20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 30, a Russian court sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his younger brother Oleg to three and a half years in prison on charges related to the Yves Rocher case. Alexei Navalny received a suspended sentence, while Oleg Navalny will serve the full prison time. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya reviews the case and its possible consequences.


Political analysts point out that the suspended sentence for Alexei Navalny (right) was sanctioned by the Kremlin. Photo: TASS


The so-called “Yves Rocher case” is the second court proceeding involving charges against Alexei Navalny. In July 2013, Navalny was found guilty on criminal embezzlement charges involving the Kirovles company but received only a suspended sentence.

Both the Yves Rocher and Kirovles cases unfolded along lines that eliminated any chance of acquittal. In the most recent case, the prosecution accused the Navalny brothers of embezzling 26 million rubles from Yves Rocher by overcharging the company for logistical services. Yves Rocher representatives, however, stated in their court petition that the company had not sustained any damages or profit loss by having signed a contract with the Navalny brothers’ company. Consequently, Yves Rocher declined to become a plaintiff in the case; this, however, did not prevent the prosecution from asking for a 10-year sentence.

Navalny made his last plea at the final court session on December 19. Since then, the transcript of his statement has become a political manifesto after going viral on social media. In this plea, Navalny stated that this was “his sixth, seventh or tenth final statement” over the past two years and reminded the media that a 10-year sentence is usually given for “several homicides.”

“Our battle...is to explain to you that everything in your country is based on lies. We allowed this junta to rob us and wage wars. Dozens of con men rob us every day and we keep tolerating this. I am not going to tolerate this. No matter how long I will have to stand here—whether a meter from this cage or inside it—I am going to stand my ground,” Navalny said.

Initially, the court verdict was scheduled for January 15, 2015, and Navalny’s supporters began organizing protest rallies when delivery of the verdict was inexplicably changed to December 30, 2014, since according to a statement made in court, “the decision had already been reached.” The defendants themselves learned about this change only on the eve of the announcement. In the end, the court gave Alexei Navalny a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence and his brother Oleg three and a half years in a minimum-security prison camp. According to many political analysts, the Kremlin had some reservations about jailing Alexei Navalny and resorted instead to using his brother as a “hostage.” Alexei Navalny called this sentence “the most disgusting and despicable of all the possible sentences.”

There is no doubt that the change of the date for announcing the Navalny brothers’ sentence was a politically charged decision by the Kremlin that was based on a number of factors. First, the Kremlin wanted to avoid any large-scale protest rallies. Had Alexei Navalny received a prison sentence, it would have galvanized a major unsanctioned rally—be it on January 15, as initially planned, or on December 30. Such protest movements could have led to armed skirmishes, bloodshed, and new criminal prosecutions. It is likely that the Kremlin decided not to risk this most dangerous scenario because it was aware of its weaknesses in the face of new political and economic challenges.

Second, taking Alexei Navalny’s brother Oleg as a hostage is a very powerful method of exerting pressure on this political opponent, as it forces him to make an impossible choice of either continuing his career as an opposition leader or taking care of his family.

Navalny’s sentence has become a new launching pad that seems likely to propel the development of the opposition movement and dramatically divide Russian society.

Third, Navalny’s suspended sentence could be interpreted as the “Kremlin’s last warning.” Law enforcement authorities have been investigating other criminal charges against Alexei Navalny that might easily be exploited in order to initiate new headline-making criminal trials and prison sentences. Navalny and his associates, for example, are also currently under investigation for having misappropriated campaign funds during his run for the Moscow mayoral office in September 2014. Moreover, state prosecutors have announced their intention to appeal the suspended sentence in the Yves Rocher case and to re-file a motion for a stiffer sentence.

Fourth, a pro-Navalny rally scheduled for January 15, 2015, could have exacerbated an already-tense situation. Kremlin officials asked Facebook to block a page dedicated to the planned rally. The page takedown triggered a wave of outrage on social media, particularly after Facebook refused to block a newly created one. As of the writing of this article, 33,000 people have signed up to attend the January 15 protest rally at Manezh Square in Moscow, despite the fact that the event will be unsanctioned and thus the risks of crowd clashes with the police will be elevated.

It is expected that the Kremlin will try to put maximum pressure on the protest organizers and other activists, as well as on various mass media and social network companies covering the Navalny case. Such media companies as Polit.ru, Business Online, BFM, and Mediazona have already received warnings from Roscomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications. The current authorities will make their best effort to disrupt the January 15 protest rally and neutralize a potentially dicey political situation. However, the sentence given to Oleg Navalny seems likely to only further motivate Alexei Navalny to fight against the current regime, as the political rivalry between him and Russian president Vladimir Putin has now morphed into a personal vendetta.

The latest events regarding Alexei Navalny himself and Russia’s opposition movement show that the Kremlin’s decisions perfectly align with the nature of the regime. In the wake of President Putin’s end-of-year press conference, it has become quite clear that the government treats anyone who does not support the Kremlin policies as a member of the “fifth column.” It is also apparent that the Kremlin is not ready to agree to any reasonable compromise with the nonsystemic (i.e., nonparliamentary) opposition. Frightening mutations that occurred within the regime in the past two years have rendered the current government fiercely intolerant of any expression of disagreement. From 2000 to 2004, the Russian political opposition was perceived as a group of people who aimed to protect the interests of the oligarchic elite that arose in the 1990s. From 2005 to 2010, this opposition was cast in a new light as a handful of demoralized pariahs. After 2011–2012, the regime drastically changed its attitude toward the opposition after the opposition’s political agenda was revitalized and accepted by several groups among the Russian political elite. The nonsystemic opposition is now viewed as an enemy that threatens to challenge the very existence of the current government.

It is possible that 2015 will be a very difficult year for the Russian opposition. Navalny’s sentence has become a new launching pad that seems likely to propel the development of the opposition movement and dramatically divide Russian society. It also seems likely that the sentence will cool the patriotic zeal ignited by the annexation of Crimea—a zeal shared by many former opposition activists. In this scenario, governmental pressure on the opposition will only continue to increase, and it will be accompanied by new persecutions of opposition leaders and rally participants, renewed criminal proceedings, and the shutdown of independent media outlets, opposition websites, and social networks. Ultimately, if events play out as expected, Russia is likely to face a regime change that in the end will be a military one.