THE RUSSIAN courts, pliable instruments of the Kremlin’s political will, have crafted an elegant response to the challenge posed to President Vladimir Putin by Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. Whether it is an effective means of silencing him is another question.
From Mr. Putin’s perspective, jailing Mr. Navalny on the bogus theft charges used to convict him in July was too risky; that would have created a political martyr, and probably triggered street protests like those that rattled the Kremlin after fraudulent parliamentary elections two years ago. For Mr. Putin, it was even more dangerous to absolve Mr. Navalny, who proved his popular appeal in Moscow’s mayoral elections last month, and makes no secret of his presidential ambitions.
A Russian appellate judge, no doubt acting on Kremlin orders, finessed the problem by suspending Mr. Navalny’s five-year prison sentence, and tacking on five more years of probation. Although Russian laws are opaque (and subject to politically convenient revision), that outcome may bar Mr. Navalny from running for office for 10 years.
Mr. Navalny, who is 37, made his name and infuriated Russian oligarchs as an anti-corruption muckraker and blogger. Following his conviction in July, a judge released him the next day pending appeal. That left him free to run for mayor of Moscow, a campaign the Kremlin evidently hoped would result in his humiliating defeat and marginalization.
In the event, Mr. Navalny shocked everyone. He finished a strong second (in a field of five) and nearly deprived the incumbent, a Putin ally, of the outright majority he needed to win. That gave the Kremlin a scare.
Following his suspended sentence last week, Mr. Navalny was characteristically defiant. “It’s clear for me that the authorities are trying by all means to hound me out of politics, coming up with restrictions and fabricated cases,” he said. “One thing is for sure — they will not succeed.”
That remains to be seen. Mr. Putin has not hesitated to silence his critics when he feels threatened. The best-known example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil baron who had the temerity to challenge Mr. Putin’s personal authority, is approaching the 10th anniversary of his imprisonment.
His treatment by the Russian judiciary has featured show trials no less absurd than Mr. Navalny’s. Mr. Khodorkovsky, incarcerated in a northern Russian prison where he is made to manufacture plastic binders, is scheduled to be released next summer. But Mr. Putin is a highly vindictive man; it remains possible that the Kremlin will concoct some pretext to keep Mr. Khodorkovsky behind bars.
Russia has a long and inglorious tradition, dating to czarist times, of using puppet courts to torment, confine, exile and hush political prisoners. Dostoyevsky, Trotsky, Brodsky, Sakharov — their circumstances and claims to moral authority have varied, but the means of muting them have remained constant.
Owing to Moscow’s oil reserves and its nuclear capability, Mr. Putin is accorded a seat in the polite company of the G8 and other leading global forums. But by his repressive, authoritarian conduct, he demonstrates repeatedly that the Russian regime he leads remains cruelly despotic.