KIROV, Russia – A Russian court decided Wednesday not to send opposition leader Alexei Navalny to prison, a move that could have sparked major protests and made a martyr out of the charismatic 37-year-old.
The Kremlin, however, lives in dread of Navalny becoming a real politician, for he proved his influence when he snagged almost a third of the votes in Moscow’s recent mayoral election. The court, therefore, suspended Navalny’s five-year prison sentence but upheld his conviction for theft, which prevents him from running in future elections.
Navalny’s flare for catchy slogans and rousing speeches made him a powerful voice in the demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin during the winter of 2011-12. The protest movement has since fizzled, however, and Navalny himself has indicated that it’s time to find new tactics.
With no chance to run for office himself, Navalny will have to find other ways to channel his political energy and preserve the unprecedented grassroots network that galvanized Muscovites in the Sept. 8 mayoral election.
Navalny was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison on July 18, but he was released the next day in what some considered a ploy to make the Moscow mayoral race, where he was registered as a candidate, look as competitive as possible.
He garnered an unexpected 27 percent of the vote against the Kremlin-backed incumbent. His growing public profile has made it increasingly risky for the Kremlin to put him behind bars.
Navalny lambasted the trial, saying the original sentence had been handed down “on instructions from Moscow” and that the “political motivation of this case is absolutely clear.”
The charges against him date back to when he worked as an unpaid adviser to the provincial governor in Kirov. Prosecutors said he was part of a group that in 2009 embezzled $500,000 worth of timber from the state-owned company Kirovles. He has denied the charges.