The close cooperation between Moscow and Washington on the Boston bombing investigation raises new questions about the issue of human rights in Russia. Revelations that the alleged bombers were two brothers of Chechen origin, and that Russian authorities had warned their American counterparts in 2011 about one of them, the older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has put pressure on the FBI for not adequately following up on the Russian requests. Will the US government now turn a blind eye to Russia’s increasingly brutal crackdown on its own democratic opposition because of overriding concerns about national security, just as it did after 9/11? Will the Kremlin wager that it can get away with its hard-line approach now that, as a result of the Boston attacks, the Obama Administration needs its help in counter-terrorism efforts?
A test case could be the trial of Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. The trial, which began in a district court in the city of Kirov last week has aroused world-wide attention for its blatant political motivations. Long a target of the Kremlin, Navalny has already received two fifteen-day prison sentences in the last eighteen months for involvement in street protests. Now he faces up to ten years in prison on charges of embezzling 16 million rubles (over $500,000) from a state-owned timber company. As with other such prosecutions, it seems a foregone conclusion that Navalny will be found guilty, despite the bogus nature of the charges. It also seems clear that the verdict will be dictated by the Kremlin.
And yet, the Navalny trial—which has adjourned until April 24 so that the defense can study the thirty volumes of case materials submitted by the prosecution—marks a special challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In recent months, the Kremlin has confronted growing economic problems, some of them directly connected to its crackdown on the opposition. Relations with foreign investors have become strained, in part over questions about Russia’s human rights record. The economy has stagnated amid accelerating inflation and pervasive corruption, much of it believed to involve the government itself. As former Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin observed last week, the trial of Navalny—who is known for his blunt exposés of Moscow’s economic mismanagement—is sure to have a negative effect on the investment climate in Russia.
Meanwhile, Putin’s approval rating, while still substantial, has fallen more than 20 percent since 2008. Given Navalny’s high-profile in Russia and abroad, Putin and his colleagues may want to avoid turning him into a martyr (and thus a focal point for public unrest) and may opt for a suspended sentence instead. The Kremlin might also be hesitant to give Washington cause to add more names to the US government’s so-called “Magnitsky List”—the list of Russian officials who are banned from getting US visas because of alleged human rights violations.
But the new US-Russia security cooperation over the Boston attacks could also embolden the Kremlin, which has been pursuing a larger crackdown in recent months. Along with the prosecution of Navalny, who faces trumped-up criminal charges in several other cases as well, the attack on NGOs has intensified, with the Russian Prosecutor-General’s office announcing that it will investigate seven hundred such organizations that reportedly get financing from abroad. The offices of Memorial, of the election watchdog Golos and of other human rights groups have already been raided and in some cases hefty fines have been levied for minor violations. Sixteen people are still in custody for participating in demonstrations against Putin a year ago, and authorities have warned that there will be more arrests. And in another blow to democracy, the Duma recently passed a law preventing direct elections of regional governors, who will now be elected by a legislative assembly from a list of three candidates approved by the president.
It would be unfortunate, however, if Western governments ignore the growing consequences of this hard-line approach, which has discouraged foreign investment and may be weakening the regime. Russia’s inflation rate has almost doubled in the past year, from 3.6 percent to 7 percent; economic growth has slowed since the beginning of the year to an annual rate of only 2 percent, less than half of what it was for the first quarter of 2012. The country is also witnessing ever greater capital outflows, with income from oil exports offset by a growing reliance on imports. Moscow’s dependency on oil revenues, moreover, has made the economy especially vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices and global markets.
At the same time, Russia is losing its most skilled workers at an alarming rate. According to a January report by the World Economic Forum, over 50 percent of Russian professionals in certain fields are seeking to leave the country. “This not only reduces the creative potential to support economic development in the country,” the report stated, “but accentuates capital flight and reduces domestic consumption.”
And of course official corruption continues to be a huge problem, with new scandals emerging on an almost daily basis. Transparency International, the global watchdog, estimated that the cost of corruption in Russia was $300 billion in 2012. According to the World Economic Forum report: “Russia is characterized by much higher levels of corruption than other countries with similar levels of development. While Russia is the sixth largest economy worldwide in GDP, corruption levels are higher than in countries such as Togo.”
