Alexei Navalny was no longer expecting an acquittal. When the opposition leader entered the courthouse in the provincial town of Kirov that carried Lenin's name in Soviet times, he was carrying a sports bag with everything he might need in a Russian prison: track suits, plasticware, shampoo, a toothbrush.
Navalny had prepared himself for his imprisonment as thoroughly as he had prepared himself for his trial -- a trial that has now ended in conviction. Five years in prison for embezzlement on an "especially large scale," read Judge Sergei Blinov's verdict. With this sentence, the Russian judiciary has put Vladimir Putin's sharpest critic on ice.
Navalny considers the trial an act of revenge by the Kremlin. In his blog, he had accused Putin's friends and confidants of corruption. In the 2011 parliamentary election, he went on the offensive against the governing United Russia party, which Navalny called the "Party of Crooks and Thieves." Today, that phrase is known across the entire country.
In late 2011 and early 2012, Navalny headed the protests against Putin's return to the Kremlin. Early this September, Navalny wanted to run in the Moscow mayoral race. If today's verdict becomes final, his political career will be finished. According to a law passed by the Kremlin in 2012, someone who has been convicted of a crime cannot run for public office.
Navalny is supposedly guilty of embezzlement in Kirov, where he allegedly stole 10,000 cubic meters of wood from the state forest. It was worth 16 million rubles, equivalent to 370,000 ($485,000). The accusations date back to the year 2009, when Navalny was working as an adviser to the liberal governor of the province of Kirov.
The governor had been appointed by Putin's chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev, who was weak, but interested in reforms. By appointing Nikita Belykh, he was putting a man in power who had, just a few months earlier, protested Putin in the streets. Kirov was a high-profile experiment -- a small opening Medvedev had provided to the opposition, an opportunity for them to demonstrate that they could govern.
Navalny had made a name for himself as a fighter for transparency in state-owned enterprises like Gazprom, and knew his way around balance sheets. Belykh brought him to Kirov to help him with the reorganization of the ailing state forestry.
According to the state prosecutor, however, Navalny abused his position as adviser. He supposedly forced the state forestry to sell wood from the state forest to his acquaintance Peter Ofitserov's company. Ofitserov, a businessman, was similarly sentenced by a Moscow court to four years in a prison.
The prosecution's arguments were insufficient to convince trial observers of Navalny's guilt. The investigation had been abandoned several times since 2009, but the case was reopened under pressure from the state investigatory committee. The chief of the agency is a friend of Putin's from his studies.
Navalny had no official post as an adviser to the governor, his position was unsalaried and he was not authorized to issue directives to the forestries. The prosecution argues that Navalny exploited his long-time friendship with Governor Belykh to pressure him, that Navalny had an office in the provincial administration building and had been the main speaker at administration meetings. Witnesses remembered nothing of this. State prosecutors showed notes from Navalny's phone conversations, which the secret service had listened to without legal permission, in court.
A witness called by the prosecution, Natalia Koretnyuk, the head of a lumber business in 2009, said, on the record, that she considers the case against Navalny to be a "political hit job."
Navalny is a trained lawyer who worked with two other lawyers during the case but handled most of the witness cross-examinations himself. His strategy focused on the following points:
- The situation in Kirov: The forestry businesses were inefficient and had been eaten away by corruption when the new governor arrived. The business was debt-ridden, because corrupt workers had been secretly selling wood for years and pocketing the money themselves. During the 2009 economic crisis, the demand for wood collapsed and the now-convicted businessman Ofitserov was to have helped boost turnover.
- The chief prosecution witness: The key witness of the prosecution was former timber company head Vyacheslav Opalev, who confessed in 2012 to participating in the supposed 16-million-ruble embezzlement and made a deal with the investigators. He was sentenced to four years probation. Navalny believes he was given a mild penalty by investigators in exchange for incriminating him.
What Happens Now?
Navalny wants to become mayor of Moscow, and on Wednesday he was approved as an official candidate for the election in September. As long as his conviction isn't final, he will remain an official candidate.
The trial doesn't seem to have accomplished the Kremlin's goal of discrediting Navalny as corrupt in the eyes of the Russian people. According to a poll by the Levada Center, 44 percent of Russians believe that Navalny's trial was an attempt to muzzle him. Another 13 percent believe it was an attempt to prevent his candidacy. Only 23 percent believe that the reason for the trial was actually misappropriation of funds.
Members of the international community reacted with outrage at the verdict on Thursday. "This outcome, given the procedural shortcomings, raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia," said a spokesman for High Representative of the European Union Catherine Ashton. Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia, tweeted: "We are deeply disappointed by the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial."
Navalny's supporters have announced demonstrations in Moscow for tonight: "19:00. Quiet, peaceful and until the end," they wrote on Twitter.