The sham trial and sentencing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is a brazen attempt to silence a fierce critic of corruption among the country’s government and business elite — and yet more evidence of Vladimir Putin’s tightening grip on national politics. While it was momentarily heartening to see Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov join more than 1 million demonstrators in Paris on Sunday, the Russian government would do well to apply principles like freedom of expression at home. And the other world leaders on the front lines in Paris should press for a fair — and public — hearing as Navalny takes his case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Navalny, a lawyer-turned-activist, emerged as a threat to Putin’s increasingly toxic mixture of authoritarian control and “managed democracy” when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, and won 27 percent of the vote.
The Kremlin responded with charges of embezzlement, and a Russian court handed down a guilty verdict and placed him under house arrest. The government has also blocked his blog inside the country. But he remains inspiringly defiant: He cut off his electronic bracelet, posted a photo of it, and went out to buy milk. Navalny has filed a complaint about the convictions in the European Court of Human Rights. The court has given Russian officials a deadline of Feb. 13 to respond, according to RIA Novosti.
While the crash in oil prices has weakened Putin, Russia still has $380 billion in currency reserves, according to some estimates, enough to shore up continued support from pensioners and middle-class apparatchiks on a state payroll. But for many Russians, Navalny is a symbol of hope: an outspoken critic of corruption in the Russian government, where many officials amassed personal fortunes during the oil and gas boom. He is also a nationalist, representing ethnic Russians who are unsettled by an influx of immigrants from regions that were part of the old Soviet Union.
In 2013, Senator Robert Menendez, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Navalny’s sentencing, saying, “The Russian government must reverse course and end this assault on people’s freedoms and right to political expression. It can begin by freeing Alexei Navalny.” Now, a GOP-led committee has a chance to push the issue even further. Senator Bob Corker, the newly elected chair of the committee, should take up Navalny’s case. While it remains to be seen whether Alexei Navalny becomes a transformative figure like activists Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, he should not have to press his cause in isolation.
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