Navalny has long been active on the political scene and was known in part for organizing anti-Muslim protests in 2010 and 2011, but his prominent leadership role in mass anti-Kremlin protests in 2011 and 2012 vaulted him into widespread notoriety in Russia and made him popular with Western media. Other opposition figures similarly rose to prominence in the demonstrations, including oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, socialite Kseniya Sobchak and revolutionary Sergei Udaltsov. However, in the nearly two years since then, Prokhorov and Sobchak have stopped directly challenging the Kremlin, and Udaltsov has been placed under house arrest, making Navalny the face of the anti-Kremlin protest movement.
Regardless of whether Navalny is actually guilty of the charges, the trial has appeared to be motivated more by political concerns than an attempt to combat corruption. The Russian media has widely deemed the corruption charges against Navalny exaggerated, and they have come at a time when Navalny is looking to unseat the Kremlin-backed Sergei Sobyanin in the upcoming election for Moscow mayor — a position that holds great weight in Russia.
Russian opposition figures have faced similar trials and convictions in the past, but none of them garnered the same degree of public sympathy as Navalny, and Russians mostly saw their charges as legitimate. For example, Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was imprisoned in 2005 on fraud charges that were deemed at least partially politically motivated. But in the view of the Russian public, Khodorkovsky was one of the many corrupt oligarchs who had stolen state assets after the fall of the Soviet Union, justifying his sentence. More recently, two members of anti-Kremlin punk band PussyRiot were convicted of hooliganism. However, the majority of Russians were offended by the band's desecration of a Russian Orthodox Church and supported the women's convictions.
A Change in Public Perception
With Navalny, polls show that most of the Russian public believes that the charges are indeed politically motivated. This has put the Kremlin in the position of attempting to mitigate the public backlash that would likely follow a conviction, while still needing to undermine Navalny's ability to fuel the anti-Kremlin movement — particularly ahead of the regional and Moscow mayoral elections in September. On July 17, the Moscow Election Commission allowed Navalny to officially register as a candidate for mayor, though the opposition leader would not be allowed to run if he goes to prison. However, the commission can exempt Navalny from the rule, and his sentencing could be postponed until after the vote.
The Kremlin could find it beneficial to allow Navalny to run. With protests in multiple Russian cities expected to follow the verdict, publicly condoning Navalny's candidacy could help suppress the opposition's response to a conviction. Moreover, since it controls the timing of the sentencing, the Kremlin knows it can move at any time to prevent Navalny from instigating additional anti-Kremlin unrest.
In addition, should Navalny be allowed to run for mayor against Sobyanin, the Kremlin's preferred candidate, then a Sobyanin victory would likely be seen by the public as more legitimate. Sobyanin is a key Kremlin figure who is primed to move into a top position in the government in the future, so the elite are looking for ways to bolster his reputation throughout Russia. The Moscow election is part of this strategy. This is why many top Kremlin figures, including social policy strategist Deputy Premier Vyacheslav Volodin, came out in favor of letting Navalny run.
Foreign Policy Implications
Beyond the domestic implications of the trial, the Kremlin is also weighing foreign perception of the issue. Though Navalny has not been particularly pro-Western or liberal in his political views, the Western media (particularly outlets with anti-Russian views) have depicted Navalny as a pro-Western social reformer. This has led to accusations in the Russian media that Navalny has benefited from Western — principally American — funding of anti-Kremlin protest movements. In the past, Moscow has struggled with how to crack down on those it believes are receiving foreign funds without appearing excessively authoritarian in its social policies.
However, Russia has shifted away from attempting to cultivate a Western-friendly reputation. Over the past year, the Kremlin has begun rolling back its economic liberalization and reformist foreign investment policies. Now, Moscow is publicly targeting a political figure whom the West has supposedly supported at a time when the United States and Russia are at odds over several other issues, such as Syria, NSA leaker Edward Snowden and trade restrictions. This is, in part, because Russia's relationships with key foreign partners are still progressing, despite the turn away from its reformist policies. As a result, Moscow is demonstrating that it does not need to be particularly concerned about how the West views issues like the Navalny trial or any other domestic initiatives the Kremlin sees fit.