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The curious case of Alexei Navalny

Despite having been targeted by the Kremlin and ordered to register as a ‘foreign agent in May, the Levada Centre has remained as unbiased as ever, conducting polls on gay rights, government spending, and the upcoming Moscow elections with political equanimity.  But whatever bias it seems to have against the pollster, the Kremlin will no doubt be thrilled with its latest survey, which indicates that, of those who have actually heard of Navalny (more than a few months ago), an increasing number of them believe that the trial against him is fair, and not politically motivated, as is widely believed by Navalny’s supporters and Western analysts.

Many believe that Navalny was released from detention a day after being handed a five-year sentence in order that he may participate in the Moscow mayoral elections in September (which he will undoubtedly lose to Sergei Sobyanin), thereby legitimising them as free and fair.  Boris Kagarlitsky called the guilty verdict ‘a serious tactical error’, which could be corrected if only the Kremlin were able to ‘admit when they are wrong’, and says that Russians continue to support Vladimir Putin only because propaganda against liberal reformers always paints them as enemies of social welfare.  Reuters also believes that the Kremlin must ‘regret its actions against its most prominent opponent’, and calls for a more varied approach to governance which could take social and economic discrepancies into consideration, instead of the constant need to affirm an appearance of unity.  Michael Bohm agrees with Kagarlitsky about the Kremlin’s portrayal of its opponents.

As the Levada Centre poll indicates, the trial has considerably increased Navalny’s popularity, even amongst those who do not support him politically.  The Economist says that this ‘erratic’ move is ‘sign of a growing split within the ruling elites’, suggesting that there must be a divergence of opinion on how to deal with the anti-corruption whistleblower.  The best outcome of this split, of course, is that it boosts his fame and builds his name both within Russia and across the world:

Mr Navalny’s politically motivated conviction is still in place, but he has been released, pending an appeal, and allowed, at least for now, to run in the mayoral election in Moscow. The harsh sentence gave him the dignity of a martyr. His miraculous release 24 hours later gave him the laurels of a hero. There is no doubt that in both cases the instructions came directly from Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Not even the savviest campaign manager could have done as much for him.