Democracy’s tenuous foothold in Russia slipped further as opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was “formally barred” from running for election in the Russian Federation’s 2018 elections, the BBC reports. While this comes without surprise, as Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in a retrial in early February of 2017, the court’s decision was later reaffirmed in May 2017. According to the Guardian, Navalny was very prepared for the reading of the verdict and the similarity was so strong between the two trials that he was able to “ out pages from the original verdict to support [the] claim that [the guilty verdict] had been copied word for word.”
The case had to go to a retrial as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found the initial proceedings to have procedural violations. That is, Navalny had been “denied his right to a fair hearing” and that the initial trial had come as a result of “arbitrary interpretation of the law” according to the ECHR. The strategic utility of adding a criminal conviction to Navalny’s resume is that having a criminal conviction bars individuals from running in the Presidential Election in Russia. The claim of ‘arbitrary interpretation’ comes from the fact that Russia’s constitution “expressly forbids citizens from running for office only if they are serving a prison sentence,” something that Navalny is not currently doing. The Central Electoral Commission its judgement on June 23rd, 2017, which confirmed that Navalny would not be allowed to stand for office due to his criminal record.
Thus, many believe that the embezzlement conviction is a convenient means of minimizing Navalny as a threat that he poses as a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin’s nearly two-decade regime poses. This conviction is also ironic in that Navalny’s campaign against the government had been largely founded on the principle of ridding the government of corruption. Navalny has pointed fingers at both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for corruption within the government. In a lengthy YouTube video entitled “Don’t call him ‘Dimon,’” Navalny accused Medvedev of massive corruption that was enabled by a number of his closest associates which allowed him to amass a variety of properties and additional income. Navalny also has a track record of fomenting the support of the public to protests against the corruption of the government, writ large, and United Russia, which Putin is the leader of, in 2011 and 2012 when Putin was up for re-election.
To quantify where Russia sits in terms of corruption and freedom, Transparency International and Freedom House, respectively, have provided some interesting data pieces of data. According to Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions 2016 index, Russia ranked 131 out of 176 countries. This corruption index is formed off of expert assessments and opinion surveys, according to the index’s methodological explanation. In addition to Transparency International’s low ranking of Russia, it is also received a score of 20 from Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 country scores. Countries that receive 100 are considered the most free, while those that score closer to 0 are considered least free. For an additional reference point, Saudi Arabia scored 10 out of 100 for the 2017 Freedom in the World dataset.
While Navalny was one of Putin’s critics and a source of strong opposition to Putin’s regime, his own politics do not necessarily recommend him to be the leader of Russia. According to the BBC, Navalny has also spoken at “ultra-nationalist” events, which does not bode well for more moderate and liberal Russians. As was the case for most of Russian history, there is a tendency for ruling individuals to rule Russia as an autocracy. However, just because Navalny is in opposition to Putin, it does not mean that he would necessarily be the liberal panacea to Russia’s conservative politics.