The long-awaited trial of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny kicked off Wednesday in the city of Kirov, 560 miles away from Moscow, after it had been adjourned shortly after opening last week.
While the trial is still only in its earliest stages, it looks set to be explosive and seems certain to become the most controversial in Russia since anti-Putin music group Pussy Riot went to court last year.
Navalny, one of the most prominent figures in the Russian opposition movement, is facing up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of the embezzlement of $500,000 from a state timber company.
However, Navalny and his supporters are adamant that the charges are politically motivated and in response to his criticism of Vladimir Putin’s government.
Much like Pussy Riot did at the beginning of their trial, Navalny used his first defence statement to denounce the charges against him and called on the judge to throw the case out.
“The most important reason for this case’s existence […] is pushing me out of the legal political field,” he told the court. “This case is absolutely politically motivated and fabricated.”
The video below shows part of Navalny’s statement:
On Wednesday, the judge turned down the defence’s attempt to have the case thrown out, but there are certainly plenty of reasons to suspect Putin’s government wants to neutralize Navalny.
While certainly a complicated figure (his past flirtations with nationalism have raised some eyebrows), Navalny has become a high-profile member of the Russian opposition in the past few years, and he has openly said that he intends to run for president.
Much of his popularity comes from his campaign to expose the alleged corruption of Putin’s government with a popular and sarcastic LiveJournal blog. It’s proved especially successful recently — in the past few months the blog has forced two Putin allies to resign, exposing luxury homes in Miami and a secret Israeli citizenship.
These are major blows when Putin himself is hoping to rally popular support behind his own anti-corruption movement.
In fact, despite certain similarities in the case, Navalny’s trial could well be seen as much more important than that of Pussy Riot, whose case arguably only became significant due to the severity of the prosecution against them.
As NYU Russian expert Dr. Mark Galeotti wrote in a post last week, “This is unlikely to be the final battle [for the opposition], but it is an extremely important one.”
It’s also a battle that Navalny himself believes he will lose — he is reportedly already planning what to take with him to jail, from velcro sneakers to photos of his family.
Navalny is probably right in believing he will face jail time. Russia has shown no mercy in similar cases — despite widespread condemnation of Pussy Riot, three members of the group were eventually found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to jail time. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, is still languishing in jail after apparently falling out of favour with Putin almost a decade ago.
Things also don’t look good for Navalny because a separate case has already been brought accusing him of committing a 3.8m-rouble ($121,000) fraud with his brother.
With the current trial, it seems like Navalny is seizing on an opportunity to get publicity. While he is well-known online in Russia, his visibility (let alone, popularity) amongst the average Russian citizenship is negligible as he is not covered by state media.
The trial might represent a chance to change that.
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