The imprisonment of Alexei Navalny may still be a turning point in Vladimir Putin’s presidency – not only because of the mere fact of his imprisonment, but because of the power of his words in the courtroom. In a statement of scathing dignity, the activist argued that his court appearance had little to do with his alleged parole violations linked to a conviction for fraud in 2014 (which the European Court of Justice human rights has characterized as “arbitrary and unreasonable”). This was because he had survived a plot to poison him, investigated him, and convincingly linked him to Russian security services. “The explanation is hatred and fear of a man – a man hiding in a bunker,” he said of the Russian president.
The conversion of a suspended sentence to a jail sentence for Mr Navalny of two years and eight months net – despite the danger of turning him into a critic behind Mandela-style bars – suggests that the Kremlin is in real shaking. The Anti-Corruption Blogger exposure of the ruling circle’s lavish lifestyles evolved from embarrassment to threat.
His two hour video with a billion dollar palace allegedly built for Mr. Putin by the Black Sea has been viewed 107 million times in two weeks. After the Russian president denied any connection to the vast edifice, state television claimed it was owned by a childhood friend and judo partner of Mr Putin, who is now a multi-billionaire. Not all Russians will find this explanation comforting, even if they believe it.
Many of those who have shown support for Mr Navalny do not see him as an alternative Russian leader. His past with right-wing groups worries some. But he has become a figurehead for a disaffected part of society. The popular euphoria that surrounded Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has evaporated. After tax increases and the raising of the retirement age, many Russians are now more concerned about the stagnant standard of living and the erosion of services.
Mr. Navalny has also become a symbol of the anarchy of Russia, with which ordinary citizens are easier to identify than, for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch imprisoned in 2003 after falling out with the Kremlin. The activist is seen as a brave stranger who attacks the system. Yet if someone as prestigious as he can be jailed on such a thin pretext, some Russians believe, what legal protections do they have?
It is therefore important that the international community reacts. Some say the repeated Western sanctions haven’t done much, but are pushing an increasingly paranoid Moscow leadership into a corner. Yet for Western democracies to offer no reaction beyond verbal criticism of the Kremlin’s assault on the rule of law would sound like hypocrisy, if not tacit acceptance. This would leave Russia’s many other human rights defenders and corruption investigators even more fearful for their own futures.
The jailed activist himself has repeatedly urged Western countries to target securocrats, heads of state enterprises and oligarchs who are facilitators and beneficiaries of the Putin system. Before his court appearance, Mr. Navalny circulated a list of 35 potential targets, including several who he said were responsible for his own persecution.
Western European capitals should also reconsider whether they wish to increase their energy dependence on Russia. This dependence cannot be quickly reversed, but projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany appear increasingly ill-conceived. Even some French ministers are now calling for his stop. This might not guarantee the release of an opponent whom the Kremlin fears as much as Mr Navalny. But it would show Mr Putin that his merciless pursuit of his critics comes at a real cost.