On Sunday, Russian authorities blocked a Facebook page created in solidarity of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is perhaps President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critic. The move came two days after prosecutors requested a ten-year jail sentence for Navalny (and eight years for his brother Oleg) on counts of embezzling 27 million rubles, prompting at least 12,000 people to say they would attend a protest announced via Facebook. Russia’s communications regulator released a statement on Saturday indicating that access may be blocked to Facebook pages that “contain calls to unauthorised mass events”.
It’s no surprise that Navalny is in the spotlight again. The oppo leader has long been battling what many view to be politically motivated charges. Navalny first attracted the Kremlin – and Putin’s – attention in the winter of 2011, when the vocal anti-corruption blogger played a leading role in anti-government protests in Moscow. In 2013, he narrowly escaped jail time on similar charges of fraud. After running for Moscow mayor (and coming in second despite an intense smear campaign), Navalny was given a suspected jail term for embezzlement and has been living under house arrest ever since. (Prosecutors decided to prolong his house arrest to February 15). So why the renewed attack on an opposition leader that is in many ways neutralized, or at the least barred from running from office? Especially since the Kremlin has been known to show laxity towards outspoken opposition figures, notably Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch who was pardoned last year after spending ten years in jail.
Of course, all that was before the ruble plummeted last week, along with confidence in the Russian president. Now, much of Putin’s attention has been refocused on the home front in an attempt to reassure his spooked constituency. Starting with quieting his critics and and clamping down on internet freedoms. (Here the specter of an Arab Spring-style uprising is omnipresent, at least in the minds of Putin and his inner circle). The new rumblings couldn’t come at a worse time. Putin is struggling to maintain his bellicose image on the international stage and hold on to Crimea — even as that region is costing Russia billions of dollars. At the same time, the ruble has dropped to become one of the weakest currencies in the world. So, yes, a tough line at home could boost the president’s faltering image – after all, it has in the past. And once again Putin is relying on romanticized allusions to the Stalin era, notably comparing the opposition to the “fifth column,” a term used to describe traitors, to appeal to his conservative support base.
But Navalny always does best when under direct attack from the Kremlin. Already he has lashed out against Facebook for acquiescing to government demands to block certain sites. And the controversy looks to be gathering international legs. Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted: “We all make mistakes. @facebook should correct theirs in Russia asap. Current action – horrible precedent & bad for business.” Furthermore, Russian netizens are gearing up for a new protest on January 15 – the day of Navalny’s verdict. While a popular, wide-scale uprising is unlikely, the risk for Putin is that by targeting Navalny — who has a strong support base in urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg but remains relatively unknown in the Russian hinterlands — the president may be raising the oppo leader’s profile and, in the process, facilitating the rise of a viable rival.