The international community's response to a Moscow court’s dual February 20 decisions to uphold Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s nearly 3-year prison sentence and to fine him for slander may have little impact on the politician's fate, Russian experts predict. Ultimately, any momentum for change must come from within Russia itself, they say.
First on February 20, the Moscow City Court rejected an appeal of Navalny’s February 2 prison sentence of 2 years and 8 months for supposedly violating the terms of his suspended sentence in a 2014 fraud case. It did reduce the sentence by 50 days, however, for time already served.
In a separate defamation case, the Court then ruled that Navalny should pay a fine of 850,000 rubles (about $11,500) for having allegedly mocked a 94-year-old World War II veteran who appeared, among others, in a promotional video for President Vladimir Putin’s 2020 constitutional reforms.
A court ruling in the same day on two cases involving the same person has no precedent in Russian jurisprudence, Moscow attorneys Andrei Gritsev and Mikhail Biryukov commented.
Political analysts attribute the double booking to a desire to smear Navalny’s reputation among voters as Russia’s 2021 parliamentary election season begins.
If European Union foreign ministers agree, that could impact February 22 discussions among the foreign ministers of the EU’s 27 member-states about whether to broaden EU sanctions against Russia over the 44-year-old Navalny’s imprisonment.
In response to a petition by Navalny’s defense lawyers, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had ruled on February 16 that Russia should release Navalny, the victim of a 2020 poisoning attempt, because of the risk to his life from ongoing detention. (Russia’s Federal Security Service has been implicated in the poisoning -- a charge the Kremlin denies.) The court in 2018 had ruled that the fraud charges against him were “unlawful” and “politically motivated.”
Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko, however, stated that the ECHR’s latest demand “has no legal grounds and is a gross interference with the activities of courts” in Russia.
Although Russia has ignored other ECHR rulings, this latest rebuff likely will increase the “political pressure” for Russia to lose its voting powers within the Council of Europe, predicted Germany’s European Parliament Deputy Sergei Lagodinsky, who serves as the deputy chairman of the EU legislature’s Committee on Legal Affairs.
As a member of the Council of Europe, the continental human-rights watchdog of which the ECHR is part, Russia, a signatory of the Council’s European Convention on Human Rights, is obliged to respect the decisions of the ECHR, which rules on members’ compliance with the Convention.
The Moscow City Court’s decision to let Navalny’s prison sentence stand “is like a confirmation of the fact that the Russian system of justice, well, just doesn’t want to be part of any civilized, legal world,” charged Lagodinsky, a native of Russia.
On February 19, Amnesty International gave the Kremlin a petition for the politician’s release signed by 195,482 individuals in Europe and Central Asia.
But some Russian analysts believe that the threat of international penalties for or disapproval of Navalny's imprisonment will have no effect on the Kremlin.
“To hope that Western countries will change the situation in Russia and will influence it is too optimistic,” commented Kirill Shamiyev, a junior research fellow at the Higher School of Economics’ Center for Comparative Governance Studies in St. Petersburg. “Russia is a very powerful country and, as in the military and other economic spheres, even if sanctions impact Russia, they will not damage its political regime.”
Economic expert Aleksandra Suslina agrees that placing international sanctions on government officials and President Vladimir Putin’s powerful allies, as Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation desires, will have no immediate effect on the government’s attitude toward the anti-corruption activist.
“[I]n general, Russia is a country sufficiently rich in resources and no matter what they (other countries) try to deprive these individuals of, they have set themselves up here pretty well.”
Ultimately, Shamiyev added, any change in government policy toward Navalny depends on Russian citizens themselves. The defamation case against Navalny could serve to muffle any public outcry over the government’s treatment of the politician ahead of this fall's legislative elections, Shamiyev said.
The analyst theorized that the Kremlin is using World War II veteran Ignat Artemenko's case to show undecided voters that the opposition “is not just against us, but against Russian statehood.”
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov on February 20, though, dismissed the premise that the failure of Navalny’s appeal shows that the Kremlin curtails freedom of speech.
Russian political life is “multifaceted,” Peskov insisted, the Interfax news agency reported. “The Kremlin has many opponents. This is a normal political process. Russia’s political life has developed and will develop further.”
During his prison-sentence appeal, however, Navalny claimed that his fellow prisoners do not talk with him – a situation he attributed to a government order. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) has not commented.
Navalny also reportedly has been put on a watch-list of prisoners inclined to escape; a status that some Russians find ironic, given that he himself decided to return to Russia from Germany.
Navalny was detained on January 17 in Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport after flying back from Berlin, where he had been treated after being poisoned in Siberia in August 2020 with the Russian-made Novichok-group nerve agent.
The FSIN had demanded that Navalny receive an actual prison term for the 2014 fraud case for which he was serving a suspended sentence. That sentence expired on December 30, 2020, but the agency claimed that the activist, in violation of its regulations, had not registered his whereabouts in Germany with the FSIN.
The Moscow City Court’s February 20 rejection of Navalny’s appeal of his prison sentence for this case came as no surprise, defense attorney Vadim Kobzev told reporters. Kobzev stated that Navalny’s lawyers intend to appeal the case further, to a court of cassation.
But, unlike in Western courtroom dramas, evidence or arguments in Navalny’s favor will have no effect on a Russian court, stressed political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov. “[R]ussian courts are neither fair, nor independent – especially when it has to do with political cases,” Krasheninnikov charged. “And, of course, decisions on these matters are made in the presidential administration ... “
Navalny further faces a third case that has a potential maximum 10-year prison sentence. On January 11, 2021, following his publication of a scandalous video report on a Black Sea mansion he alleged belonged to President Putin, prosecutors filed charges against the activist for supposedly embezzling 356 million rubles ($4.84 million) out of donations to his non-profit organizations.
A court date for that proceeding has not yet been announced.
Prosecutors, though, take a political risk with such cases, commented former Kremlin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov. The court cases against him, coupled with the poisoning scandal, have transformed Navalny from one of several leaders of the Russian opposition into the single leader, Gallyamov posited.
"Navalny could totally turn into a Russian [Nelson] Mandela," he claimed, referring to the late South African president and anti-apartheid activist.