Why Jailing Navalny is a Great Idea

Earlier today, Navalny received a custodial sentence of five years for the theft of 15 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from Kirovles.

It is simply not true to say that there was “no case” against Navalny, as the Western and Russian liberal media insists on doing. There is wiretap evidence and witness testimony that Navalny and Ofitserov exploited their official positions to rewrite Kirovles supply contracts so as to have them go through VLK, a shell company that took a signicant cut for its “services.” It is also a fact that VLK was indebted to Kirovles, the state lumber company that was allegedly defrauded, to the tune of around $100,000 upon the latter’s bankruptcy.

But that, at worst, would fall under Article 165 (“causing financial loss by way of deceit and misuse of trust”), and not under Article 160 (“theft”) on which Navalny was actually convicted. At the most elementary level, how can one “steal” $5 from someone, and yet only owe him $1 at the end of it? The evidence in support of this is that Navalny actually was charged in relation to Kirovles TWICE before, but under Article 165; it was also dropped twice, which perhaps indicates that the prosecutors didn’t believe the evidence was sufficient to secure a conviction. Until, presumably, a certain political decision was taken to go ahead with the prosecution after all. A decision that Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin himself all but admitted: “But if the person in question draws attention to himself with all his strength, or we can even say, teases authority – saying that oh I am so white and flawless, then the interest in his past increases and the process of exposing it to the sunlight, understandably, accelerates.

So let’s put aside concerns about legal process, morality, and justice for a moment. Let’s even assume Navalny really was guilty of “causing financial loss by way of deceit and misuse of trust.” In short, let’s posit the most favorable possible interpretation and frame of reference as far as the Kremlin was concerned. What, exactly, does it gain by jailing Navalny on an article (“theft”) that couldn’t possibly have applied to him?

Well, let’s make a list, shall we.

(1) Proudly confirm Russia as a country where legal nihilism reigns. With Khodorkovsky, it was eminently credible that he was guilty of the charges made against him – an assessment later confirmed by the ECHR, even if neocons, faux-leftist liberals, and political shysters posing as human rights lawyers like Robert Amsterdam begged to differ. No such “defense” applies to Navalny’s conviction. Not to mention, of course, the conflict of interest involved in the IC deciding to prosecute Navalny – for real, this time – soon after he accused its head Alexander Bastrykin of having owned properties in the Czech Republic.

(2) By even further delegitimizing the Russian courts system – as if it didn’t have enough image problems already – it also undermines any other prosecutions the state might carry out. There is video evidence of Urlashov taking a bribe (even the NYT acknowledges that the case is probably legitimate); of the Bolotnaya “political prisoners” hurling stones and beating up policemen; of Udaltsov planning riots and taking money from a pro-Saakashvili Georgian. The Pussy Riot sentence of two years may have been extremely harsh, but it was undoubtedly legal; there was, furthermore, a roughly analogous case in Germany in 2006. But thanks to the Navalny mess, these cases are all going to be even further discredited together with the judicial system in general.

(3) There appears a man with a Messiah complex who claims he has “millions” behind him, but in reality enjoys the support of no more than 10% of Muscovites (and 5% of the entire country). He can’t gather enough signatures to pass the municipal filter required to participate in the Moscow elections, so you order your United Russia flunkies to help him out. He gets registered. You now have the prospect of a truly “competitive” election in in the capital – thanks to Navalny’s participation – but one that you are nonetheless all but guaranteed to win. Surely this would calm down the “hamsters.” And then, “BAHM!” Wave goodbye to that new aura of legitimacy you’d hoping for. In fact, you are now regarded by some people as a manipulative scumbag for “helping” Navalny in the first place. That is the story of Sobyanin. One almost feels sorry for him.

(4) Make a martyr out of a man with 5% approval ratings, who’s popularity has been decreasing even as his name recognition spread through Russia. It couldn’t matter less whether or not he “deserves” that status. The reality is that the PR efforts to portray Navalny as a timber chief have been entirely unsuccessful – not that surprising, really, considering the Kremlin cares so little for its image that it left its propaganda to bloggers like Stanislav Apetyan – and as such, according to opinion polls, more than half the Russian population views the Navalny case as politically motivated.

Navalny is not tainted by the mass theft and thuggery of the 1990s. He is a member of the upper middle-class who drives a fairly modest car, lives in a good but not luxurious apartment, and has a lot of things to say about corruption and bureaucrats. Yes, not all those things might be true; and you are also free not to like him for his “nationalism,” or any one of his various other political stances. Nonetheless, the fact remains that as far as most normal Russians are concerned he still cuts a vastly more sympathetic figure than Khodorkovsky, the first “martyr” of the non-systemic opposition.