Navalny, who is thirty-six years old and a lawyer by training, has been active in politics since he joined the liberal Yabloko Party in 2000—the year Putin became president. He was expelled from Yabloko in 2007 because his views were considered too nationalistic. But he has since become a leading figure in the democratic opposition, largely because of his successful efforts to expose official corruption on his blog and his popular website, RosPil, and his blunt criticism of the Kremlin-sponsored United Russia Party, which he calls the “party of crooks and thieves.”
The charges against Navalny in the current trial, however, are not related to his recent activism. They concern work he did in 2009, when he was acting as an unpaid advisor to Nikita Belykh, the liberal governor of the Kirov region; the prosecution claims he organized the theft of timber from the state-owned KirovLes company during that time. Navalny has vigorously denied any wrongdoing and has launched a website, with the banner “Why is Navalny innocent?” where he has posted documents and testimonies confirming that the case against him has been fabricated. In numerous articles and interviews, Navalny has asserted that President Putin ordered his prosecution:
I have no doubt that he [Putin] personally is giving the instructions about my case. The logic here, it seems to me, is obvious: he and his entourage need to hold on to power. And in order to told on to power they have no other mechanism than to jail people…They stole billions, they know that people are outraged, that millions of people share my attitude toward them—they are protecting themselves.
In this regard, it is worth noting that the person overseeing the prosecution of Navalny is Putin protégé Alexander Bastrykin, head of the powerful Investigation Committee, which reports directly to the president. Nalvany has repeatedly written about Bastrykin on his blog, revealing Bastrykin’s undeclared assets in the Czech Republic, where he has a residence permit, and even suggesting that Bastrykin is a foreign agent. In fact, Bastrykin’s agency has gone after opposition leaders and whistle-blowers, and he has been implicated in the cover-up of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who inspired the Magnitsky Bill in the US Congress.
Some observers have drawn parallels between Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch who has been languishing in prison since 2003. Like Navalny, Khodorkovsky incurred the wrath of Putin by getting involved in politics and supporting those who offered an alternative to the current regime. (Bastrykin was reportedly involved in his second prosecution as he now is with Navalny’s case.) But, although Khodorkovsky was clearly a victim of grave injustice on the part of the Russian legal system, his case has not aroused much sympathy among the Russian people because he made vast amounts of money by taking advantage of the privatization of state assets during the 1990s. Navalny, by contrast, is not rich, and he comes across in his many public appearances as an earnest and modest “nice guy.” As the possibility of imprisonment approaches, Navalny, who is married with two children, has stressed the differences between himself and Khodorkovsky:
I often think about Khodorkovsky now: I will be moving to a cell from a 75-meter apartment in Marino [a district on the edge of Moscow], but what was it like for him to go to the camp from a mansion, five-star hotels, a personal plane, and all the rest of the things that someone with a fortune of many billions is accustomed to?
The Kremlin has tried to take the initiative from the opposition bloggers like Navalny, by initiating criminal cases against select officials, such as Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdiukov and his colleagues, regional bureaucrats and Duma members. But corruption is so widespread in the government that any real attempt to tackle the problem could threaten the stability of the Putin regime.
Navalny’s trial could drag out for a long time, given the volumes of evidence that have to be addressed. Whatever the outcome, it will tell us a lot about what is in store for Russia’s political future. As journalist Evgenia Albats put it recently, the trial “will determine the shape and nature of the regime for years to come.”
By asserting a high-profile part in the Boston investigation, the Kremlin may believe it has less reason to worry about repercussions from the West over its handling of the Navalny case. But the Putin regime still has domestic discontent to contend with. And Navalny is determined to maintain a presence on the Russian political scene, either in or out of prison. In early April Navalny announced in an interview on Dozhd TV that he plans at some point to run for the Russian presidency. (He did not offer specifics about his platform, except to say “I am not going to lie, cheat or steal, so what else do you need?”) And he has filed papers to form his own party, the People’s Alliance Party, which hopes to put candidates up for various regional and local legislative bodies on the next election day in September.
Navalny’s main goal is to bring people back in the streets in mass rallies of the sort he helped organize in December 2011, following widespread indications of electoral fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections. The Kremlin has made very clear since then that those protests aroused great apprehension in Putin’s inner circle. As Navalny put it recently: “This is the only thing that this regime is afraid of… They are afraid only of a rebellious people.”