KIROV, Russia – A court’s abrupt decision Friday to release Russia’s most charismatic opposition leader less than a day after handing him a five-year prison sentence appears to reflect confusion in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle about how to deal with its No. 1 foe.
Even more, it makes clear that the Kremlin is far from a monolith. The surprising about-face involving Alexei Navalny highlights an open rift between factions in Putin’s government that could be as unsettling for the leadership as any opposition figure, experts say.
In an unusual move, prosecutors themselves had requested that Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and Moscow mayoral candidate, be let go pending appeal just a few hours after he was led out of a courtroom in handcuffs following an embezzlement conviction that was widely seen as unfair.
The decision came as thousands of Navalny’s supporters gathered Thursday around Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square outside the Kremlin for an unsanctioned protest of what they called a politically motivated ruling, chanting “Freedom!” and “Putin is a thief!” in open defiance of the authorities.
Navalny himself credited the protesters with his release, telling reporters Friday that his conviction and sentence “had been vetted by the presidential administration … but when people came out on Manezhnaya, they rushed to go back on that decision.”
Analysts saw Navalny’s sudden release as likely reflecting arguments within the Kremlin about how to respond to his popularity. He has earned rock-star status among his urban middle-class supporters, even if he has little influence among everyday Russians.
They also saw the move as an attempt to lend legitimacy to the Sept. 8 mayoral vote widely expected to be won by a Kremlin-backed incumbent who resigned last month, forcing a snap election that would make challengers scramble to organize their campaigns.
While the leadership of Russia’s law-enforcement agencies, referred to as “siloviki,” favor nipping the opposition in the bud, other Putin lieutenants promote a more subtle approach to dissent, said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, an independent think-tank.
Navalny said it’s “impossible to predict” whether the move to set him free could raise the chances of his acquittal on appeal. He also said he has not yet decided whether to continue his mayoral campaign.