(5) The street opposition has split into squabbling groups and petty infighting. The Coordinating Council has become something of a byword for ineffectiveness and political impotence, with its recent chief Treasurer suspected of stealing its funds and making off with the proceeds. So what’s a great idea? Give them something to rally over!

(6) Attendance at the Moscow protests has been dying down ever since the rally at Prospekt Sakharova in February 2012. It entered freefall since the May 6th riots, when the protesters lost a lot of goodwill from the population by getting into scuffles with the police. So what’s a great idea? Jail Navalny and incite them all out into the streets again! Why not, LOL?

(7) In recent weeks, Russia got the image and propaganda coup of a decade thanks to Snowden’s decision to stay and seek asylum there. It was entirely undeserved, of course, given the status of whistle-blower protections in Russia; that is to say, they don’t exist. Though granted, Russia was was singularly sluggish about taking full opportunity of the windfall, e.g. aggressively positioning itself as a safe haven for Western dissidents. After all, “our relations shall not be the hostage of Snowden or other US or Russia extravagant persons,” according to certain influential people linked to the Russian government.

But he might not have worried overmuch. Sandwiched as Snowden was in between the conviction of Magnitsky’s corpse and the jailing of Navalny, he might as well not have existed so far as the media narrative will be concerned in the next months. He will become one of those “extravagant persons” at the center of US – Russia relations, the latest in a long line that stretches back to encompass Magnitsky, and before him, Litvinenko, Khodorkovsky, and Berezovsky (funny, and sad, how that list progressively goes from oligarchs, to their employees, and finally to just an ordinary citizen). Defending the Kremlin’s clawback of the state from the oligarchs in the early 2000s was reasonable and proper. As regards Litvinenko and Magnitsky, the situation was a lot less clearcut, but still far too murky to make any clear judgment one way or the other. With Navalny, however, the Kremlin is now clearly in the wrong.

And so it will be Navalny! – Navalny! – Navalny! for the next months and years to come, in the absence of an (improbable) acquittal in an appeal. And unlike in earlier years, no longer unjustifiably so.

(8) But what about Serdyukov? So unfair *wah* *wah* *wah*. Well, look, unless you suffer from some infantile disorder of idealism, you will know that society is corrupt, hierarchic, and unfair. In some countries the law levels the playing field to a greater or lesser extent. In Russia, the emphasis is very much on the latter: “For my friends – everything; for my enemies – the law” might be cliche, but it is impossible to deny its continued relevance. It sometimes seems that the more you steal in Russia, the better your chances of getting away with it. Ordinary bureaucrats who have stolen orders of magnitude more than Navalny – even if we take at face value the $500,000 he was convicted of – typically get suspended sentences for their efforts (gazeta.ru has compiled a detailed list). Akhmed Bilalov, the fall guy for the Olympics cost overruns that made them the most expensive games in history, was “allowed” to emigrate to Britain. Former Moscow Mayor Luzhkov walks freely, commuting between Moscow and his mini-palace in London. The Oboronservis scandal that developed under former Defense Minsiter Serdyukov, where losses are at more than $100 million and counting – that’s more than 200 times greater than the most than the least favorable possible accounting of Navalny’s demeanours – remains at liberty as a mere suspect to the case, while his lover Elena Vasilieva who did the dirty work is under “house arrest” in a central Moscow luxury apartment with 13 rooms, and gets three hours off per day to do boutique shopping. This is all not so much even a question of “morality” as of basic legitimacy and whether such a state of affairs will continue to be tolerated indefinitely. When Putin was asked why Serdyukov wasn’t in jail at his annual Q&A by a Komsomolskaya Pravda reporter, he replied, “We don’t want another 1937.” Because, of course, imprisoning types like Luzhkov and Serdyukov for corruption is totally equivalent to rounding up and shooting hundreds of thousands of saboteurs and spies. At this rate, sooner rather later people will be DEMANDING a new 1937.

(9) Even the Prosecutor-General Office thinks Navalny’s immediate jailing is way over the top and uncalled for! So on top of reigniting opposition protests, the conviction may well have provoked an inter-siloviki scuffle as well.

(10) Last, and admittedly least, a note to the Kremlin: If you ever end up following La Russophobe’s advice, chances are it’s time to stop, and reconsider.

Power summary: If the Kremlin wanted to provoke instability both within the elite and without, invite contempt from broad swathes of otherwise neutral or apathetic social groups, and sully its image both internally and in the West for many more years to come, then jailing Navalny was a great idea. It could have hardly have chosen a better way to go about it.

The verdict is worse than petty and hypocritical. It’s incredibly stupid. I do not think it was so much a “Kremlin” decision as an initiative of the siloviki around Bastrykin, the IC, and Sechin (suffice to say that even the Prosecutor-General’s Office isn’t all that happy about it). One need hardly mention the liberal/technocratic wing of the Kremlin, which actually helped Navalny get past the municipal filter to participate in Moscow’s elections. Why would Sobyanin do that intentionally, just to come off looking as a total scumbag when Navalny was jailed and arrested? Sobyanin doesn’t need it. Even Putin doesn’t need it! As he himself might say, jailing Navalny is a lot like shearing a pig: Little fur, and a lot of squealing.

Comments

  1. John Newcomb says:

    Perhaps another point, that Bloomberg View has included, is Navalny’s nationalist stance on the Pugachev demos. One might speculate on how Pugachev could change things, both for Navalny and for Russia?

    “Putin Will Regret the Navalny Verdict”:
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-18/putin-will-regret-the-navalny-verdict.html

    • I wrote about Pugachev and Navalny here. I have no problem with the Coordinating Committee’s statement. It would be entirely in line with majority Russian sentiment on the matter.

  2. donnyess says:

    Yes it looks like a banal and ham-fisted proceding. But then, look at who’s doing all the squealing, grunting, and rooting? The guy was a loud mouth subversive; everybody knows that. Prediction: this is another story without legs.

  3. A great article.

  4. Good piece AK, you are absolutely correct in your assessment. The IC is out of control and needs to be publicly reigned in to avoid doing any more damage. But I guess it’s just a small part in a larger battle being waged. Oh well, Russia, never a dull moment!

  5. I think you are mistaken. This was a great idea, and I mean it without any irony.

    First of all, this kills Navalny as a political figure (although I stronly agree with Mark Adomanis: he was never a serious politician, but best understood as an internet troll). He can’t ever run for office again.

    Secondly, from behind bars he can’t anymore destabilize the situation in Russia through his “corruption revelations”. There might be some exesses, but same happens and has happened in every country which is developing as fast as Russia with Putin. Like Mark Adomanis put it: “corruption, nepotism, and anomie are the cruel impositions of a tyrant, but are reflective both of the underlying reality of Russian society and of trends”. Russia is on a right path. Economy is growing faster than in any other European country, Russia’s demographics have taken a serious and lasting turn to better.

    Thirdly, in the long Russia suffers no PR defeats by jailing Navalny. After all, like Mark Adomanis put it just this week, he and his so called opposition are not just nationalists, but “actually remarkably regressive and reactionary” kind. This kind of forces have no place in any multi-cultural and multi-national country.

  6. Hmmm….interesting article, but I wonder if most of what you refer to will only be temporary. After all, while the opposition might rally around Navalny for a while, I very much doubt they will keep up the tempo for 5 years. Heck, even Pussy Riot have basically fallen off of the radar screen now. Plus I’m sure the reactionary, nationalist “Liberal” opposition will soon ensure a return to the regularly scheduled programming of infighting and conflicting egos.

    On the other hand with Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot in prison there has been only token problems (mainly from the oligarch trying to carry out his aims behind prison bars). I don’t doubt for a second that if these people were not behind bars that Putin and company would be facing far more headaches as Pussy Riot would undoubtedly continue upping the ante and pushing the boundaries if they ever got away with their church “performance” and Khodorkovsky would probably be using his money to attempt to rally the Russian “liberals” behind him in a run for the presidency. In this he would no doubt be supported 101% by the United States.

  7. Dear Anatoly,

    I am struggling at the moment to find time to write my own piece on this case. I am finding it very difficult.

    What I will say at the moment is that you are making the fundamental mistake of confusing the VALUE of the goods stolen (in this case 16 million roubles) and the LOSS that KirovLes suffered. In any theft action (which is what this basically is) the only figure that matters is that of the value of the goods stolen. Theft is a crime not a civil wrong and the financial loss suffered as a result of the theft by the owner is not relevant and is not the true measure of the seriousness of the crime. This is elementary law. This is most definitely not a case that falls under Article 165, an argument which by the way Navalny himself has never made.

    I have been following the trial in detail. I have absolutely no doubt that this was a fair and properly conducted trial and that Navalny and Ofitserov were properly convicted at the end of it. The issue of legal nihilism therefore simply does not exist. Even the rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (hardly a body favourable to Russia) concede that Navalny may have broken the law. Their objection is to the scale of the sentence, which they claim is disproportionate. As to that, as I have explained repeatedly this sentence is exactly in line with the 5 year sentence a first time offender who pleaded not guilty for this offence would receive in Britain. The opinion of the rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe incidentally makes it very unlikely indeed to say the least that the European Court of Human Rights will interfere with this verdict.

    As to whether it is politically wise to send Navalny to prison, simply posing that question is to assume a political motivation behind his prosecution for which there is no evidence and which on the evidence of the conduct of the trial was simply not there. At the end of the day thousands of people are prosecuted on theft charges in Russia every year. To say that Navalny should not have been prosecuted despite the very strong case against him is to argue for selective justice in Navalny’s favour. I not only think that is wrong ethically but it also seems to me extremely unwise politically since it would all but say that the authorities are so afraid of Navalny that he is effectively above the law despite the clear evidence of wrongdoing there is against him.

    I must for once also take strong objection to your repeated comparison between the treatment extended to Navalny and that extended to Serdyukov. This is an entirely false comparison. Navalny’s case is a small case of theft. Serdyukov’s case is a massive case or to be more precise a complex web of cases, which may take years to investigate and which are still probably at an early stage in their investigation. We simply do not know at this stage what the outcome of that investigation will be and it is completely wrong to judge that investigation and its outcome now when we have no idea what the result of that investigation will be. It is not a valid argument to say that Navalny should not be prosecuted because Serdyukov so far has not been charged or prosecuted. One cannot make prosecution in one case conditional on prosecution in another totally different and completely unrelated case. That is the route to legal nihilism.

    Last but not least I am going to make a prediction. I don’t think this case is going to have anything like the political impact you fear it will. It might lead to a brief surge of sympathy for Navalny in Russia but I expect that to be limited and to have largely dissipated by the time of the Moscow mayoral elections if only because people in Moscow have no interest in electing a mayor who is heading for prison. Incidentally I interpret the decision to release Navalny on bail before his appeal as a device pressed on the prosecutors by the authorities in Moscow to make it possible for Navalny to continue with his election campaign in Moscow. The authorities do not want the idea to take hold that Navalny was convicted to prevent him from standing for election as Moscow’s mayor, especially in an election which they know he will lose, which is why we have had the bizarre manoeuvres of the last few days going back to the extraordinary decision of providing Navalny with nominations from United Russia councillors, whereby the authorities have been pulling out all the stops to deprive Navalny of an excuse to pull out of the election at the same time as Navalny himself has been looking for an excuse to do just that. As for the liberal opposition in Russia, if they want to unite behind a convicted thief who has been sent to prison for 5 years and who cannot therefore stand for election in the future, more fools they.

    Abroad the case has attracted far less interest than did Khodorkovsky’s or Magnitsky’s cases not to mention Pussy Riot’s. The European Union has already said that it will not impose any sanctions on Russia because of the verdict (an absurd idea anyway) and it is inconceivable that the US will do so either. Beyond the usual assortment of politicians and leader writers who are in the business of criticising Russia anyway and whatever it does there is absolutely no interest in Navalny’s case in the west where amongst the overwhelming majority of people he is (unlike Pussy Riot) a completely unknown and uninteresting figure. No doubt his name will regularly come up amongst the catalogue of Russia’s sins that gets recited in the west but in the minds of its authors that catalogue is already so long that his name is all but guaranteed in time to fade into obscurity.

    I am going to try my best to discuss this case fully in a detailed post on my blog. Unfortunately this has fallen at a particularly unfortunate time for me. Anyway I hope this comment gives some idea of my views.

  8. Dear Anatoly,

    It has just been pointed out to me that the reason why Navalny was released was because Article 108 of the Criminal Procedural Code of the Russian Federation precludes a person found guilty at first instance (ie. at trial) of embezzlement from being sent to prison until the sentence comes into effect ie. until determination of his appeal.

    In other words the decision to arrest Navalny following his conviction was a simple procedural error which was immediately corrected at the request of the prosecution. Significantly the defence lawyers representing Navalny and who are supposed to be acting in his interests missed the mistake. On the basis of their conduct of the trial that does not surprise me. Whilst they never plumbed the depths of the defence lawyers in the Pussy Riot case overall their conduct struck me as unimpressive. Anyway the incident serves as further evidence of the integrity of the process.

    I should say that I remain firmly of the view that the authorities in Moscow want Navalny to stand in the election and are working hard to make sure he does. I should also say I simply do not agree with your interpretation of Malkin’s remarks, which appear to me and which I am sure the European Court of Human Rights will say are innocuous. Lastly, on the subject of Navalny’s conviction uniting the opposition, it is early days but the attempt to convene a meeting of the Coordinating Committee today failed because of the inability to reach a quorum.

    • Here is the report of the rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as it appears on the Council’s website.

      http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/NewsManager/EMB_NewsManagerView.asp?ID=8945&L=2

      This differs from what was reported to me by someone acquainted with one of the rapporteurs (who is personally known to me). It has changed the report from an admission that Navalny might have broken the law to a discussion of his sentence being disproportionate on the assumption that he made a mistake. Even to mention the possibility that Navalny might have made a mistake (ie. broken the law) if only in order to challenge the length of his sentence is a significant concession coming from this source.

    • … the decision to arrest Navalny following his conviction was a simple procedural error…

      You have absolutely no clue what you’re talking about.

    • Dear Alexander,

      I very eagerly await your article, as I intensely desire to see a logical explanation of both why the case fell under 160, and why Navalny was not only sentenced under it but why his punishment deserved to be worse than 99.1% of other people convicted under the same statute.

      Moreover, if you wish/agree, I will be very happy to repost your article here so as to give it more publicity.

      This is most definitely not a case that falls under Article 165, an argument which by the way Navalny himself has never made.

      Devil’s advocate: Navalny didn’t do it because he was projecting himself as 100% innocent and absolutely above reproach. Arguing that 165 really could apply to him would have estranged his supporters many of whom see him as a Messiah.

      As to whether it is politically wise to send Navalny to prison, simply posing that question is to assume a political motivation behind his prosecution for which there is no evidence and which on the evidence of the conduct of the trial was simply not there.

      Not really, I think. You might not like it, and I appreciate it, but the objective reality is that the trial is perceived as political – and not only by liberals, but most ordinary Russians as well. As you yourself say in any case politics and public opinion are inseparable from the legal sphere anyway, whatever might be desired ideally.

      PS. I appreciate that you are very much starved for time. Please feel free not to respond/address them in your blog post.

  9. I don’t like Navalny personally. I don’t trust his ‘Yale World Fellows’ (Skull and Bones/NWO ‘vetting’?) fellowship. I think D.C.’s made strong efforts to coopt him but if La Russophobe is attacking him that may be a sign he’s shrugged off those would’ve been his Spaso House handlers. But I agree the prosecution of him looks petty and politically motivated compared to the amount of corruption in the system.

    It’s my sincere hope that he represents the beginning of a genuinely (read: not foreign funded) populist opposition in Russia. That’s definitely something Russia needs. Especially since I’m convinced there’s no way an exhausted Putin will stay on until 2024 and I think it was a mistake for VVP to take a third term even though it was Constitutional. Also grimly aware that Medvedev proved weak in the Libya crisis and there was no one else ready to step up. I still think Sergey Shoigu is being groomed to succeed Putin but the rumors about his own personal wealth accumulated during his tenure at McChs will no doubt be promoted soon.

    I had a longtime family friend who asked me my opinion of Navalny the other day. I used the analogy he would understand of a Ron Paul or a Gary Johnson — someone who has no initial chance of actually winning beyond a small scale but does plant the seeds for positive ideas to infiltrate the big party and (hopefully) take it over the next decade or more (and for my haters who would say that’s a joke, look at all the Chris Christie fury at Rand Paul in the past few weeks along with neocon trolling of him over one single aide’s now abandoned talk radio schtick — you don’t catch flak unless you’re over the target as the old WWII bomber pilots used to say).

    While that patriotic (read: not a laydown for NATO and the West) opposition vehicle won’t be United Russia, maybe something like Fair Russia that is essentially ‘Russian Gaullist’ has a shot. As Anatoly’s documented here, real libertarianism probably has little constituency in more collectively-minded Rus (if libertarians can’t win seats in essentially individualist America or have to settle for doing so in Western states under the GOP label). But there’s always hope at least in rural or Caucasian areas the People will be free to (legally) bear arms again.