Vladimir Putin’s presidency may not survive the next five years. The trial of Alexei Navalny has brought a new and unique challenge for his regime, and the president will be unable to use old-world-style power to silence his latest political opponent.
Navalny, a 37-year old lawyer, anti-corruption blogger, and activist, first started out with a wildly popular LiveJournal blog (in Russia, LJ is still a thing) and soon moved to Twitter and Instagram with his anti-Putin message. Frustrated citizens rallied around him as he staged massive protests following Putin’s return to office for a third term, and he quickly became the face of the opposition by using social media to rouse the young and disenfranchised. Navalny officially registered as a candidate for Moscow’s mayoral race last Wednesday, and the same day, was sentenced to five years in prison.
These charges against him are widely considered to be politically motivated, even recognized as such by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Navalny intends to run for the Russian presidency in 2018, a campaign that will be squashed should his appeals fail.
Russia faces a choice. Five years from now, it could hold another sham election and get six more years of Vladimir Putin, or it can rally behind Navalny and democracy. The biggest question is whether the resistance will survive as more than street protests and internet petitions. Navalny has used his previous arrests to his advantage, signaling that the resiliency and dynamism of his movement will likely triumph.
Alexei Navalny is not the first political hopeful to challenge Putin and suffer the consequences. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once the wealthiest man in Russia, and has been serving in a prison near the Eastern Chinese border since 2005 after finding himself at odds with the Putin administration. Khodorovsky’s crimes carry far more controversy than those of Navalny, since he came into his billions through questionable practices in the 1990s, but the U.S. and EU labeled his imprisonment as "selective justice." He was the only Russian oligarch to be tried for fraud and tax evasion, and his arrest came soon after announcing intentions to hold office.
Keep in mind, Navalny is no knight on a white horse. Western media is often so thrilled to see a young, charismatic counterbalance to Putin, they ignore his racist and nationalistic rhetoric. His rousing speeches call for ethnic Russians to take back their country, speaking out against migration from Russia’s southern neighbors. He may not be the State Department’s first draft pick for the Kremlin, but he deserves a fair trial and the opportunity to seek office.
Khodorovsky’s message of democratic reform and anti-corruption was not silenced with his imprisonment, and he continues to write and interview from prison. This will certainly be the case with Navalny. In a blog post on Wednesday, before he was sentenced, he called his supporters to action, reminding them not to sit around doing nothing. He writes, “There is no one, but you. If you are reading this, you are the resistance.”