Voices from Russia

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Navalny Case: Who Needs Terrifying Stories About Stalinism?


Methinks that the pot calls the kettle black… after all, the West gave us the Patriot Act, free gropes from the TSA, and indefinite detention at Guantánamo… and listens in on your Facebook conversations. Fancy that… 


No one was more excited about the guilty sentence to Aleksei Navalny than those Western and domestic media that have, over many months, supported the theory of “screw-tightening” in Russia. This theory says that the “tightening of screws” in Russia began with the election of President Putin last year. The excitement of “Russia-as-new-dictatorship” theorists about Navalny’s sentencing is understandable. Every believer is happy to see signs of his faith being true. However, this theory is at variance with many facts, for example, with appointments of Gaidar-type liberals {“conservatives” in American dialect: editor} to key positions in the Central Bank and in the government, Putin’s cautious position on the situation around Snowden, which was respectful to the USA, continued operation, and even the growth in number of anti-Putin media outlets in Russia, etc. For these doomsday theorists, ever longing for signs of ascendant totalitarianism, this verdict of a court in the provincial city of Kirov was a Godsend… a popular opposition activist, just 37-years-old (most probably, a “young reformer”) taken into custody in the courtroom!

Poorly-concealed satisfaction was visible in the indignant headlines of the Western media… their authors are glad that everything turned out exactly as they’d expected. For example, here’s the headline of an article in the American edition of Forbes: “Putin Declares Himself Dictator with the Navalny Verdict”. In addition, the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita compared the trial of Navalny to Stalin’s show trials of the 30s. Rzeczpospolita never bothered to remind its readers what would’ve happened to people who’d try greeting convicted politicians with flowers and pancakes in Stalin‘s times, as Navalny’s supporters did after his release (under Stalin, people were shot for milder “offences”). For truly impartial analysts, the severe verdict of the judge in Navalny’s case (5 years), was a surprise. Adam Reihardt, editor-in-chief of the English edition of the Kraków-based magazine New Eastern Europe, offered a bold theory… maybe, the sentence was severe just because the district court in Kirov so decided:

I was convinced that Navalny would get a suspended sentence. It was kind of a surprise that he was given prison time. Apparently, the Russian judicial system turned out to be more independent than it’s usually portrayed in the Western press. Moreover, maybe, the prosecutor’s office [Prokuratura] was simply not prepared for such a strict sentence. So, the incident can be viewed as proof that in Russia prosecution and court are actually better separated than we in the West are led to believe.

Why was it that the much-demonised Prokuratura, not the defence, filed a petition to release Navalny from custody? At first, the supporters of the “tightening of screws” version couldn’t explain it; why, the very body that they said drove the screws, came to the defence of the imprisoned young man. Then, a revolutionary explanation appeared… allegedly, the appearance of protesters scared the authorities, several dozens of which police detained in the centre of Moscow and released before dawn (not quite the Stalinist way to do it). No one bothered to read Article 108 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which says that a person accused of embezzlement or other mild crime isn’t considered convicted, only as an accused person, until the court’s verdict takes full legal force. This Article also stipulates that the authorities shouldn’t take such a person into custody, or, worse, place them in prison. This is exactly Navalny’s case… he was found guilty by the court, but pending appeal, his verdict didn’t receive full legal force. The Prokuratura pointed this up, and the court freed Navalny. Now, he’s back in Moscow under a written pledge not to leave the city. On Saturday, Navalny said his campaign for Moscow Mayor would continue.

However, questions remain. For example, what’s so surprising about Navalny’s release from custody? Why was it such a disappointment to some well-oiled “protest machines” in Russia and the West? Could it be that some well-to-do gentlemen would prefer Navalny to be a jailed martyr rather than an active and unremarkable candidate in a local election? Previously, we saw similar actions during the Pussy Riot case, when the defence lawyers obviously preferred the loud and scandalous jailing of their clients to them gaining a quiet and dull release. In fact, it seems no coincidence that during Navalny’s trial, almost all Western media writing about Russia (and some in their Russian amen corner), waged a campaign of “preemptive discreditation” of any possible court verdict save a total acquittal. They declared any other judgement by the court unjust in advance. United Russia Gosduma deputy Andrei Klimov considered this a form of pressuring the court, “When the British urge us to establish the rule of law in Russia, they shouldn’t be hypocritical. In a state with the rule of law, politicians don’t have the right to influence a court, including foreign politicians”.

In this context, the alarmist warnings of the American and the EU embassies in Russia demanding that we stop “the tendency of suppressing civil society in the country” sound somewhat woolly. The West might notice that attempts to put pressure upon the Russian authorities usually produce the opposite effect. For example, US Vice President Biden’s statement, made a few years ago in Moscow, that the USA wouldn’t like to see Putin’s return to the Kremlin, on the contrary, contributed to his return. As we see, then, they put pressure on the executive arm; now, they apply it to the judiciary. Nevertheless, the result may be the same. Therefore, there’s no need to save us from ourselves and to make irresponsible statements about a “return to Stalinism”… totalitarianism and Stalinism were horrible things, and there still are people in Russia who know them not from hearsay.

20 July 2013

Dmitri Babich

Voice of Russia World Service



Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: