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The Suspended Martyrdom of Russia's Alexey Navalny

Cartoon Alexey Navalny, animated by YouTube user KuTstupid, 22 August 2013, screen capture.

Cartoon Alexey Navalny, animated by YouTube user KuTstupid, 22 August 2013, screen capture.

After his tumultuous guilty verdict and five-year prison sentence last July, a court on October 17 decided to suspend Alexey Navalny's sentence, leaving the Russian opposition's most prominent leader on probation but free. While Russian law forbids convicted felons from running for or holding elected office, the suspended sentence does allow Navalny considerable flexibility [ru] to remain engaged in Moscow and national politics. In less than a week, for instance, Navalny launched a new citizen initiative [ru] against a government plan to freeze the pension system's private savings accounts.

Suspicious about the Russian legal system and its reasons for the suspended sentence, many Russians remain confused about why the Kirov court lowered the severity of the punishment handed down to Navalny. Was it an effort to boost the business community's confidence in Russia's lagging economy, as newspaper Vedomosti suggested? Was it part of a larger plan to bring Navalny into the fold of the established political world, eroding his credibility as an oppositionist? 

Not surprisingly, the RuNet is abuzz with speculation, opinion, and theories about Navalny's suspended sentence. LiveJournal user teh_nomad even compiled [ru] tweets from several politicians, journalists, and others.

Ilya Yashin, an opposition political activist, tweeted:

The verdict essentially amounts to political isolation. Navalny is not free to travel around the country or the world. And he cannot participate in elections.

Television celebrity Ksenia Sobchak lamented:

Innocent people get a suspended sentence (i.e., are declared guilty), Alexey will not be able to participate in the elections, and we, it turns out, are happy about it.

Navalny-supportive journalist Oleg Kashin summed up Navalny's sentence in a one-word tweet that read: УСЛОВНЫЙ (SUSPENDED).

Elsewhere on Russian Twitter, opinions were diverse as they were numerous. User Dmitriy Zykov underscored the darker side of Navalny's political platform, namely his borderline xenophobic views about Russia's southern territories:

Navalny is needed as a mediator between the government and the protesters, in order to tell us from the podium: “The blacks are to blame for everything” and “Let's dissolve [the Russian Federation's inclusion of the Muslim North Caucasus].”

On the other hand, Kirill Martynov, a lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, thought Navalny's reaction to the Biryulevo riots demonstrated his ascension to a new, more refined social status:

Now we should see a new, well-kept, kind Navalny. His first comments in this new role were delivered the other day, on the subject of Biryulevo.

Journalist Olga Kuzmenkova wrote that witnesses to the announcement of Navalny's suspended sentence had feared the worst:

In short, so that you understand the situation: the lawyers, defendents, wives, and a large group of journalists were certain, that this was the end.

Mikhail Prokhorov wrote [ru] on Facebook about the two sides of Navalny's suspended sentence:

Навальный остается на свободе, это хорошо, Алексея можно только поздравить. На мой взгляд, приговор отражает уровень компромисса между разными группами высшей бюрократии и ручной характер управления судебной системой в России. Телефонное право никто не отменял, и на событиях, развернувшихся вокруг Навального, мы это отчетливо видим: посадили на невероятный срок, выпустили по ходатайству прокуратуры, что само по себе нонсенс, отпустили на свободу, но с условным сроком. Такой приговор демонстрирует узкий коридор, в котором вынуждена действовать оппозиция. Условный срок — это признание, что фактически преступления не было, но политика, которого теперь сделали всероссийски известным, сохраняют в подвешенном состоянии — с возможностью в любой момент отправить в зону.

Navalny remains free, this is good, and we can only congratulate Alexey. In my view, the sentence reflects a degree of compromise between the different groups of the higher bureaucracy and the manual-control nature of the judicial system in Russia. [Soviet-era] “telephone justice” hasn't gone anywhere, and, in the events that unfolded around Navalny, we can see clearly: he received an unbelievable sentence, he was released at the request of the prosecutor's office (which is itself nonsense), and he was ultimately released, but with a suspended sentence. This verdict demonstrates the narrow corridor through which the opposition is forced to act. A suspended sentence is a recognition that there was in fact no crime, but the politician, whom they've now made famous throughout Russia, is held in limbo—with the possibility that they'll send him back to the slammer at any moment.

Eduard Limonov, 29 March 2013, YouTube screen capture.

Eduard Limonov, 29 March 2013, YouTube screen capture.

Meanwhile, Russian writer and political dissident Eduard Limonov's reaction was characteristically bizarre and disparaging:

[Internet] hamsters! Your Cinderella—Alexey Navalny—has become a princess! Celebrate, hamsters! Everyone to [cafe] Jean-Jacques. A strudel for each man!

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