Navalny’s secret weapon: His wife

by Leonid Bershidsky

For a decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has avoided putting his gadfly opponent Alexey Navalny behind bars for any considerable length of time — until last Tuesday, when a Moscow court ordered Navalny to spend the next two-and-a-half years in prison.

It’s worth examining both why Putin thought it necessary and why he felt he could afford it. These reasons have a direct bearing on Navalny’s chances to fight back, build political support and ultimately challenge Putin for power.

Since becoming a nationally popular anti-corruption blogger, Navalny has twice previously faced the prospect of a lengthy prison term. He’s been accused of diverting proceeds from a state-owned company’s timber sales and of defrauding the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher in partnership with his brother Oleg. In both cases, Navalny received suspended sentences, while his supposed partners in crime, including Oleg, were sent to do hard time. (In both cases, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay compensation to all the wrongfully convicted individuals, including Navalny; the government complied). That made some of Navalny’s rivals in the anti-Putin opposition suspect him of being a “Kremlin project.” Putin, who avoids mentioning Navalny by name in order not to raise his stature, welcomed such speculation and kept Navalny out of jail so as not to turn him into a martyr.

So what changed?

For one thing, Navalny’s bold return to Russia from Germany, where he’d been recovering from a botched poisoning attempt, drove up Russians’ interest in his case; ever since he came back on Jan. 17, Google searches for Navalny have been higher than for Putin. In the absence of reliable polls, this shows Navalny might be Russia’s most popular politician today.

When Navalny’s wife Yulia arranged an emergency evacuation for her husband last August, Putin allowed it because he likely hoped Navalny would emigrate. Navalny’s decision to come back and face whatever Putin might throw at him wasn’t just an act of incredible courage — it was also a formidable political move, especially combined with the release of a video about what Navalny claims to be Putin’s billion-dollar palace. The resonance of Navalny’s brand of populism, on display in his speech in court last Tuesday, undermines Putin’s claim of a deep understanding of the country he has ruled for more than 20 years. Navalny’s a fearsome rival.

That said, Putin remains a tactically adept player with almost infinite resources at his disposal, as well as a powerful suppression apparatus he has built up over the last decade. Putin’s always taken coup-proofing seriously, but he’s not acting out of fear. Rather, he’s bringing to bear the advantages of being czar.

The prison sentence Navalny received is Putin’s inevitable payback for Navalny’s refusal to stay in the West. It’s a warning to anyone else tempted to defy Putin’s rules and an asymmetrical response in the highly personal, one-on-one battle Navalny has waged with the Russian ruler. Prison, after all, isn’t a very promising place from which to lead a political movement in Russia.

A politician in prison has a hard time keeping ordinary people interested. Ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with his huge financial resources, managed to avoid being forgotten during his 10 years of confinement, but then he agreed to leave Russia, sealing his political fate. Navalny’s supporters will have a hard time keeping the cause alive while he lingers behind bars, since none of them is as popular. In prison, Navalny is under Putin’s control; Putin also appears to be certain that his riot police, imbued with hatred of supposedly unpatriotic, pro-Western Navalny supporters and trained to be ruthless against them, can handle any trouble outside the prison walls.

But the saga may yet have a new twist. It’s only an intuition at this point, but I think Putin soon will have to contend with Yulia Navalnaya, the jailed politician’s wife whose public profile has been raised since the poisoning attempt. Without her steadfast support, Navalny’s rise would hardly have been possible. In the courtroom last Tuesday, Navalny folded his hands in a heart shape in her direction; it was a sign of love, but also a gesture made popular by the wives of jailed Belarussian dissidents who campaigned successfully against dictator Alexander Lukashenko last year, defeated him in an election and were only kept from power by force.

Unlike Navalny, Yulia has no previous criminal convictions. She’s eligible for political office. She’s charismatic, determined and capable of winning Russian women’s sympathy. Fighting her wouldn’t be easy for Putin, who has long relied on a conservative female electorate. It’s one thing to attack Navalny and his close allies as “foreign agents” and quite another to use the state’s full power against a prisoner’s faithful and eloquent wife.

In the end, just as Navalny said in his speech, it’s ordinary Russians who will decide the battle. Regardless of Western leaders’ expressions of support for Navalny or the counter-efforts of the Russian propaganda machine, the matter of who is the most fitting leader for Russia boils down to millions of individual decisions by Russians. For Putin to fall, Russians’ yearning for justice and economic advancement must outweigh the costs of going against the ferocious might of Putin’s enforcers. If that ever happens, Navalny’s prison walls will quickly resemble paper — even if it’s someone else who ultimately wins power.

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.