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Aleksei Navalny Is Free Again—So He Can Run for Mayor, and Lose

In a dizzying reversal, Russian blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who was led out of court yesterday in handcuffs to start his five-year prison sentence, was freed today on bail after the prosecutor appealed the court's decision to arrest him, raising the question of—well, raising a whole lot of questions. 

Navalny himself was stunned. “I request that you verify the identity of Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov,” he said to the judge during this morning's hearing. “It’s possible that it is not Prosecutor Bogdanov but his double. Because it was namely Prosecutor Bogdanov demanded that I be arrested in the courtroom.”

Here's what happened.

The rumors began to circulate yesterday evening that the prosecutor's office was appealing its own motion to have Navalny arrested in the courtroom. This seemed only to galvanize the thousands of people who spilled into the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities to protest Navalny's conviction and arrest. Today, they are gloating, happily insisting that it was because of their show of force that Navalny was released. They are partly right. 

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman weighed in, saying that both the arrest in court and the release on bail the following day "are lawful" and not because of the protests. He is also partly right: In 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev introduced laws that slackened the draconian ways with which economic crimes were dealt. Now, people charged with economic crimes do not have to sit in jail until their sentence goes into effect. The jail time starts only once an appelate court affirms the sentence. 

But the law in Russia is not for following, but for being marshalled and twisted in the service of the thing you need done that may be totally against the spirit of the thing.

Most likely, Navalny was freed because the authorities need him back in Moscow, where he is running for mayor. The current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, quit—only to declare his intention to run in elections that his quitting triggered. The point was to have Sobyanin, who is quite popular in Moscow, be legitimized by the fire of carefully choreographed but seemingly fair elections: He was, after all, a native of Siberia appointed to the post by Putin. (This is also a way to satisfy a requirement of reforms that were tossed, scrap-like, to the protesters of the winter of 2011-2012: The Kremlin relented and said that governors and the mayors of Russia's two largest cities will no longer be appointed by the Kremlin, but will be elected. The Kremlin then proceeded to introduce all kinds of caveats—like having the appointed mayor quit and run and inevitably win—in order to eviscerate the reforms.)

If Navalny runs against Sobyanin, he will surely lose—in the polls, he is still has yet to break into the double digits, and Sobyanin enjoys all the perks of a relatively popular incumbent. Navalny losing is a way to neutralize him. The Kremlin can then say, "Look, buddy, you lost fair and square. You are not a real contender." But given that the protest movement was basically Moscow's rage at massive election fraud, the race has to at least appear to be maximally fair. Which is why Sobyanin is going out of his way to help Navalny, even helping Navalny clear the candidate registration hurdle. (This is normally the step where the state neutralizes opposition and keeps them off the ballot.) And, a day before Navalny's verdict, the Moscow Electoral Commission released a statement saying that candidates in Moscow's mayoral elections are not allowed to be detained (a type of immunity) because it unfairly inhibits them from campaigning.

Here's the upshot of all that inside baseball:

Navalny is still going to jail, likely for all five years. Actually, given that there are a few more (politically motivated) cases open against him elsewhere, he might be in the clapper even longer. 

The protests do have something to do with it. The Kremlin does not like protests—they violate the sacred principle and shiny façade of "stability"—but they're easy enough to ignore when they're about vague things like "democracy" and "freedom." The Kremlin can say, "Why don't you have concrete proposals instead of criticizing everything? You yourselves don't know what you want." This was the tactic the Kremlin used to neutralize the massive protests of the "Snow Revolution." This time, however, people are coming out in support of a person, a candidate, and concrete rival to Putin's power. Given that Putin won the last presidential election on the premise that there is no feasible alternative to him—the tagline was, "If not Putin, then who?"—this presents a problem.

Navalny will not be next mayor of Moscow. Though Moscow is his core constituency and some polls show his popularity growing at a healthy clip, Sobyanin has shown himself to be a thoroughly competent, almost liberal mayor; his popularity, in other words, is real and not just a lack of alternative. Also, many people who hate Putin also take huge issue with Navalny's nationalist views and may not be ready to vote for him, possibly explaining his low poll numbers.

There is a sea change happening in Moscow, which is like the brain and heart of Russia. Just take a look at how young—and unafraid—the protesters are.