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Russia Sentenced an Opposition Leader's Brother to a Labor Camp and It's Already Backfiring

This is likely to prove counter-productive—vindictive enough to anger Alexei Navalny, but not enough to silence him.

Alexei Navalny campaigning for mayor of Moscow in 2013. Photo via Flickr user Aleksey Ruban

The conclusion of a controversial trial in Moscow has proven that there is one thing more heinous in Vladimir Putin's eyes than being a high-profile opposition figure, and that is to be his brother. In a sentencing moved up to Tuesday in hopes of wrong-footing protesters, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny received a three-and-a-half year suspended sentence on questionable fraud and money-laundering charges, but his brother Oleg was sentenced to serve in a labor camp for the same period.


This is likely to prove counter-productive—vindictive enough to anger Navalny, yet not enough to silence him.

Navalny, who came to prominence with the unexpected explosion of a middle-class anti-Putin protest movement during the 2011-12 presidential election campaign, is perhaps the most persistent and painful thorn in Putin's side. He has focused squarely on corruption, and thanks to a series of leaks, whistleblowers and inspired investigations, he has been able to publicize the cronyism and lavish lifestyles of the Russian elite and even make some noise before the global PR bonanza that was the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

As a result, the government has repeatedly sought to silence him. Navalny had been arrested and given minor sentences on numerous occasions, such that Amnesty International designated him a prisoner of conscience. The powerful Investigative Committee—a body broadly similar to the office of the US attorney general—made him a particular target, especially at the urging of its head, Alexander Bastrykin, who has a personal rivalry with Navalny. An investigation into alleged embezzlement in a logging company was closed for lack of evidence and then re-opened on Bastrykin's orders. Even though the alleged victim of the fraud, a regional governor, asserted that no money had been stolen, in 2013, Navalny was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Unexpectedly, the sentence was later suspended.


If the Kremlin hoped this would chasten Navalny, they were disappointed. He joined Moscow's mayoral elections that summer, coming in second despite being excluded from the mainstream—government-controlled/influenced—media. He continued to criticize elites and expose abuses by senior business and political figures.

Meanwhile, a second fraud case was being prepared against him by the Investigative Committee. Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused of overcharging a Russian subsidiary of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, even though it subsequently withdrew a complaint against the two men. This led to Navalny being placed under house arrest in February, although he maintained his ongoing political campaign—not for any office so much as broad reform—both directly and through his supporters.

There was little doubt as to the outcome of the trial given the extent to which the Russian judiciary is not exactly independent of the government. Still, it's highly unusual to see a trial expedited at the last minute, in this case just before the extended Russian New Year holiday.

Navalny's suspended sentence means that he will be barred from potentially standing in 2016's elections to the Duma, Russia's parliament. However, his future campaigning is likely to be more meaningfully overshadowed by the fate of his brother, Oleg. Even though the prosecutor had requested a lighter punishment for him, the decision to imprison Oleg means that the authorities will have the opportunity to make his life either easier or harder, with options ranging from early release all the way to transfer to a tougher regime labor colony. Navalny made no bones that he felt his brother was now a hostage for his behavior. Indeed, Oleg himself had predicted this in an earlier interview: "We absolutely knew that sooner or later this all would touch us… It is easy to influence a person through his family."

But early indications are that Navalny is unlikely to moderate his activism. If anything, he seems incensed by the treatment of his brother and called "on everyone to go to the streets until the authorities, who are grabbing and torturing innocent people, are ousted." While the logic behind moving up the sentencing seems to have been to preempt protests scheduled for the original date, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people braved a massive police operation in response to Navalny's appeal to attend an unofficial demonstration Tuesday night at the Manezh Square, close to the Kremlin. Navalny himself tried to attend, but was arrested along with dozens of other activists; it is unclear whether he will be charged, but the usual police tactic is to detain and then release him once the protest is concluded. (Indeed, the latest report from Interfax suggests Navalny is merely being "escorted home" by cops.)

The Kremlin has so far neither been able to intimidate Navalny nor buy him off. All the same, it is a mark of the general mood of uncertainty that Russian elites have managed to adopt a counter-productive compromise between those in the halls of power who want a tough crackdown on the opposition movement and those worried about the implications, especially in the current climate of economic crisis and international condemnation. Hawks such as Mikhail Markelov, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia bloc, think this doesn't go far enough. He has called for the sentence to be increased on appeal. Nor are the more liberal elements of the government or the business community happy with the outcome. Indeed, the latter are now especially worried, given the extent to which the legal system is often used as a weapon of commercial rivalries in today's Russia. Until now, it has been tacitly accepted that family members were off limits, but Oleg Navalny's fate could mean everyone is fair game. At a time when the ruble is under pressure, capital flight is soaring, and general confidence is dropping, this is not just a story about the fate of one charismatic anti-corruption campaigner, but one about the credibility of the regime as a whole.

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