As tensions persist with Ukraine, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin looks to be continuing his crackdown on dissent back home — starting with opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose latest trial kicked off Thursday in Moscow. Navalny, who is currently on house arrest, is being tried for defrauding the French cosmetics giant Yves Rocher, two days after being convicted of slandering a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party. Navalny was also convicted Thursday of a second libel charge.
The anti-government crusader has been in the Kremlin’s crosshairs since 2011, when he led mass street protests in Moscow against Putin’s rule. The heat on Navalny intensified last summer when he was sentenced to a five-year jail term for theft — which was later suspended — during his mayoral bid in Moscow against incumbent, and Putin ally, Sergei Sobyanin. (Navalny came in second.) His libel convictions make Navalny a recidivist in the eyes of Russia’s judicial system, and could lead to his suspended sentence being reinstated, plus jail time while awaiting the outcome of his fraud trial. If convicted again, he could face as many as ten years in a prison camp.
But with Navalny confined to his home, and barred from using the social networks with which he built his support base, why bother? Perhaps because despite the string of criminal probes, Navalny has shown little sign of slowing down; if anything his anti-graft crusade has intensified, as evidenced by his recent publications about government corruption in Sochi in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics. And while he may remain unknown in much of Russia, Navalny has strong followings in urban centers, not to mention international cred. (After the Russian oppo leader published a New York Times article this March calling for Washington to sanction senior Putin allies, several of those named were indeed targeted.)
What’s more, Putin can afford a renewed crackdown on his bête noir. The president’s approval ratings have soared over his aggressive stance in Crimea, jumping from the low 70s to 80%; Putin has played off the patriotic sentiments rife in Russia right now, labeling domestic critics of his Ukraine policy — Navalny is one of them — as “traitors” and a “fifth column” comparable to the Bolsheviks.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Putin’s approval ratings pre-Crimea
In the past Putin has been forced to weigh the risks of martyrizing Navalny and shutting him up. Now, however, with attention fixed on the west, and Russia’s opposition largely demoralized, the president looks to have carte blanche on the home front. Though the latest charges against Navalny have questionable legal merit — Yves Rocher withdrew its fraud claim on Tuesday — there is little to stop the trial, or what looks to be an inevitable conviction. Navalny’s online followers have been able to muster little more than a call for a Yves Rocher boycott; authorities have blocked his anti-corruption blog. As for Navalny, it’s hard to imagine the activist avoiding jail time this time around — not with three convictions to his name, and more likely to come. It looks like Putin can not only lock up Navalny and throw away the key — but he can get away with it.