“A judge on Wednesday postponed for one week the trial of Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader and anticorruption blogger who is accused of embezzlement and corruption, prolonging the anticipation of the most politically charged court case in recent Russian history,” The New York Times’ David Herszenhorn reports:
His lawyers had requested a month-long postponement, and also urged that the trial be held in Moscow, where Mr. Navalny lives. A lawyer for Mr. Navalny, Olga Mikhailova, said the postponement would allow time for a regional court to issue a ruling, expected early next week, on a complaint by Mr. Navalny that the authorities had mishandled his case.
More than 100 supporters made the 12-hour train trip from Moscow to rally behind the activist. Dozens of journalists also lined up for hours, some standing outside overnight, to get places on the wooden benches that seat only 60. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow sent a human rights officer to observe, and European officials were also represented.
“The system will collapse but this could still take several years. Our task is to bring this closer,” Navalny said prior to his trial.
Navalny has turned himself into a Russian version of a shareholder activist, Joshua Yaffa writes for Foreign Affairs:
He bought small stakes in state-owned corporations and then pushed them to become more transparent, exposing cases of apparent fraud and nepotism. His largest coup came in November 2010, when he posted documents on his blog that appeared to show that managers at the state-owned Transneft Corporation had stolen $4 billion during the construction of an oil pipeline to China. As Sergei Guriev, the rector of the New Economic School, told me, “Navalny is not fighting corruption in general, he is fighting specific incidents of corruption.” Or as Navalny himself put it when I first met him in 2010, it’s not enough to say, “corruption is bad.” Instead, he said he wanted to show “what was stolen, who stole it, where the money went, and who in government is responsible.”
“For Putin, as it has been for generations of Russian leaders, the law works not as a check on power but as an instrument for consolidating it,” writes Yaffa, a Moscow-based journalist and a contributor to The Economist.
“As his reputation grew, Navalny widened his focus beyond corruption and began morphing into a de facto politician, albeit one outside of any official political structures,” he observes:
His sincerity offers the obvious antidote to the political manipulation of Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief ideologist until 2011, whose favored style was cynical, if not nihilistic. His labeling of the pro-Kremlin United Russia as the “party of crooks and thieves” became the most successful meme in Russian politics in a generation. Navalny emerged as the star of the protest movement that broke out in December 2011.
With time, Navalny matured as a political figure: he began to deemphasize the nationalist rhetoric that appeals to many Russians but does not sit well with liberal Muscovites, and his speeches became less confrontational. He is far from the democratic savior of Russia that many in the West imagine him as, but he is undeniably the one unifying figure in the opposition around whom a mass movement could form.
The case has acquired significant political resonance, as Russian civil society faces a Soviet-style crackdown and the opposition surge has faded.
“Like the prosecution of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky a decade ago, it has the potential to be an era-defining event,” RFE/RL analyst Brian Whitmore says of the trial.
“For all the apparent fear he instills in the halls of power, Navalny is ultimately untested as a national politician and would struggle to pose a direct challenge to Putin,” writes Yaffa, a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University:
Beyond certain platitudes, his views are not well defined; his platform amounts to a vague pledge of “not to lie, not to steal.” A recent poll by the Levada Center showed that as the percentage of Russians surveyed who knew of Navalny grew from six percent in April 2011 to 37 percent in March 2013, the number of those prepared to support him for president dropped from 33 percent to 14 percent. In a way, that makes sense, as it was only his committed supporters who knew of him two years ago.
“But if Navalny hopes to increase his popularity — and electability — he cannot merely introduce himself to more Russians,” he concludes. “For Navalny and those who place their hopes in him, notoriety is the easy part. That, if anything, is the benefit of becoming the Kremlin’s most feared nemesis.”
Other observers take a more ominous view of the proceedings.
“If Navalny is sent to jail the Kremlin will have crossed a rubicon beyond which there will be an all-powerful authoritarian machine which will be hard, if not impossible, to stop,” wrote the opposition weekly New Times.