Skip to main content

The Kremlin's game with Alexei Navalny

By David Satter, Special to CNN
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Tue July 23, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Satter: A cat and mouse game is being played out in Russia on Alexei Navalny
  • Satter: Its consequences could cast a shadow over the future of the Putin regime
  • He says Russia's corruption is enormous; the likes of Navalny is a threat to Putin
  • Satter: The failure to reform the system will set the stage for a deeper crisis in the future

Editor's note: David Satter is an adviser to Radio Liberty and a fellow of the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is "It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past" (Yale). Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSatter

(CNN) -- A cat and mouse game is being played out in Russia involving Alexei Navalny, Russia's best known anti-corruption campaigner. Its consequences could cast a shadow over the future of the Putin regime.

Navalny, who has announced his candidacy for mayor of Moscow, achieved prominence by producing a blog that provided detailed reports on the corruption of Russian state-run companies, including the theft of $4 billion by executives from Transneft, the state-owned pipeline company.

What's behind Navalny's conviction?

When massive protests broke out after the falsified December 4, 2011, parliamentary elections, Navalny emerged as one of its leaders and in the eyes of many, a future Russian presidential candidate.

David Satter
David Satter

All this seemingly came to an end when Navalny was sentenced to five years in a labor camp on July 18 after being convicted of misappropriating roughly $500,000 worth of state-owned timber while he served as an adviser to the governor of the Kirov region. Before the trial, Navalny predicted his conviction. "They didn't fabricate this case in order to allow an (acquittal)," he said.

The day after the conviction, however, the state prosecutor stunned observers by requesting that Navalny be freed on bail so he could continue to campaign for mayor of Moscow. Navalny is now free to campaign against Sergei Sobianin, the Kremlin-backed candidate, who has 73% of support in the opinion polls.

Opinion: Putin, a hypocrite on Snowden, Navalny

This seeming act of generosity, however, may have a hidden motive.

Elections in Russia do not resemble elections in the West. The core of a victorious candidate's support is generally passive voters who are threatened at their place of work, bribed with small gifts or favors or bussed to the polling places where they can vote under the watchful eyes of their supervisors. It is this system that accounts for the electoral "success" of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 2012 elections and that of the United Russia Party (described by Navalny as the "party of swindlers and crooks") in the last parliamentary elections.

Russian opposition leader out of prison
Pavel Khodorkovsky on Navalny verdict

The system suffers from one defect: The results lack legitimacy.

For this reason, the authorities may actually want Navalny to campaign against Sobanian. His principal accusation against the regime is that it is corrupt. But it will be more difficult to make that argument now that he himself has been convicted of corruption, however unfairly.

If, despite all calculations, Navalny begins to pose an electoral threat, a higher court can uphold Navalny's conviction at any time and he can be jailed and his candidacy terminated.

Almost from the beginning of the Putin era, the regime has responded to opposition by accusing its opponents of corruption. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, was convicted of tax evasion and fraud after he used his wealth to finance opposition political parties. Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who exposed the theft of $230 million in a tax fraud scheme by high officials, was tortured to death in prison and then, in an almost unprecedented move, was found guilty of tax evasion posthumously.

The cat and mouse game with Navalny is part of this tradition. But it may not be enough to save the regime from the anger of the people.

In Russia, the corruption market is valued by the Indem think tank at more than $300 billion annually, or more than a quarter of the GDP. Russians pay bribes to obtain contracts, to get licenses and permissions, to avoid inspections, to get medical treatment or get their children into universities. Moreover, the chain of corruption rises to the very top. It has been credibly reported that Putin has a personal fortune of more than $40 billion and that he and his closest cronies control 10% to 15% of the Russian gross national product.

Under these circumstances, the regime may be sitting on a time bomb. According to a report cited by the Russian Academy of Sciences, 34% of Russians "always" wish they could shoot bribe takers. Another 38% "sometimes" wish they could do so. In Moscow, the number of people who are disgusted with bribe takers is even higher. Two-thirds of Muscovites would gun them down.

The Russian leaders periodically announce drives against corruption and may even arrest a few of their own officials in order to convince the population that they are taking action. The reality, however, is that corruption is integral to the Putin system in which loyalty is rewarded with the freedom to steal, ostensibly private businesses prosper only because they have connections to officials and are therefore, in effect, state-protected monopolies and the system of justice is totally subordinate to the economic interests of the highest ranking state officials. .

Independent reformers like Navalny pose a serious threat to this system, which is why they have to be persecuted. But the failure to reform the system means its inner contradictions will only grow, setting the stage for a deeper crisis in the years ahead.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Satter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT