Earlier this week, Russia was hit by the one of the biggest waves of anti-government protests it had seen in half a decade, with events attended by thousands of demonstrators in over 100 cities across the country. Police arrested an estimated 1,000 protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone. Among them was the chief architect of the demonstrations: the activist, opposition leader, and presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny.
At this point, Navalny, the charismatic lawyer-turned-activist politician is no stranger to Russia’s corrupt criminal-justice system. Since he first came into the public eye around seven years ago and began using publicly available information to expose the theft and fraud so common among Russia’s ruling class, it has been easy to lose count of how many times he’s been detained, arrested, or prosecuted on trumped up charges. Following his most recent arrest this past Monday, a court sentenced him to 30 days in prison for organizing an unauthorized protest. (In Russia, all protests must be state-approved and take place in state-designated areas.) He seemed unfazed by the conviction, playfully complaining that his sentence meant he’d miss an upcoming Depeche Mode concert.
Before this week’s protests, similar demonstrations had taken place on March 26, in direct response to a documentary about former Russian president and current prime minister Dmitri Medvedev that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation produced and released. The film, Don’t Call Him “Dimon,” alleges that Medvedev has used his positions of power to secretly acquire massive amounts of money and property, including a giant yacht, mountain estates, and even Tuscan villas and vineyards. It also demonstrates how Navalny, who is blacklisted from appearing on state television channels, has become adept and skillful in his use of alternative and social media:
Navalny’s activities have not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin and its supporters. Before Monday’s arrest, he’d been jailed for two weeks as punishment for the March 26 protests. And in apparent retaliation for the video and demonstrations, he was attacked not far from his offices at the end of April. The perpetrators threw a toxic, green, Soviet-era antiseptic in his face, leaving him mostly blind in one eye and requiring him to fly to Spain for surgery last month. He has accused the FSB and state security services of direct involvement in the attack.
And this is hardly the only price Navalny has had to pay for his activism. After all, along with the late Boris Nemtsov, he was one of the primary organizers behind the anti-Kremlin demonstrations that saw as many as 100,000 Muscovites gather in the city’s Bolotnaya Square in December 2011 to protest falsified parliamentary elections. As those protests continued in later months, tens of thousands came out to march against the Putin regime’s remaining in power. Unfortunately, their efforts were for naught. And three months after Putin’s tainted reelection in 2012, prosecutors brought bizarre and convoluted charges against Navalny that involved his stealing from and defrauding a state-run timber company. Although he dismissed the charges as completely baseless, Navalny was convicted of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended sentence in July 2013. The conviction meant that he would be barred from running for office under the Russian constitution. He appealed, and eventually the Russian Supreme Court ordered that he be retried following a European Court of Human Rights ruling that his rights had been violated. The retrial, however, went exactly as expected, ending once again in conviction with a judgment copied almost verbatim from the 2013 original.
At this point, it’s hard to see how Navalny will ever become Russia’s president. Even if he were to eschew the voter fraud, intimidation, and other election interference that has come to characterize his regime, Putin would still retain more popularity among the Russian electorate than many Western analysts care to admit. Moreover, it seems nearly certain that Navalny won’t even be allowed on the ballot. On Wednesday night, Russian election commission chief Ella Pamfilova confirmed as much, citing the reaffirmation of his 2013 conviction as barring him from registering to run. Don’t think this means that he’ll give up, however. As the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has written, “Navalny has perfected the art of living as if Russia were a normal country.” For him, falsified convictions just don’t factor into the equation.
To be sure, Navalny is politically imperfect from a Western perspective. On foreign policy, for instance, he called for recognizing the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia immediately following the 2009 Russian aggression in Georgia, and he would prefer to hold a second referendum in Crimea rather than returning it to Ukraine outright. But most other prominent Russian critics of Putin have either been killed or forced into exile in recent years. Whatever his faults, Navalny remains the best hope to cultivate rule of law and liberalize Russia’s economy and political system. At this point, all that Kremlin opponents can do is act as if that’s still possible.