Russian opposition leader, Nationalist, and Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, has had a busy month in court, appearing for both his parole violation case and for charges of defamation. Navalny has claimed both cases are attempts by the Russian government to silence any opposition. His supporters have responded as well by taking to the streets although thousands have been arrested for doing so.
In August 2020, Navalny was the victim of attempted murder through the use of a nerve agent, Novichok, applied to his underwear. Navalny, as well as many other observers, believe that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), was responsible for the attack. Navalny has been a long-term critic of the Russian government, Putin, and Russian Oligarchs who he claims are all highly corrupt and will do anything to keep the money and power for themselves. These claims, as well as growing popular support, put him in the crosshairs of a state which is been known for silencing those who oppose the status quo. Following the poisoning, while in a coma, Navalny was taken to Berlin for treatment that saved his life.
On 17 January 2020, Navalny returned to Russia post-recovery, knowing he was going to be arrested upon his return, which proven the moment he made it through customs. Navalny was initially reprimanded in a makeshift court erected in a police station. This last-minute hearing handed down a 30-day sentence which was to be re-evaluated. Navalny and his team labeled this as a “mockery of justice”. The charges that the state brought against Navalny in this initial trial, and in his main trial on 2 February 2020, were of violating the terms of a probation order that was handed out for fraud-related charges in 2014. He violated this order by failing to report to his parole officer twice a month.
Navalny argues this was only the case as he was in Berlin and in a coma after being poisoned by those prosecuting him. He insists that once he awoke from his coma, he sent the authorities constant notifications of his whereabouts. The court ruled that Navalny had violated his probation order, no matter the reason for the violation, and sentenced him to three and a half years in prison. However, since he was under house arrest in 2014, he was ordered to serve two years and eight months in a penal colony.
Following his sentencing, Navalny appeared back in court on 5 February 2021 under charges of criminal libel. The case surrounds a video released by the Kremlin in June of 2020 that promoted Constitutional amendments that would adapt the term limits of the president. In the video, Russian celebrities appeared in support of the amendments. Navalny labeled those who appeared in the video as “corrupt hacks” and discussed Ignat Artemenko, a famous World War II veteran, in more detail. When discussing Artemenko’s involvement in the video Navalny stated:
“It’s not just that you are using this poor man as a puppet. The question is: Who are the fascists? Who are the political whores? His relatives are trading on him to get money and are bullying him.”
The kind of speech that Navalny used to describe the veteran is not common in Russiaas questioning the character of a veteran, especially a WWII veteran, is unthinkable. Navalny argues that the libel charges brought against him are part of a “PR Trial” by the Kremlin to discredit him as someone who would attack the character of a war veteran.
During the trial, Navalny alleges that Artemenko was reading from a piece of paper and that he was being instructed to testify against Navalny. His case was bolstered by conflicting testimony which suggested Artemenko was not responsible for the filing of the complaint against Navalny. Upon hearing the conflicting testimony in court, the prosecution requested that the court be adjourned, which was granted.
Prior to the court convening on 16 February 2020, there had been some speculation from news outlets in the United States and the UK on the type of sentence prosecutors would request from the court. Many global news sources reported that Navalny could face more time in prison for this charge.
Indeed, Russian slander laws were amended in late 2020 to impose potential prison time, rather than just a fine and community service as had been the case before. Navalny had been a vocal critic of this new law as he believed it could be used by the state against its critics. This change in statute is relevant for Navalny’s case as the new sentence is only relevant for offenses carried out after the law was imposed. His lawyers were quick to correct the media, making clear that a prison sentence was not on the table. When the prosecution requested a sentence of ₽950,000 (GBP 9,300), it was not unexpected for Navalny and his team. Navalny was later found guilty on 20 February 2020 and ordered to pay ₽850,000 (GBP 8,160).
The response to Navalny’s trials from the international community has been one of round condemnation. The US, European Union, and other leaders from around the world have criticised the trial as a human rights violation by Russia to silence political opposition and have called for Navalny.'s release. A senior envoy for the EU visited Moscow to discuss Navalny’s case with the Kremlin, attempting to negotiate his release and human rights reform. In response, Russia has labeled the criticism “hysteria” and has cracked down on protests from Navalny’s supporters by carrying out mass arrests.
This international response evokes parallels to Cold War policies of supporting preferred nationalists in domestic politics and on the international stage. Instead of starting a coup, the US, UK, and EU are attempting to raise public sentiment around their preferred leader and against the Russian system. Navalny is no paragon of the “liberal democratic” values as many of these states backing him espouse. Navalny has made comments in the past, which he has never retracted, in support of Russian ultra-nationalist ideals such as mass deportations from Russia, a Russian ethnostate, and mass gun ownership. His policy positions of the past decade have shifted to become more socially and economically liberal, but his previous statements have never been denounced and he has voiced that he will not apologise for them.
Journalists from The Times have claimed that the alleged “PR trial” has worked with Amnesty International to adapt their classification of Navalny to no longer describe him as a “prisoner of conscience”. They claim that the removal of such a classification is exactly what Putin wants and will only help prevent Navalny from leading Russia in the future. This is because his classification as a “prisoner of conscience” meant that Amnesty and other human rights groups dedicate specific resources to campaigning for their release. Without these resources, The Times argues that Navalny’s case will not receive enough support.
Many international supporters of Navalny glorify him and his actions and treat their support as a binary issue where it is a choice between either him or Putin. In fact, the position of Amnesty International poses a nuanced position, balancing Navalny’s past and his beliefs with his treatment within the Russian political and legal systems. This nuanced position presents him as a viable opposition within Russia, being treated unjustly by the legal and political system, but not a saint to be placed on a pedestal as many have done.
Ultimately, Navalny is being persecuted by the state for his political opposition and facing legal backlash other defendants would not receive. This should undoubtedly be campaigned against by human rights groups and his supporters. However, the international community would be wise to approach him as a cautious ally and remember that the enemy of one's enemy is not always a friend.