By William Pomeranz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: William Pomeranz is the deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own.
Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny received his five-year prison sentence last week, to the surprise of no one. After all, the Russian criminal system has a 99 percent conviction rate once a case goes to trial, and it was highly unlikely that a Russian judge would buck the system at this late date.
So the Russian government has seemingly silenced one of its biggest critics, the man who famously came up with the slogan “the party of crooks and thieves” to describe the country’s governing party, United Russia. Navalny possesses political aspirations as well, and the government evidently thought it best to defeat him in the courts before he gained further political traction at the ballot box.
Yet the phenomenon of a political trial is not new in Russia. It has been around for centuries, as both tsars and commissars relied on courts to give their political orders a fig leaf of justice. The tsarist courts proved more independent, and one can find several prosecutions that went awry and even ended up in acquittals. The Soviet courts made no such mistakes, and the famous show trials of the 1930s lacked even the superficial elements of adversarialness and fairness.
But all these proceedings have one crucial element that links them to what just occurred in the Kirov courtroom: the final statement. The tsarist and Soviet political trials provided a unique platform whereby the defendants and their lawyers could issue their own indictment against the authorities. Such statements – whether openly published, as sometimes occurred in the tsarist period, or secretly distributed during Soviet times – inevitably resonated with parts of Russian society.
So what most likely will be best remembered from the Navalny case is not the outlandishness of the charges or the numerous procedural violations that occurred during the course of the proceedings, but Navalny’s blistering final statement. In the great Russian tradition, Navalny managed to both highlight the excesses of the Russian legal system and the need for genuine political change.
Navalny began his closing statement by highlighting the superficiality of the trial. The court session seemed like a television series, he said, and its main task was to make sure that his name was mentioned every night on the evening news so that he would forever be known as “that crook.”
He next made a humanitarian plea that his co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov, be acquitted. Ofitserov had done nothing wrong, Navalny claimed, other than accidentally get caught up in the state’s vendetta against him. You could put me in jail, he added, without torturing Ofitserov and his whole family.
Navalny then moved to his main political argument – that he and his colleagues were doing everything that they could to destroy Russia’s new “feudal” order. According to Navalny, 83 percent of the national wealth now belonged to a mere half percent of the Russian elite, and that none of this money had filtered down to the rest of the population. The only thing that the Russian public received was vodka, argued Navalny, or as he added more explicitly, “degradation and drunkenness.”
He then issued a call to action, arguing that now was not a time for neutrality. “Not one of us has the right to shrink from what would make the world better,” he said. He noted that there were hundreds of thousands – even millions – engaged in this process and that the current situation could not go on forever. He further dismissed Russia’s current leaders as insignificant Komsomol members who have become “some kind of patriots and have grabbed everything.” This “misunderstanding,” Navalny concluded, “will be corrected by our work”.
His statement, of course, made no impact on the judge. His political career also appears to be over for the time being, even if his name remains on the ballot for the upcoming September 2013 Moscow mayoral election.
The authorities appear to be willing let Navalny run for mayor as a convicted felon. One assumes however, that if Navalny’s candidacy gains steam, he will soon find himself sitting in prison. The question, therefore, is whether the message in Navalny’s closing statement will resonate with the public at large. Will they accept his call for action – under increasingly difficult circumstances – or will he become just another idealistic Russian who thought that the country was ready for change, only to be proven wrong by subsequent events?
If Navalny is right – and there are thousands of Russians waiting to pick up the cause – then the government’s hope to use the courts as a means to silence its opponents could have unexpected consequences. As Russia’s long history of political trials suggest, the state may unwittingly be providing a platform that only rallies the opposition.