The decision of a Russian appeals court to suspend the five-year jail sentence for opposition leader Alexei Navalny is undoubtedly a relief to Navalny’s friends and family. But it is not a triumph for the rule of law.
Navalny, Russia’s most prominent anti-corruption campaigner, was charged with embezzling $500,000 worth of timber from the state lumber company in Kirov when he worked as an adviser to the governor of the Kirov region in the late 2000s. Navalny denied these charges and they were thrown out by the Russian prosecutor.
Nonetheless, Navalny was convicted on these charges after they were resurrected, and that conviction stands. Because of the appeals court’s decision, he will not go to jail. But he is effectively prevented from making good on his plans to run for president in the 2018 election. This is probably the most important reason why the charges were brought in the first place.
The case demonstrates the authorities’ talent for manipulation. Sending Navalny to prison for five years would have risked creating a martyr. Retaining the conviction but vacating the sentence gets him out of the way without turning him into a hero. The crux of the case is that the authorities used the judicial system to neutralize a serious political rival and there is every prospect that, faced with other challenges, they will behave in the same way again.
— David Satter is affiliated with the Hudson Institute, Johns Hopkins University and the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past. This has been amended since posted.