop our investigative work, we will not stop our fight against corruption,” he said. “We won’t stop anything. And now, with a sense of deep satisfaction, I can say that I tried to fulfill this promise. … We showed their riches, we showed how they robbed our wonderful country. I think we were very convincing in these exposés. We are involved in politics; I’m participating in elections. I have done everything that I promised here.”
The statement was strikingly similar to the one he gave in that same courtroom four years ago, hitting the same themes and making the same promises to fight on and take back the country, appealing even to the bailiffs to shake off their complacency and fight the power. After not being allowed to call a single witness, Navalny walked away with the same sentence he ultimately got in the last Kirovles trial: five years probation, which would disqualify him from running against Putin in 2018. And just like last time, he vowed to appeal. His campaign website immediately posting a legal argument explaining why he could still run.
And just like last time, Navalny’s closing statement—poignantly called “the last word” in Russian—didn’t make it onto national television, and in Russia that means it basically never happened. According to local polls, nearly all Russians use television as their main source of news, and the overwhelming majority of them trust what they see on their screens—and what appears on them is tightly regulated by the Kremlin.
Navalny is not allowed on Russian television, but his seven trials have been extensively reported on. He may be popular with the urban elite who shun state television—and gave him nearly a third of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections—but only a third of Russians even know who he is, and many understandably eye him warily. He is, after all, a convicted criminal. In the last four years, the gap in his popularity has only grown as the manufactured cases and show trials did their work. In a poll taken in February 2014, 10 percent of Russians who responded said they did not trust Navalny. Two years later, that number was up to 15.
Four years ago, when Navalny gave his first “last word,” the opposition was rapt, watching it on various live streams, shocked and pained at seeing him marched off to jail. Given the last four years, none of what’s happening today is surprising. Not the obscene corruption in the Russian government, not the outrageous cases against Navalny that the Kremlin churns out. The imprisonment of Navalny’s brother, who had nothing to do with his brother’s political activity, broke the opposition’s spirit—as did the jailing of three dozen protesters following the failure of the pro-democracy protest movement of 2011-2012. The murder of Boris Nemtsov, who can be seen typing in his phone during Navalny’s first “last word,” sealed the coffin of the opposition’s will to fight.
Navalny may run, or the state may keep him off the ballot, but it won’t change anything. Putin has swept the field of any rivals, controls the state’s electoral apparatus, and has basked in glowing TV coverage for 16 years. He will win regardless. Retrying and resentencing Navalny was just another way to eliminate any risk, albeit lazily. The judge in the case didn’t even bother writing up a new decision. He just read the same one from four years ago, typos and all.